Time to Stick a Fork in Cover Letters? Only If You Want to Miss the Best Candidates

John Hollon Always Be Closing, Candidate Pool, Interviewing, Recruiting, Resumes

A couple of years ago, Fistful of Talent published a blog post of mine that not only created a huge reaction but was easily the most well-read article I’ve ever had here. 

The title should tell you why: Looking Back at What May Be the “Balliest” Cover Letter of All Time.’

It was about a classic cover letter that the late, great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, longtime National Affairs Correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, wrote to the Editor of the Vancouver Sun when he was a struggling journalist looking for a job. 

Esquire magazine said that this “might be the ballsiest cover letter of all time,and I agreed that it was also “a classic example of what a powerful cover letter can do, although clearly this one would have scared off most current hiring managers.”

A game-changing hiring tool

My point then, as now, is this — a powerful cover letter is usually the most important, game-changing tool a person has when applying for a job.

The problem is, a lot of recruiters and hiring managers don’t agree.

Not too long ago, a blog post on Monster asked Is the Cover Letter Finally Dead? It went on to make the case that in the age of social media, when so many people (especially hiring professionals) are crunched for time, “Recruiters don’t read cover letters and hiring managers don’t have time to” and that’s they “only spend six seconds reading your resume as it is.”

Another article from DANDAN Global (3 Reasons Why Cover Letters Don’t Matter Anymore) argued that because “the recruitment process at companies are changing at such a rapid pace, these ‘old school’ documents matter less and less.”

Besides being terribly short-sighted advice, I wonder: Is “wisdom” like this the reason why the “candidate experience” today is broken and generally horrible just about everywhere?

More importantly, bad advice like this totally misses what I’ve found while hiring people over the course of my career — that cover letters are frequently THE key factor that makes you take a closer look at a job candidate.

83% say cover letters are “essential”

Cover letters have been on my mind because I recently saw some new research from ResumeLab that found that a whopping 83 percent of HR pros (including recruiters and hiring managers) think cover letters are essential when making hiring decisions.

They also found that:

  • More than 7 in 10 recruiters expect to receive a cover letter even if they mark them as “optional” in job ads.
  • Even if submitting a cover letter is optional, 77 percent of recruiters will give preference to candidates who did send a cover letter.
  • Less than 40 percent of applicants care to attach a cover letter even when it’s mandatory.
  • Over a third (36 percent) of hiring pros start the evaluation process by looking at the cover letter first.

The narrative with the Resume Lab survey information added this important point:

“Interestingly, only 36 percent percent of recruitment professionals consider cover letters useful for displaying that mythical “cultural fit.”

The lesson? Keep your cover letter professional and focused on your career. No need to force jokes, look for common ground with the hiring manager or get overly cute.”

Why a cover letter really matters

Here’s my take: I can’t tell you how many times a cover letter from a job candidate caught my eye when their resume didn’t. My style was always to look at the resume first and get a fix on how experienced they were and whether their skills and background seemed to fit with the position I was trying to fill.

But even when I was unimpressed or unmoved by their resume, I always read the cover letter, too. I was usually glad I did, because I was frequently intrigued enough to bring them in to continue the conversation in person. And you know what? Sometimes it led to a job offer, and I can point to a number of great people that I hired as a result.

That’s all due to the power and importance of the cover letter.

In fact, the cover letter that Hunter Thompson wrote to that newspaper editor in British Columbia still resonates today as a textbook example of the power a cover letter can have not only for the candidate but for the hiring manager too. As the great gonzo journalist wrote so long ago:

“The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It’s a year old, however, and I’ve changed a bit since it was written. I’ve taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you.

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from war-mongering propaganda to learned book reviews.

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.

I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.

It’s a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I’d enjoy the trip.”

Who wouldn’t want to interview a guy who could write THAT? It just goes to show, hiring managers who are chronically dismissive of cover letters are probably not the kind of people you want on the cutting edge of hiring for your organization.

Great candidates are everywhere, as long as you’re willing to dig a little to find them. A great cover letter is frequently the starting point.

Time for you to start digging in.