Most job seekers use cover letters to try to differentiate themselves, but cover letters are a lousy way to differentiate yourself as a job seeker today.

Your personal brand is the first impression you give to readers.

Your personal brand is used to decide if you’re qualified or not. TheLadders’ heat mapping study of how audiences read resumes showed that a qualified/unqualified determination is reached in the first 6 seconds.

Recruiters and HR reps will tell you they take an average 15 seconds to decide if a candidate will get an interview – So your personal brand makes a huge impact on whether you gain an interview or not.

So why do cover letters fail to convey your personal brand effectively?

Remember, the concept of cover letters were developed when you couldn’t change your resume because it was printed … on paper … at a print shop like Kinko’s. I know it seems like a century ago, but that’s why cover letters were developed. When you couldn’t change your resume, the only way you could try to fit your reader’s individual needs was through a cover letter.

Technology has changed, both for the applicant and the employer

Today, we’ve got these new-fangled inventions called PCs (or Macs), that allow candidates to easily customize resumes, so they don’t have to be static anymore. Employers attract many more candidates via 50,000 job boards in existence and pre-screen applicants with Applicant Tracking Systems.

Back then most jobs were advertised in the newspaper, so job ads attracted only about 10% of the applicants as today – The average employers only received about 100 applications for each advertised position. When today’s employer receives an average 1,000 applications for each advertised job, they have to evaluate potential hires more efficiently.

This combination of increasing number of applicants and employer’s need for efficient candidate review caused employers to automate much of the pre-screening process … so now only a handful of resumes are read for each position and the resumes that are read are only quickly skimmed to make an interview recommendation.

If this isn’t enough to convince you cover letters are lousy branding vehicles, then consider …

3 Reasons Cover Letters Are Ineffective Personal Branding Tools:

  1. Not Searchable By Applicant Tracking Systems: That’s right, cover letters aren’t searchable by most applicant tracking systems. According to CEO’s and VP’s of the top 10 ATS companies, most employers only set up Applicant Tracking Systems to keyword search a single document … your resume. So if an ATS only pre-screens your resume, automated pre-screening won’t pick up that you’ve branded yourself as the ideal candidate from your cover letter, because you used the wrong document to brand and differentiate yourself.
  2. No One Reads Them: I’ve conducted what I’m told is the largest study of employer cover letter use, surveying thousands of hiring managers, recruiters and HR reps – including nearly every industry, job function, job level, public, private, non-profit, manufacturing, service, government, health care, and education. ran an article on my research that showed that almost no employers or recruiters use cover letters to make interview decisions today. My study concluded that 97% of hiring managers, HR reps and recruiters decide whether to give you an interview (or not) based on your resume – not your cover letter. This leaves only 3% of your audience who cares about your cover letter … not very effective branding.
  3. 6 & 15 seconds: Candidates will often ask me, “Shouldn’t I brand myself using a cover letter just in case my reader is one of the few who cares about cover letters?” Let’s consider #2 above in combination with the 6 second/15 second decisions: Since only 3% of your resume’s readers value cover letters, they make a 6 second decision if you’re qualified and a 15 second decision to give you an interview or dump your resume … they can’t read two documents in that time frame – or even open two documents that quickly. So instead of being helpful, your cover letter is really a distraction to 97% of your audience. Do you really think that distracting your reader from the document that 97% of your audience uses to manually pre-screen you is a smart way to personally brand and differentiate yourself?

Cover letters are traditional in job search and most career advisers still recommend using them.

But when you evaluate how the people who review resumes actually make decisions about who to interview, it throws cover letter effectiveness into doubt.

Cover letters may be a traditional remnant of non-digital times past, but they can’t be an effective way to brand yourself when they are ignored by both man and machine.

Instead, research shows that it’s far more effective to brand yourself using a document that your audience actually reads … your resume.