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The Case Against Cover Letters

Nobody reads them, and writing one can only hurt you.

A recent study confirms what many job seekers have long suspected: You are wasting your time writing that cover letter. Hiring managers now use other methods to get a feel for applicants without leaving their desks. That makes the four-paragraph missive about passions and key skills superfluous at best, and a liability at worst.

Only 18 percent of managers think cover letters are an important part of a job application, according to a survey of 505 hiring managers released last week by Chicago-based consulting firm Addison Group. Seventy-four percent said the most important factor in hiring is the interview. Nearly half said soft skills—the ability to hold a conversation and appear normal—were important to consider throughout the process.

Some companies have found alternative tools for learning about candidates. Businessolver, a Des Moines-based benefits technology company, asks candidates with strong cover letters and résumés to submit a video of themselves answering questions like "What would your co-workers say about you?" That helps companies target the information they want, and guides digitally savvy millennials through a process they're comfortable with, said Marcy Klipfel, senior vice president of human resources at Businessolver. "We find that the person's authenticity pulls through in a video interview, often better than it can on the page," she said.

Video interviews, which offer deeper information than cover letters but demand less of managers than in-person interviews, are rapidly becoming integral to the job application process, said Jason Reagan, regional vice president for the Addison Group. Checking in over Skype is "more efficient than reading through a cover letter or, depending on the position, spending the time and money to bring someone in for a physical interview," he said.

Other methods, like scouring social media accounts, have proved useful in figuring out who a job candidate really is, particularly for younger managers. According to the study, 45 percent of millennials—people born between 1980 and 2000—trust Facebook as a source in vetting a job candidate (28 percent trust Twitter), which is double the rate at which Gen-Xers rely on the site, and triple that of baby boomers.

Among millennial managers, 23 percent considered a cover letter to be an important part of a job application while 69 percent said the interview was important. "Millennials put a little more weight on education upfront, in conjunction with proven work experience," said Addison's Reagan. As millennials take over management roles and rely on a broader set of methods for getting to know potential employees, "To Whom It May Concern" seems to be fading out.

The takeaway here may be that a cover letter can only hurt you. Of the hiring managers surveyed, 55 percent said typos were the biggest turnoff. Why risk a typo when a cover letter is unlikely to help you get the gig?

On the other hand, if your cover letter is really stellar, you may be able to stand out just by being one of the last people writing one. Martin Yate, author of Cover Letters That Knock 'Em Dead and other job guides, says establishing a connection with the person doing the hiring is the most important thing. "Building a bridge to that human being in charge of hiring is in your best interests," he says. Yate even suggests going old-school and writing your cover letter by hand. "It's called contrarian thinking," he said.

Just make sure you've triple-checked it for spelling errors.

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