Is the Cover Letter Dead? What are the Alternatives?
Cover letters have been popular for years. They can be an excellent way to help your HR team filter candidates and identify which applicants will have the best culture fit and background for your open roles.
83% of HR professionals say that cover letters are important to their hiring decisions.
But, is it time to admit that cover letters aren’t the best way to judge candidate quality?
In this article, we’re going to look at whether or not you still need to be asking your applicants for cover letters and how asking for a cover letter can affect your candidate pipeline.
Cover letters: are they still relevant?
Cover letters are a way to help applicants stand out and make a stellar first impression on a recruiter.
They’re popular for a few reasons:
- They help recruiters get a more holistic view of a candidate
- They act as a good filter if CVs are relatively equal
- It filters out candidates that don’t want to spend time applying for your role
- It can help candidates with sub-optimal experience get a foot in the door
But, the job market is evolving and there’s a risk that asking all of your applicants for cover letters can backfire.
This is particularly true if your company is hiring for roles where candidates know they’re in demand and you need to fight for talent.
3 reasons to stop asking for cover letters
1. They’re always subjective
One key issue with cover letters is that they’re subjective. As a result, a good cover letter to one recruiter may be seen by another as a weak cover letter.
This can result in wildly different recruitment processes and candidates choices depending on who looks at the cover letter. For example, one person on your team might prefer to shortlist candidates that include humour in their cover letters, leading to a candidate selection based not on applicant quality, but on personal preference.
It can also impact diversity numbers as you may subconsciously favour one particular style of cover letter, which leads to a specific type of candidate being shortlisted, even if they’re not a better fit for the role in practice.
2. Top candidates know their experience speaks for itself
Early on in people’s careers, they’re happy to write cover letters for each job they apply to. But further down the line, for mid-career candidates with solid experience, cover letters become less and less attractive to write. And, most applicants don’t like writing them.
Part of that is because these candidates are already in demand.
Chances are, they have recruiters reaching out on LinkedIn every week pitching a new role to them.
If they need a new job, they can step into one with a competitive salary and attractive benefits within a few weeks.
If you’re asking in-demand candidates for cover letters, there’s a high risk that you turn them off applying for your role.
3. Experience and skills always matter more than a cover letter
The reality is, you don’t always have the time to read through every cover letter you receive from applicants unless you have an established in-house HR or recruitment team.
Your Applicant Tracking System can automatically filter applicants based on keywords or experience levels that candidates mention in their resume, making the cover letter less influential.
At the end of the day, most businesses need to hire candidates with the exact skills they need, and a cover letter isn’t going to be the difference between getting hired or not.
4 alternatives to the cover letter you can ask applicants for
1. Use a structured application to ask for notable achievements
Rather than asking applicants to write out a cover letter that doesn’t have a clear direction, including structured questions in your application process is a good alternative to a cover letter.
Questions can include:
- What achievements in your most recent role had the most significant impact on the business?
- What problems are you most proud of solving?
- What metrics has your work impacted?
- What’s your primary motivation for applying to this role?
Asking more direct and structured questions can be a good way to gather context on a candidate’s skills, and it gives candidates a chance to talk about their accomplishments and reasons for applying in their own words, like a cover letter does.
But, because it’s more structured and brief it won’t put off candidates who are averse to writing cover letters.
2. Ask for a video cover letter
As more and more companies move towards remote and hybrid work, video communication is more important than ever.
You can ask candidates to submit a short video cover letter where they get the chance to talk about their background, skills, and reasons for applying.
This is particularly good for roles where candidates need to be effective verbal communicators. It’s also more interactive than a cover letter and doesn’t require someone to be an excellent writer to have a chance at getting an interview.
Video cover letters can encounter similar problems to written cover letters, as applicants who are more outgoing can come across better. To get around this you can add structure to them by having people respond to specific questions in their video.
3. Fast-track candidates that are referred to you
If you have a strong network of recruiters or regularly receive qualified candidate referrals, you may be able to skip cover letters altogether.
If someone is referring a candidate to you it’s for a good reason. For example, if a recruiter you know and trust reaches out letting you know they have a candidate who will be an excellent fit for your open role but already has other interviews lined up, you’ll want to move fast.
Rather than asking for a cover letter, it would be better to organise a call or meet with the candidate in person before they have a chance to receive offers from other companies.
In a situation like this, asking for a cover letter will slow the process down and lead to you missing out — an in-demand candidate won’t need to write a cover letter for your role if they’re already in talks with several other recruiters.
4. Use a practical test or quiz to gauge quality
Cover letters don’t accurately judge someone’s skills or fit for a role. More than anything, they judge a candidate’s copywriting and marketing skills.
Instead of a cover letter, consider asking candidates to take a short test that tests their skills. This test could be as simple as a short coding test or quiz using a tool like Adaface or Codility, or involve someone outlining their plans for a hypothetical business situation.
It’s an excellent way for you to quickly judge the competence of someone, as long as your test is related to the job someone will be doing. For example, this could mean asking a developer to do a technical assessment where they debug some code or asking a marketer to outline strategic plans for a campaign.
If you go down this route, we’d recommend keeping your test concise and avoiding making it something that your company can use in practice. If applicants think you’re going to take their test or ideas and make money from them, they’re going to be sceptical.
Remember, cover letters aren’t always a bad thing
Cover letters may not always be perfect, but they’re still a good way to gather information and context about a candidate’s application in some situations.
In some cases, a cover letter may be the difference between a qualified candidate getting an interview or not.
We’re not telling you: ‘stop asking candidates for cover letters’.
What we’re saying is that ideally, you want to review your existing recruitment process to determine if asking for a cover letter could be doing more harm than good.
There’s a risk that your cover letter requirements turn off candidates from applying, even if they’re a perfect fit.
The key is to experiment, test, and determine which recruitment process results in the highest quality applicants being shortlisted.
It’s not going to be a simple process as for every role, you’ll have different requirements. But over time, you’ll notice trends, even if the roles you’re hiring for vary in skills and experience.
Building buy-in from your team
If you work with an existing HR team, they may have questions when you start pitching your new ideas to replace the cover letter requirement.
Rather than trying to shift your entire recruitment strategy at once, treat it as an experiment. For some roles, continue to ask for cover letters as usual. For others, ask candidates to take a technical test. For others, ask for a video.
After every new hire is made, run a retrospective on the hiring process and track how many good-fit applicants made it to each stage depending on the recruitment workflow you relied on.
If your new methods are more effective than a cover letter, you’ll quickly know as your candidate quality increases.
You can make a decision on whether to keep using cover letters or not based on data you gather.
Cover letters can be a helpful asset when filtering through a long list of applicants. But, they’re rarely as important as skills and experience, particularly for mid-level and senior roles.
Before asking every applicant for a cover letter, consider if it’s vital or if there are better ways to judge how well a candidate will fit into the role and company.
Other methods like video cover letters or running a small practical test before an interview can both be effective ways to narrow down your candidate shortlist, and be more helpful to you as the recruiter than a cover letter will.
Need a helping hand when it comes to your recruiting process? Get in touch with one of our Move recruiting specialists.