Are Cover Letters Still Valuable to Hiring Managers in 2021?

There’s no question that résumés remain critical pieces of the recruiting process. It’s arguable that they’ve become even more relevant in recent years, thanks to applicant tracking systems that parse their text to accelerate candidate screening. But what about cover letters? In the age of online recruiting, “text speak,” and short attention spans, do these documents still matter to hiring professionals?

cover letter
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To find out, iHire surveyed 603 U.S. hiring managers and recruiters from 56 different industries, asking “How important are cover letters in your hiring process?” The survey results showed that 65.3% of respondents believe cover letters are important in some capacity; 50.6% said they are either “very important” or “important”; and 14.7% said cover letters are “more important for higher-level positions.”

Moreover, one in three hiring managers surveyed said they still expect to receive a cover letter even when their job posting specifies it is optional. And 77.3% of respondents said they want candidates to customize their cover letters for the specific position. With plenty of templates and generators available to jobseekers, along with recruiting sites that allow for “mass applies,” taking the time to customize a cover letter can make a difference in setting someone apart from the competition and landing interviews.

Cover Letters vs. Prescreening Questions

Not all employers possess the same sentiment toward cover letters. In addition to the fact that 34.7% of respondents said cover letters are “not important,” 10.6% of hiring professionals surveyed said they do not bother to read cover letters.

We also asked survey respondents to weigh in on their preferences for using applicant prescreening questions. With an uptick in job applicants due to today’s high unemployment rates, prescreening questions help busy HR teams filter out unqualified candidates at the top of the funnel, saving them time. Therefore, it was not surprising that 87.3% of hiring professionals said they use prescreening questions in their recruiting processes.

Interestingly, 65.3% of respondents said they would prefer to use prescreening questions over cover letters to learn more about candidates.

Survey Takeaways

What do these insights mean for hiring professionals and jobseekers? Clearly, cover letters still provide value to a majority of employers, helping them hire the right talent, especially for upper-level management and supervisory roles. However, prescreening questions are also effective in hiring qualified candidates, so using them in lieu of or as a supplement to cover letters can be a smart, timesaving recruiting strategy. (Just remember to ask every applicant the same set of prescreening questions to ensure a fair hiring process.)

For jobseekers, these survey findings may be somewhat intimidating. When someone is in a pinch to find a job, taking the time to write a customized cover letter for every position he or she applies for (even when it’s optional) seems counterproductive. On top of that, candidates continue to express frustration over the “résumé black hole”—if their résumé won’t make it into the hands of a hiring manager, so to speak, why should they bother with a cover letter?

Shorter Cover Letters Still Effective

Fortunately, there is some middle ground when it comes to cover letter writing, which should provide both employers and jobseekers some solace. Many HR professionals I speak with today are finding that shorter, personalized cover letters are just as effective as formal cover letters of the pre-Internet age for vetting candidates. When a jobseeker has just seconds to impress a busy hiring manager, a quick but well-written note can set him or her apart from other applicants. This to-the-point type of cover letter could simply explain who the jobseeker is and why he or she would be a good fit for your job. Therefore, be careful not to mistake shorter cover letters as a sign that the applicant is not interested in your role.

If you’re on the fence about the value of cover letters, keep in mind that jobseekers often use cover letters to explain potential résumé red flags. For example, they may indicate that they’re seeking a career change due to a COVID-19 layoff and use the letter to play up their transferable skills. Or, an applicant may clarify why he or she has employment gaps in his or her résumé. In such cases, ignoring applicants’ cover letters may lead you to disqualify potentially great hires. Plus, résumés sometimes include competitive differentiators that the résumé alone doesn’t convey.

In sum, I encourage HR professionals to consider cover letters if they lead them to the right hiring decisions, especially when recruiting for management, professional, and knowledge worker roles. Even short-and-sweet letters can be just as, if not more, effective than their formal, lengthier counterparts. If time is of the essence, use prescreening questions to narrow down your talent pool at the top of the funnel, and then lean on cover letters to help you make informed decisions as the hiring process progresses.

Get more insights from iHire’s “Value of a Cover Letter Survey,” here.

Steve Flook is the President & CEO of iHire.