Advice about your cover letter and resume comes aplenty from HR professionals: make it short, write extensively, use bullet points, don’t use bullet points, do none of the above, do all of the above. Skip the cover letter altogether. Oh, by the way, our state of the art online career website will require you to enter a cover letter along with your resume, even though I really don’t want you to submit a cover letter…. So what’s a confused job candidate to do??

No person reads your cover letter

Here’s a little secret your friendly HR manager won’t tell you. They probably won’t bother reading your cover letter until after you’ve been selected for further consideration from a pool of all possible candidates. Even then, they probably won’t do more than just skim it. So why are they requiring you to dedicate all that effort to write a cover letter? Why not just submit the same half-panned, form-written cover letter over and over again? Customizing it for each opportunity seems hardly worth the effort when people won’t even bother to read it. But that’s the thing. People are not reading it, the robots are….

Except for the ones who do

You read that right, today’s advanced cloud-based human resources software systems (known as Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATS) are the gatekeepers that determine if you, Mr or Mrs. Candidate, will have any hope of landing that coveted job interview. If it upsets you that a robot decides your career success, consider the HR manager’s perspective. Every day, they have to sift through hundreds of resumes. Rumor has it that a typical Google position will receive, on average, over 900 applications. It’s simply not possible for recruiters to manage that volume of information. Thus, smart ATS technology is used to identify keywords and rate candidates on the likelihood of matching the job criteria. It’s not great, but it is reality.

How to hack the robot

Don’t despair. In fact, once you are aware of this little ‘secret,’ you are positioned to win the first round of reviews. Here’s your line of attack:

  1. Your cover letter and resume should be peppered with specific keywords that are pertinent to the job. Take them directly out of the job description if you need to. But be honest, only include a keyword if you actually have experience with it.
  2. Don’t write for humans, write for robots. Robots don’t care about sentence length, syntax or prose. Every candidate is ranked based upon the number of keywords and job titles that are scanned. With enough of these in your resume and cover letter, you’ll be floating near the top of the candidate list.
  3. But what if I’m selected past the first round, will the recruiter not throw my resume out if it’s just a mass of incoherent keywords? Of course s/he will. That’s why you have to make sure your sentences actually make some sense. They won’t read all of it, they’ll just skim.
  4. Break your cover letter up into 3-4 paragraphs, with each paragraph headed by a bold-font title of a specific value proposition (leadership, digital media expert, etc.) That will help the recruiter skim your resume and they will be left with the specific impression that you want to leave upon them (your value propositions.) Your  purpose statement on your resume should reinforce those specific points.
  5. Again, be honest. Don’t simply pepper your application with relevant keywords if you do not legitimately possess those skills.

This general approach will assist you in your job search. With refinement and fine tuning, it may just increase the likelihood of getting past the digital gatekeeper. Conducting an effective interview with the humans, on the other hand, is a whole different matter which I wrote about here.

Good luck!



(Image credit: Creative Commons, Nao robot, Jaume University)