Understanding What Employers Want in a Cover Letter

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted the SHRM Survey on Cover Letters and Resumes. The survey was faxed to randomly selected members of the Employment Management Association (EMA); 582 human resource professionals responded.

Starting with the highlights, the following SHRM survey data details concerning cover letters were written by SHRM's Allison Branick and are reproduced here by permission of the Society for Human Resource Management.

  • Most resumes are accompanied by cover letters.

  • Cover letters are typically read in less than one minute.

  • HR professionals are split on cover letter quality.

  • Typos can kill candidates' chances.

  • HR professionals favor personalized cover letters.

  • Most resumes (and cover letters) come via postal mail or fax . . . but e-mail is preferred.

  • Importance of cover letters versus resumes: Respondents are split.

Most resumes are accompanied by cover letters

On average, two out of three resumes (67 percent) received by human resource departments today are accompanied by cover letters, according to survey respondents. One out of every three resumes arrives as a stand-alone document.

According to 70 percent of respondents, the unaccompanied resumes are always considered for vacant positions, suggesting that missing cover letters are not an issue. However, 28 percent of respondents say they consider resumes only sometimes if they arrive without cover letters, and 2 percent of respondents never consider resumes that come alone.

Cover letters are typically read in less than one minute

According to survey results, 83 percent of respondents report that the average length of time they or a member of their staff spend reading a cover letter sent by a job applicant is one minute or less. About 15 percent of respondents spend more than one minute reading each cover letter.

Survey data shows that the larger the organization is, the less time the HR professionals tend to spend reading the cover letters. For example, respondents from larger organizations (52 percent), or those with 250 or more employees, are more likely to spend between 1 and 30 seconds reading the cover letters they receive than are respondents from smaller organizations (39 percent), or those with fewer than 250 employees. Conversely, HR professionals from smaller organizations (42 percent) are slightly more likely than those from larger employers (34 percent) to spend between 31 and 60 seconds reading cover letters.

HR professionals split on cover letter quality

When asked to rate in general terms the overall quality of the cover letters they receive today, nearly half (48 percent) of the survey respondents rate the quality as good, while the same percentage (48 percent) of respondents rate the quality as fair.

Six out of ten respondents (61 percent) report that over the past three years the quality of the cover letters their organizations have received has stayed about the same. Nearly one out of five respondents (18 percent) feel the quality has decreased, while approximately one out of ten (9 percent) feel cover letter quality has increased in recent years. The remaining respondents are unsure.

More than three out of four HR professionals (77 percent) report that when they receive a cover letter of poor quality, they read the resume, but still keep in mind that the cover letter was of poor quality. Fourteen percent of survey respondents say that when they receive a cover letter of poor quality, the candidate is eliminated as a possibility for the position to which they have applied. Only 8 percent of the survey respondents say they read the resume and disregard the fact that it was accompanied by a cover letter of poor quality. Thus, most HR professionals take into consideration the quality of a cover letter — in some cases it could actually make or break a candidate's chances.

Typos can kill candidates' chances

More than three out of four survey respondents (76 percent) say that typos or grammatical errors found in cover letters would cause them to remove the applicant from the pool of possible candidates. Six out of ten respondents (61 percent) say the same thing about cover letters addressed to the wrong company.

Letters that are too long (more than one page) cause applicants to be removed from consideration at 23 percent of respondents' organizations. Omitting salary requirements in the letter when they are specifically requested in the job listing is detrimental to an application at 20 percent of respondents' organizations. Fifteen percent of respondents report that addressing the cover letter to the wrong person will eliminate the application from the pool of possible candidates.

HR professionals favor personalized cover letters

Nearly seven out of ten respondents (69 percent) view personalized cover letters positively, and approximately three out of ten (29 percent) view them neutrally. Personalized cover letters are viewed negatively by only 1 percent of HR professionals, according to survey results.

Importance of cover letters versus resumes: Respondents are split

More than half of the survey respondents (54 percent) believe that cover letters are less important than resumes. However, more than four out of ten respondents (43 percent) believe cover letters are just as important as resumes. In addition, cover letters are deemed more important than resumes by 3 percent of respondents.

Even though many of the survey respondents report that cover letters are not as important as resumes, ninety-five percent report that their organizations keep the letters on file. Five percent of responding organizations, on the other hand, do not.

E-mail is preferred

Although survey results show that fewer than one in five resumes are submitted via e-mail, one-third of HR professionals (34 percent) prefer to receive them via e-mail. Approximately three out of ten respondents (31 percent) choose regular mail as their delivery method of preference. Fax is favored by 25 percent of respondents, particularly those from smaller organizations, 7 percent favor Web-based delivery formats (HTML resumes), and 2 percent like hand-delivered resumes.

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