Death to Resumes and Cover Letters

How can a company spot talent effectively and efficiently? With almost a dozen open roles, hundreds of applicants, and an HR team of one, this was a critical question for our small, rapidly growing company to answer. Doing so lead us to re-think two fundamental pieces of traditional applications, cover letters and resumes, and resulted in increased quality and a more than 10% jump in efficiency.

Rethinking the Resume

We don’t ask for resumes. This pillar of the application process may have made sense before digital record keeping when the only way to give your qualifications was with a written summary. However, being the best available technology doesn’t mean that resumes have ever been an effective one. First, resumes are not comprehensive. It’s just not possible to portray an entire career on a 2D 8.5×11 piece of paper. Second, much of the information on a resume (years of experience, GPA, prestige of college and previous companies, etc.) is shown to poorly indicate future performance. And finally, resume reviews are frought with unconcious bias, allowing discrimination to creep into the hiring process even at companies that value diversity.

Processing and reading resumes also takes time. To thoroughly review a resume takes several minutes, not to mention the time to find the file, open it, and close it down again. If you invest three minutes per resume and have 100 candidates, that’s five hours of resume reading. Now, there are automated tools available that can pre-screen resumes and shorten this, but it doesn’t matter how efficient you make a process if the end result is still nearly useless.

Instead, we ask applicants for digital portfolios (like LinkedIn), that paint a richer picture of skills, history, work samples, recommendations, etc. Even these are not the first thing we look at. We use them primarily as a reference point, not a decision making tool. For our first screening tool, we use a short questionnaire customized to each role that automatically filters out candidates who don’t meet fundamental qualifications.


Killing the Cover Letter

While a good cover letter can be very valuable, there are two big problems: 1) most cover letters are not good, and 2) the ability to write a good cover letter may or may not correlate to job competencies. For example, if Charles Dickens applied to a software engineering role, you know he would have a fantastic cover letter, and probably be a terrible software engineer. As with resumes, to properly write and thoroughly review cover letters take a lot of time. If you add cover letters to the resumes of those 100 hypothetical applicants we were talking about earlier, spending two minutes per letter you’re over 11 hours total. Even if you only read letters for your top 25 resumes, you’re still over nine hours and you haven’t even started interviews. This doesn’t even count the amount of time those poor applicants spent crafting their letters, which should also be considered.

We ask our applicants for written responses to a few carefully chosen questions, but not for a cover letter. Often candidates include letters anyway, in which case they get a cursory glance and a read if they explain important information not otherwise available, like a special circumstance.


Changing the Paradigm

At the core of our recruiting and hiring process we’ve placed a simple philosophy: focus on the skills and traits that matter, cut away everything else. Taken together, rethinking resumes and killing cover letters have allowed us to review applications up to ten times faster with more accurate results. It is important to note that being more efficient doesn’t mean spending very little time on recruiting and hiring over all. After the initial application, our process is very intensive, but being efficient lets us put our time into what is most valuable. This is also better for our applicants, because instead of spending hours crafting an application only to send it off into a black hole, we only ask them to invest time in us if we’re sincerely interested in hiring them.

The world is digital, interconnected, and increasingly data driven. Recruiting and hiring practices need to be open to change and take advantage of new tech, because great talent can come from surprising places.

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