When you’re hiring for a new position, it’s tempting to go straight for the most impressive resume or portfolio. With dozens of applications to read and not much time to make a decision on who to interview, the cover letter often gets overlooked in the hiring process.
But the truth is, cover letters can reveal a lot about a candidate (both good and bad), and it’s worth taking the time to read every single one.
Take it from this panel of 11 successful entrepreneurs from the Young Entrepreneur Council, who share the reasons they ask for cover letters—and what a well-penned letter can tell you about a potential hire.
1. They Test for Fit
Resumes are a really easy way to bulk-spam a lot of potential employers. Cover letters aren't. By asking for a cover letter that includes certain information, you'll be sure to get fewer candidates of much higher quality. Only the ones who really want to work with you will apply.
2. They Tell You Who is Serious
I always look at candidates who write a great cover letter much more seriously. Taking the time to do a custom one signifies that the candidate has a high interest in your organization and pays attention to detail. Those who only send a resume or a template cover letter are clearly indicating they are applying for numerous jobs at once, and you didn't deserve an individual email.
3. They Provide More Insight
Modern resumes are often just lists of places people have worked and gone to school, while the cover letter gives you insight into how people think and present themselves. You can tell a lot from the focus of the cover letter, how someone explains transitions, and how he or she frames the resume for you. If you just request a resume, you're missing an important piece of the puzzle.
4. They Show Off Writing Skills
At a glance, cover letters are an efficient and effective way to judge a prospective hire's writing skills, grammar, and general level of education. Writing is especially important given that email is now the most dominant form of communication in the workplace. If candidates can't sell themselves and express their interest on paper, then they are not worth interviewing in person.
5. They Show Attention to Details
A cover letter is an important part of one key factor—attention to detail. Providing a specific submission procedure—whether that's a cover letter, a file format for submitting the file, whatever—is the first real test you put your candidates through. If they haven't done it correctly, it means they haven't taken the time to read through the details, and I'd remove them from your search.
6. They Test Creativity
Anyone can write a stock cover letter. But this is an opportunity for truly good candidates to set themselves apart from the crowd. Do they have impeccable copywriting skills? Did they go above and beyond and create a website for the application process or do something else unique? It's the people who do this who you know have the potential to be a good fit.
7. They Provide an Opportunity to Stand Out
It is any candidate's first opportunity to show why they are different, special, and unique for the position. That is a key element for all startups. We need people ready to not just turn a crank, but to help make cranks! A clue for candidates: In the letter, showcase that you have also thought about what that specific startup might need.
8. They Distinguish the Best From the Rest
Anyone can present an impressive resume. It is without a doubt the addition of a genuine, well-written, and honest cover letter that distinguishes a stellar candidate from a mere qualified one.
9. They Give the Human Element
Having the ability to sum up one's accomplishments, aspirations, and objectives in a confident manner without a tone of arrogance is tough! About 90% of our clients put attitude and aptitude as the #1 reason for choosing a candidate. Cover letters provide your candidates with a blank canvas to paint a picture of their past, their present, and their future.
10. They Can Make You Laugh
I almost love a great cover letter more than a killer resume. I can tell more about the style, humor, and personality of a candidate from a cover letter or writing sample than I can a resume. I can also tell if the candidate is just sending out the same cover letter to 1,001 jobs versus writing something custom for us.
11. They Show People for Who They Are
Although you can never really know someone through a resume or cover letter, a cover letter at least gives you a more personal way to get to know someone on a deeper level. I look for candidates who think outside the box and are willing to be unique, clever, and creative in their cover letters. Not all businesses may be like that, but for small companies, who you are as a person is everything.
Photo of cover letter courtesy of Shutterstock.