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Resumes vs. cover letters — do either help us truly evaluate candidates?

Resumes, cover letters, and the early stages of hiring: a call for innovation

The hiring process has long relied on resumes and cover letters as the initial touch-points between candidates and employers. However, as recruitment trends evolve and technology advances, these traditional tools are being scrutinized more than ever. Are resumes and cover letters relics of a bygone era, or do they still hold value in the modern hiring landscape?

Together, let’s try to answer that question. We’ll delve into the frustrations, challenges, and potential innovations surrounding the early stages of the hiring process, and hopefully settle this debate once and for all. 

Want to dig deeper on this topic? We turn it over from all angles on episode of our podcast — check out the full cover letter vs. resume debate here!

The resignation with resumes (sigh)

Resumes are intended to communicate key information about a candidate’s career, skills, and experience. Yet, many recruiters and candidates alike are growing increasingly disenchanted with them.

A recent notable (read: hilarious) experiment by Jerry Lee, a prominent social media figure in the recruitment space, sheds light on this discontent. Lee created a blatantly fake resume, complete with a comically obvious pseudonym and absurd job descriptions. When he submitted this resume to 100 job postings, 29 recruiters offered an interview based on its contents.

jerry lee resume

This experiment underscores a critical issue: are recruiters even reviewing resumes, or are they simply filtering candidates through automated systems based on superficial details like company names and job titles? The results suggest the latter, revealing a fundamental flaw in how resumes are processed and evaluated. It’s like judging a book by its cover but not even glancing at the blurb on the back. And honestly, who can blame them when every second LinkedIn job application seems to include “synergized cross-functional paradigms, synergistically” in the skillset?

Moreover, Lee’s study on recruiter behavior using eye-tracking software found that recruiters spend an average of six seconds scanning a resume. This minimal time frame barely allows for a thorough review, further questioning the efficacy of resumes in truly reflecting a candidate’s qualifications.

resume eye experiment

This graphic shows the general scan recruiters in the study took with their eyes. The upper area and left-hand side got a lot of love — but what about the meat & potatoes under each role?

Have we put too much of an emphasis on titles/companies when looking at work history, and not enough on skills?

Or are we all just really, really busy?

The controversy of cover letters (grr)

Cover letters, often considered supplementary, are equally polarizing. Some see them as a crucial component that showcases a candidate’s personality, intent, and writing ability, while others deem them a waste of time. Many recruiters use cover letters to gauge a candidate’s effort and genuine interest in the role. However, the influx of AI-generated cover letters, often lacking personalization and depth, has added to the skepticism surrounding their value.

Pro tip: if your cover letter sounds like it was written by Agent Smith from The Matrix, you might want to whip out the red pen and get editing.

What the experts have to say:

David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) of 37signals offers a unique perspective — especially for a fairly technical person — by favoring cover letters over resumes. He argues that cover letters provide a platform for candidates to demonstrate their interest and understanding of the job, thus serving as a filter for serious applicants.

Conversely, James Hornick from Hirewell criticizes both resumes and cover letters, emphasizing that the best candidates often have subpar resumes because they rely on their professional networks for career advancements rather than polished documents. His point? The best talent generally doesn’t have the best resume — because they don’t need to. 

Top talent, Hornick argues, is generally either:

  1. Happy where they are, or
  2. Making moves based off of their network, not their resume.

He also makes the great point that resumes are kind of lame — no one likes writing them, and no one really likes reading them either. So why have we not found a better way?

The role of trust and relationships

A common thread in this discussion is the importance of trust and relationships in the hiring process. Whether it’s a recruiter building trust with a hiring manager or a candidate conveying their qualifications beyond a piece of paper, personal interactions remain paramount. Hornick suggests that instead of relying solely on resumes, recruiters should engage in one-on-one sessions with clients to understand their deal-breakers and tailor the candidate search accordingly.

Think of it like dating. Sure, the dating profile gives you some basics, but until you’ve had a few awkward dinners and discovered they also secretly love knitting llama sweaters while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, you don’t *really* know them.

Moving forward: innovation and change

The call for innovation in hiring is clear. Resumes and cover letters, while still holding some value, need to evolve to keep pace with modern recruitment practices. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  1. Enhanced candidate profiles: Develop comprehensive candidate profiles that include a mix of resumes, portfolios, and work samples. This approach provides a holistic view of a candidate’s capabilities and achievements.
  2. Interactive assessments: Incorporate skills assessments and practical tasks into the early stages of the hiring process. This can provide a more accurate measure of a candidate’s suitability for the role.
  3. Video introductions: Allow candidates to submit short video introductions along with their applications. This can help convey personality and enthusiasm that a resume or cover letter might miss. Plus, you get to see if they’re the type to wear pajama pants during a video call.
  4. Leveraging AI wisely: Use AI to assist with administrative tasks and initial screenings but ensure that human judgment plays a significant role in the final decision-making process. AI can tell you if someone has a degree from Harvard, but it can’t tell you if they’ll eat your lunch from the office fridge.


The early stages of the hiring process are ripe for innovation. By re-evaluating the reliance on resumes and cover letters and embracing new methods of candidate evaluation, recruiters and hiring teams can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their recruitment efforts. Ultimately, fostering trust, building relationships, and being open to change will pave the way for a more dynamic and successful hiring landscape.

So, whether you’re a recruiter tired of sifting through jargon-laden resumes or a candidate dreading writing the half-hearted “I’m keen to join your company, mostly because I just really need a job and you seem to be hiring” cover letter, take heart. Change is (maybe?!) on the horizon.

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