What's in (and what's out) in job searching?

The cover letter is out: What’s hot (and what’s not) in job searching

Peter Harris|

I was talking to a Vice President of Human Resources last week, and she asked me what I thought of cover letters. “Because I don’t read them,” she explained.

It turns out that with Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) often taking the first pass at screening resumes, the cover letter is often never actually read. (That’s a grammatically-interesting sentence, I know.)

If a resume contains the right keywords, it gets past the software filters and can be read by a human. If the recruiter sees the skills and experience that they are looking for, then the resume can be shortlisted for a phone call – otherwise it’s passed over. In either case, the decision was made without referring to a cover letter.

It’s that conversation that got me thinking about some of the things we have all been taught about job searching that just aren’t true anymore. Of course trends vary by industry, and believe it or not traditional roles still exist for which people submit printed resumes by mail.

But for the rest of us, here’s a look at what’s in and what’s out in job searching for 2014.

    What’s out: Cover letters

    People often used to perfect one professional resume that accurately summarized their skills and experience and submitted it to every job that they targeted, using their cover letter to explain how their credentials could relate to the specific role.

    However in the ATS era, where cover letters are often not read, this equals sending in a generic application with no job or employer-specific customization. Those quickly get tossed.

    What’s in: Tailored resumes

    That’s why it is important to customize your resume specifically for every job that you apply for. You should still send in a cover letter, it’s a nice touch, and you don’t want to appear to be cutting corners in your application. However, you can’t count on in it to bridge the gap between your resume and the job description. You need a tailored resume that can sell your candidacy on its own.

    What’s out: Objective statements

    Many resumes begin with an opening paragraph about what the job seeker is looking for in their next role. Employers spend very little time on their initial scan of resumes, and a paragraph about your objectives contains none of the things that they are looking for. So this is a waste of valuable real-estate that can actually harm your chances.

    What’s in: Skills summaries

    Instead use the space at the very top of your resume to summarize your key skills that are most relevant for the job that you are targeting. That way the first thing that an employer reads about you is what you can do for them.

    What’s out: Lists of duties and responsibilities

    Traditionally, people would describe their work experience on their resumes by listing what their ‘duties included’ or what they were ‘responsible for.’ However, these don’t make for very interesting reading for an employer. Employers generally know what tasks or duties are associated with most roles, especially jobs that they are hiring for.

    See The most overused words in Canadian resumes

    What’s in: Accomplishments and achievements

    Instead, list what you specifically accomplished at your former jobs. Employers what to see how you stood out in your role. Your past achievements serve as indicators of what you can do in the future. List the targets you beat, awards or recognitions you received, the processes you improved – all the things that set you apart.

    What’s out: Staying off the grid on social media

    While you may want to keep your private and professional lives separate, having such high privacy settings that no one can find you online (or being offline altogether) can hurt your chances during a job search. 93% of employers say that they screen candidates on social media before hiring them, and if they can’t find any mention of you online, it’s a red flag. It could indicate that you have something to hide – or that you’re simply not very technologically savvy and not using the latest communication tools.

    What’s in: Engaging social profiles that confirm what employers want to see

    While not limited to these, the most common websites for recruiters to screen candidates on are LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. What you post and how you behave on these sites can create a first impression of the sort of person you might be.

    Employers look at your profiles to see if they can find out more about your qualifications, to see if you are creative, and to see if you’ll be a good fit with their team. They’ll also be watching for red flags such as poor grammar and spelling, anti-social behaviour, or anger issues.

    See also: Using social media as a powerful job search tool

    What’s out: References available on request

    As we mentioned in our recent article on the most overused words in Canadian resumes, it is not necessary to promise to provide references in your resume. Employers assume that you will provide your professional references at the proper time. The sentence at the bottom of a resume replaces an earlier and even more outdated practice of including references right in the same document as the resume itself.

What else is out? Hand-written notes and one page resumes . Snail mailing hand-written thank-you notes is outdated. You should always send a thank-note after a job interview, but this is 2014. We all use email now. I’ve actually heard one hiring manager refer to the hand-written follow-up note she received as ‘creepy.’

One-page resumes aren’t out, just the idea that a resume has to be only one page. The first page has to be good and relevant to the employer or else you’ll get tossed. But if they like what they see on page one, they’ll keep reading to find out more. Plus with the Applicant Tracking Systems mentioned in the first paragraph often doing the initial first screen of your resume, you’ll want to include as many relevant key words as possible to even get read by an employer in the first place.


Peter Harris
- Peter Harris on Twitter


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Category: Job Search Strategies, Resumes and Cover Letters,
  • http://about.me/davidalangay David Gay

    “93% of employers say that they screen
    candidates on social media before hiring them, and if they can’t find
    any mention of you online, it’s a red flag. It could indicate that you
    have something to hide – or that you’re simply not very technologically
    savvy and not using the latest communication tools”

    Or perhaps they find social media uninteresting, something they are just not interested in as a personal hobby. I know one man who works at Celestica as a systems engineer who thinks the entire idea of social media is a joke, yet is brilliant in the deployment of technology in mission-critical applications.

    Besides, having an employee who has no interest in Facebook is actually a good thing. It means you have an employee not updating their status while working, or ranting about the boss on their message wall.


    • Darcy Hudjik

      There is also the much overlooked possibility (this happens to be mine) that between your existing job, work search, work related courses, parenting, errands and chores, that one honestly doesn’t have the time to be on social media. It’s called having a life .

      • http://about.me/davidalangay David Gay

        Touché, and very true

    • jeffrey

      Well said

  • T.H

    I agree with you David. Just because one is not all over social media doesn’t make that person a bad candidate for employment. I have no interest in social media. Like your friend, I think social media is a joke, and I feel that everyone out there does not need to know everything about you!! I am just a private person with nothing to hide seeking employment!

  • Bruce Chapman

    Social media is only a joke if that’s what you make of it. If you have friends in far flung places, or throughout your industry, it can be very useful in maintaining relationships by staying in touch. If you spend your time watching cat videos or “you won’t believe what happened next” links…goes without saying. As a manager, I have a policy of no employees as friends. After changing companies, they were all happy to sign up. My industry is a small world, and maintaining meaningful contact with people can come in very handy. I also value the links and stories sent by people in my industry – saves me time cruising the internet. Saying that social media is a joke indicates a prejudice based on assuming the worst elements and practices IMO.

    • http://about.me/davidalangay David Gay

      Bruce, whether or not my friend thinks social media is a joke wasn’t the point. The point I was making is that one can be technologically savvy without having an interest in social media. It’s just one facet of the Information Age

      • ansah Kumi

        David.. I agree with you .. I am an IT professional with many years of experience and I refuse to do face book .. I have an inactive account I prefer to socialize face-to-face. Email, text, and phone are my prefered forms of communication .. employers who use social media to make hiring decision may miss out on good candidates….

        • D Spez

          Employers who use social media to make hiring decisions “will” miss out on good candidates.

        • Darcy Hudjik

          Ansah, I also prefer to interact by phone, email, text and in person. That being said, I am very interested in learning about social media. As Bruce said, social media can be an excellent tool if used properly.
          I’ve been taking a number of work related MOOC courses to get more comfortable with this idea. I’m starting one in May called Understanding Social Media by Understanding Google, which I’m looking forward to.

  • Pamela Paterson

    Cover letters as a general trend might be “out”, but you should still do them for the minority of HR professionals who value them. They have been known to give an edge in the hiring game. Just make sure that the qualifications you want to highlight are also in your resume so they are included in the applicant tracking system search. If your cover letter is ignored or deleted, there is no loss.

  • GammaWolf

    Remember the days when including a picture with a resume was considered inappropriate?

    Now apparently employers need to know who all my ‘friends’ are, where my last vacation was and all the stuff I click ‘like’ on to determine if I am a suitable candidate. And if I don’t submit my life to a full cavity search I apparently ‘have something to hide’.

    And sorry but knowing how to sign-up for Facebook doesn’t make you ‘tech-savvy’.

  • Bink

    If cover letters are out, then why do most job ads still ask for them? Perhaps not all hiring managers are up to date on the latest trends according to workopolis.

  • Elizabeth

    The last part about the handwritten note being creepy… I do not believe in this. The idea that someone took the time to handwrite a thank you card on your behalf should be considered no less than thoughtful and determined; this shows the class of the receiving end. Maybe the message inside was creepy, and that would constitute a completely different story: “How to write the perfect thank you notes”… No one writes hand written letters any more as everything is online. However this is another reason why today’s generation is so afraid of this, because they have no practice of using the telephone to actually verbalize with another human being, and the same goes for email: it is rare that I get a formally written email that shows business class.

  • JIm

    It’s hard enough trying to get a job without having to deal with dysfunctional HR types.
    One day this is good, next day that is no good, We are the ones that get caught in the middle while you go from trend to trend. Just common sense HR people, hard smart workers will always be ‘in’.

    • T San

      I heard of an HR manager setting the tone for newbies in his department. He took a stack of applications for a recently posted job 10 inches high and split this into two separate piles. He nonchalantly tossed one of the stacks directly in the trash whilst turning to the group starting …..”I make a conscious choice not to work with unlucky people”. Urban myth??

  • Marcus Smithicus

    Interesting. I always read the cover letters of applications. When I see one, I think that this person spent more time on their application – especially if it is written and customized to the position.

  • TrueCopy

    In some ways this article is outdated itself, and in other ways I think it’s wrong. Resumes should focused on accomplishments? That’s been the mantra for at least 20 years. Skills vs objectives? Same story. Tailored resumes? Same old song. As for cover letters… no way. Depending on the job and the application process (of course), you should always include a cover letter. Simply attaching your resume to an email shows you could not take the time to craft a response. And hand-written notes are a way to stand out… not creepy at all.

  • Howard Joseph McTaggart

    Sort of wonder as a draftsman your day is essentially the same day in and day out essentially drafting the best you can do is to take courses to improve your lot but sometimes even that really doesn’t help, I have taken design and code courses but hasn’t helped much other than improving my knowledge of electrical systems, I find employers are more impressed more by your getting work done within time constraints, which makes sense but you have been hired as a drafter, I have been told by engineers that trying to improve my standing in this way is essentially a waste of time. Not trying to sound negative, but sometimes extra effort seems to be a waste.

  • Lili Marin

    This is all crap and
    for HR people that are not capable of evaluating a candidate, they just
    increase the reasons to throw out as many resumes as possible so their decision
    will be easy, flawed but easy. A seasoned smart HR person could not give a hoot
    about how you should write (within considerable reason) and which words are
    “taboo” this year, month, week, or day. While the resume and cover
    letter should be geared to the specific position, all these other asinine rules
    are bunk. When I see an opening I like I bypass HR and if at all possible and
    contact the appropriate decision maker in the company directly – I have had
    much more success this way and a good manager appreciates initiative and will
    NOT be looking at your resume in order to find problems to disqualify you -
    just the opposite.