​Cover Letters – Prescriptive or not? – Top Evaluation Tips

Clients often tell us they struggle to evaluate and appraise Cover Letters effectively but nonetheless they are a common tool used in selecting new recruits. Tips on how to get the most out of this stage of recruitment.

Evaluating a Covering Letter

People write their CVs in all sorts of weird and wonderful formats, lend different weight to different aspects of their role and omit experience as irrelevant that might actually be extremely pertinent to the current situation in your team.

Covering letters can be a great tool for getting people to highlight specific experience that is relevant to the specific role you are recruiting for, allowing you to more fairly compare candidates. But as an arbitrarily applied tool covering letters can be extremely damaging to the recruitment process and may mean that you could miss out on someone with the potential to raise you above your competitors. What if your competitors don’t make the same mistake?

There is one central point to remember with covering letters, they are supposed to be a tool applied with a positive bias; you are looking for candidates that would have gone in the no pile on the basis of their CV to give you a reason to put them in the yes pile, not the other way around. During my years in recruitment I have learnt to give people a chance, because people who haven’t had a great CV and / or covering letter have walked into my office, blown me away and gone on to be some of the best hires my clients have ever made.

These are my three tips for making sure you give your next great hire every opportunity to WOW you;

Tip 1: You’re not looking to hire a professional “Covering Letter Writer”

Candidates have no idea what you’re looking for, what format you want it in or what you’re expecting to see. Unless you’re recruiting for a role where being psychic is an essential quality, be really clear about what you want and give candidates a fair chance of delivering the right information. If you want them to use each point in the person specification as a heading and then explain, using real world examples, how their experience matches this, then tell them that. If you want them to weave their experience and how it matches the person specification into an easy to follow narrative, then let them know. Applying for jobs is a skill in and of itself and the easier you make it, the more likely you are to see the best people shine through.

Tip 2: Don’t be too clinical

Think about how you want to score or assess your Covering Letters. Often clients choose to check off every item of a Person Specification against a Covering letter. Although if the competition is very tough this can in the end be a good way of whittling down potential interviewees it can often eliminate candidates who in fact would be very able in the role. The way I advise clients to approach this initially is to work out the three most important over-arching skills or experience areas that are absolutely essential to the delivery of this role. If a candidate meets them I would put them on the ‘yes’ pile and then if it is necessary to reduce that number further look through that list again alongside the more detailed Person Specification. As annoying as it is, candidates often fail to include examples against every single area of a Person Spec in a Covering Letter and will often focus on those they feel are most important. If someone has all the three important things you need and seems a little weaker on some of the lesser items, get them in and meet them, perhaps they’re an absolute superstar with one or two development points.

Tip 3: So important, I’m going to repeat myself

I really want to reiterate a point I touched on at the beginning, because I genuinely believe and have actually seen some of my clients miss out on people that were the best person for the role because they used covering letters too prescriptively.

I always try to keep in mind that covering letters are a rudimentary screening tool that makes sure that you don’t waste time interviewing people who will be totally irrelevant, but it shouldn’t be used as part of the interview process where only those who tick every box shall pass. Some of the best hires I have seen are people that have the core skills necessary for the role, but come from a slightly different background and bring a new perspective and a new way of doing particular things into the team.

By all means use the covering letter to make sure that you don’t invite any more ‘eccentric’ candidates into your office, but don’t be too heavy handed and risk screening out the best hire you might never make.