On hiring: The cover letter filter

Hiring is hard: job descriptions are tricky to write; applications take time to screen and evaluate; and interviews afford limited space to ask and answer essential questions. Even with the help of a recruiter or talent acquisition team, the hiring process is still a process. While I can’t improve the various steps toward hiring, I can share something that makes application screening a little less tedious: I ask for something specific in the cover letter.

When I hire a researcher, I’m looking for someone with a keen eye for detail and a talent for communicating clearly and succinctly. One thing I started to do a few years ago to bring stronger candidates to the fore is include a specific request in the job application instructions. For example, for my most recent opening I asked applicants to send a resume and a cover letter “that describes something you taught yourself recently (and why you taught yourself that something in the first place).” For a previous opening, I asked applicants to share “something you learned from a recent interview you conducted (and why you conducted the interview in the first place).”

When I reviewed the applications for my most recent opening, I first was shocked by the number of cover letters that made no mention of the thing they taught themselves. I was even more shocked by the number of folks who didn’t mention Vox Media or mentioned another org entirely—the latter surely the result of errant copying and pasting from one cover letter to another. (My apologies that I am not in a position to hire you at Dropbox or Google—orgs for which I have never worked nor been asked to screen candidates. But good luck to you!)

This made it easy to filter the applications by those who answered the question and those who skipped it. However, among those who answered the question, about half only answered the question and failed to offer additional information. A cover letter is the best chance to stand out and demand attention; by omitting everything other than the answer to my question, these folks put themselves at a disadvantage.

This gave me another filtering mechanism: those who simply answered the question, versus those who were able to deftly answer the question and weave it into a larger narrative about their career or educational interests. Surprisingly, very few of the hundred-some-odd applicants for my recent opening cleared these filters.

I knew I had a standout applicant when her solid resume was accompanied by a cover letter that told me:

  1. What she recently taught herself
  2. How she applied that knowledge to her previous role
  3. How she knew it would help her and our organization as a new hire on my team

If you’re opening a role and anticipate a whole lot of applications, add a specific request to your job posting. It shouldn’t be the only criteria on which you make a decision, but it sure can help.