The Revolt Against the Cover Letter

Emboldened by today’s flush job market, six in ten job applicants are skipping the “required” cover letter.

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Paul Tantillo

Global Account Director, Talent Acquisition

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Sondra Levitt

Career Coach, Korn Ferry Advance

First, workers started doing their jobs in their pajamas. Then they felt emboldened to quit. Now the pandemic and flush labor market have created a new phenomenon: job applicants just saying “no” to writing cover letters. Indeed, a recent survey by ResumeLab finds that only 38 percent of applicants attach cover letters to their resumes—even though practically every job listing requests them.

Experts say workers have grown weary of what has been a fixture of the job-application process for virtually decades. As with other staples of the business world, this one has now come under scrutiny: candidates suspect that computers, not people, are reading their letters. Quietly, many HR officials admit they do question the letters’ value for many kinds of jobs. “The cover letter may be dying a pretty fast death,” says Paul Tantillo, a Korn Ferry global account director for talent acquisition who works with Google, Microsoft, Novartis, and others. “As it’s become more of a candidate’s market, they’ve really been phased out.”

But it’s not time yet to dance on the cover letter’s grave. Surveys show that roughly half of recruiters still ask for them, even if only a quarter read them. And they’re de rigueur in writing- and creativity-related jobs, such as media, says Sondra Levitt, a career coach with Korn Ferry Advance. Cover letters provide a blank slate on which to flex writing skills, voice, clarity of thinking, and creativity, she says. Some recruiters for young employees depend on them, because they provide a narrative that a short resume can’t.

But with millions of jobs available—a number that keeps growing—the majority of applicants are sending only resumes or completing short online applications. “The younger generation doesn’t think in terms of a long formal letter,” says Bradford Frank, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology practice. “They are quick and to the point—using just sound bites to catch attention,” he says.

The imbalance between employers requesting cover letters and applicants not writing them is significant. “I think it’s an antiquated practice,” says Deepali Vyas, global head of FinTech, Payments, and Crypto practice at Korn Ferry. She says that cover-letter requests are usually meant to discern whether applicants are qualified. Instead, she says, “it should be a one-question box: ‘Who are you and why are you qualified for this role?’”

Vyas, who recruits fintech, data, and analytics executives, says she rarely sees cover letters. She prefers a short-and-sweet cover paragraph in an email describing who the sender is, her expertise, what she’s looking for, whether she’s willing to relocate, and “three awesome facts” about her experience. Other experts say that a cover paragraph is a good place to frame unexpected information, such as “I’m an astrophysicist keen to work in finance.” Links to LinkedIn and a bio can seal the deal.

Alternately, experts say, applicants can take their chances on which camp their recruiter falls into—and skip the exercise altogether. “I never look at the cover letter,” says Frank. “I go right to LinkedIn.”