or…Why Hiring Professionals Ignore Your
Cover Letter and Résumé
or… Who Reads What and When?
Jobseekers routinely comb the Internet to find the best advice to apply to their Cover Letters and Résumés. There’s so much advice out there that it would take millions of jobseekers decades to try it all out. There has to be a better way.
Are you a jobseeker? Looking for advice on writing your cover letter? Good news— there’s a vast supply available! A quick search through Google brings 414,000,000 web pages dedicated to cover letters. I don’t know about you, but that just rubs salt into an open wound.
After reading 15 or so articles I learned that a cover letter has to be bold, command attention, and be persuasive. It has to “sizzle.” The text has to breathe and be succinct! There must be an “eye grabber” that immediately motivates the reader to pick up the phone and schedule an interview!
Along with all that advice is the 19,200,000 offers for cover letter templates, and every one of them make promises that we all suspect are hollow.
But you ask, “Does anyone read my cover letter?”
The Ladders tells us that:
Cover letters don’t get read. …
- Less than 10 percent of HR departments scan cover letters.
- Eighty percent of HR staff, hiring managers and recruiters read the résumé first.
I wanted to find out for myself.
I wondered about the easy-to-find-statistics that cover letters were not read and IF they received any time at all, it was approximately 5 to 8 seconds.
Survey: “Do you read cover letters?”
My pool of respondents consisted of 50 hiring professionals including HR Generalists, hiring managers and recruiters. None of the HR professionals read cover letters. Out of all the hiring managers, only one had ever seen a cover letter and he had to ask for it. The executive recruiters generally gave them a “once over” in about five seconds.
So the statistics were accurate. But I wanted more information.
Survey: “Why don’t you read cover letters?”
The answer was simple and straightforward: the cover letters they had seen did not bring any value and they simply stopped reading them.
What about the résumé?
While we worked through this process on cover letters, we also examined résumés in great detail. After about six months, a clear set of requirements had been identified for both the cover letter and résumé. One of the eye openers was that cover letters and résumés needed to be written for at least three diverse audiences.
Who is the audience and what do they need?
Four distince audiences were identified, each with different needs:
- The ATS: ATSes have four or five filters. The cover letter, résumé and jobseeker, in tandem, have to understand and manage this critical first step if the cover letter and résumé is ever going to be seen by a real person.
- The HR Professional or Recruiter: They have a short list of immediate needs —the first elimination round. Then there are specific secondary needs that serve as a second round of elimination. These rounds may be a week apart or even longer.
- The Hiring Manager: They need details and credible results. The résumé should demonstrate all claims regarding skill sets and core competencies.
- The Decision Maker (This may be the same as the Manager): Sometimes the résumé moves up to a decision maker who spends two or three minutes with the candidate’s résumé before giving the final approval. These people needed a combination of general information and quick-hit details.
Critical design questions:
How could this be deciphered? I started asking questions to each audience. I wanted to understand their process. I asked:
- What is the first thing you need to know about a candidate?
- What do you want to know next? (…and after that?)
- Where do you expect to find that information when you look at a résumé? (Remember that they didn’t look at cover letters.)
- When you make a decision to move a candidate forward, what is the critical information you need and where do you want to find it?
I wanted to understand their decision-making process and
create a cover letter and résumé that would give them exactly what they needed right when they needed it.
Design: Cover letter and résumé requirements:
Here was the final list:
- Together with the résumé, the cover letter had to get through the ATS.
- The cover letter had to immediately appeal to the hiring professional in 8 seconds or less.
- The purpose of the 5 to 8-second glance was simple: to buy 12 more seconds!
- The content in the cover had to be digestible in 20 seconds and give the reader clear reason to immediately look at the résumé.
- Any “reasons not to hire” had to be dealt with instantaneously so the candidate was not eliminated.
- The cover letter and résumé had to give HR Professionals every item on their first and second elimination rounds—separately. If they couldn’t find the information in 8 seconds or less, the candidate was eliminated.
The initial questions were many and each willing hiring professional was kind enough to answer my questions, allow me to talk to a hiring manager, and finally, they gave me permission to apply for positions under a bogus name and email address.
We had the perfect cover letter but no one read it!
So what good was it to have the perfect cover letter if we couldn’t get hiring professionals to open the document! The solution was simple. Today, knowing that our cover letter “makes friends” with the reader, we submit only one document. The cover is never more than one page, and the résumé begins on page two.
Screening Calls…NOT what I wanted!
So I started applying for all sorts of jobs. My bogus jobseeker never had more than 80% of the requirements that were listed on the posting. There were a few calls for interviews, (which was exciting), however, there were some screening calls as well. You’ve received them or heard about them: someone from HR calls and they have four or five questions. It’s not really an interview. It was, however…
A Gold mine!
These screening calls turned out to be a gold mine! I realized that they were telling me exactly what kind of information that the hiring professionals were having trouble finding. That kind of a call gives a jobseeker immediate direction on what to tweak on both the cover letter and résumé. Jackpot!
The quest continues:
This entire process took two years to complete and continues today as the hiring industry changes and as hiring professionals investigate new methods to find the best candidates. We learn something new every few months. With the help of my clients, repeated outreach to willing hiring professionals and my own research, we continue to learn and grow with the industry.
Lessons learned and top tips:
- When it comes to cover letters and résumés, hiring professionals, faced with a huge quantity of paperwork, do not read top to bottom or left to right.
TIP: Wherever the reader’s eyes land, it has to shine. There can’t be any “down-spots” or generic verbiage.
- The cover letter is likely to be separated from the résumé when it leaves HR.
TIP: So any pertinent information MUST be re-iterated on your résumé or the hiring manager is not going to see it.
- If you are receiving screening calls, that’s a heads up and a gold mine. You are getting important feedback about what isn’t happening on your cover letter and résumé.
TIP: Listen carefully to their questions. Revisit your cover letter and résumé and make sure that the needed information can be found in 8 seconds or less.
- When evaluating information about cover letters and résumés, understanding the audiences and their specific needs is key.
TIP: Ask, “What do they need and when do they need it?”