Why cover letters suck

Is your cover letter being read?

Many applicants assume recruiters read resumes and cover letters to find what skills and experiences the applicant can bring to a vacancy. They do not!

It is easier to eliminate an applicant than it is to shortlist them.

A recruiter could receive hundreds of CVs for just one role. The recruiter will compare each CV with the selection criteria, quickly skimming and searching for elimination points.

It is much harder to read a text for “inclusion” or "suitability".

This is where cover letters come in.

The cover letter is a sales pitch that highlights why an applicant should be shortlisted for further consideration and not be excluded.

I have read tens of thousands of cover letters and most fail to impress, let alone contain the information I need.

I discussed this recently with a seasoned HR Manager for an international shipping firm and she said “I struggle to read them”.

When I asked her why, she said, “Because they typically contain unimportant information.

Why cover letters suck - is your cv being read?

What should your cover letter look like?

A cover letter should mirror the selection criteria, but before it does that, it should start with the negative.

For example, what you do not have, or why you may not be suitable. If there is a reason, you can't hide it. Then write 'however' and list three to five reasons why you are suitable. That is what the recruiter is looking for!

As a recruiter, make it easy for yourself the next time you advertise. Request the candidates list in their cover letter:

  • The top two reasons why they may not be suitable for the job; and
  • The top five reasons why they may be.

Also, if asking for emailed applications, do not ask for it to be attached to avoid having to click on the attachment to read it. Ask that the cover letter is embedded directly into the email message.  It will make screening so much easier and faster. Time is money for all of us.

If you are using a job board and applications are uploaded directly into your job application software, ask for the cover letter to be embedded at the top of the CV.

Why cover letters suck - what should your cover letter look like?

Christian Madsen - Managing Director at 11 Recruitment
Christian Madsen
Managing Director
11 Recruitment

  • Kelvin Scarff says:

    Thank you Christian, I’ll take it on board. You are right, I have had to change my cover letter on various occasions to suit the needs of the criteria. We need to check the details. I am getting better and will download your cover letter book. Thank you.
    Regards, Kelvin

  • Bryan Burrows says:

    Christian, although your points are valid, there is still doubt as to what recruiters have time to do when they are facing a pile of CV’s. My suggestion for what it is worth is this:
    Supply a template that is filled in by the candidate which requests them to fill in the relevant job experience which exactly supports their application. No more than 2 pages, and actually resembles that of the notes taken through a first interview, asking questions to sort out the candidates’ suitability for the opportunity.

    • Brian, this is a good suggestion, however, many recruiters do not do this, although it is part of SEEK’s standard advertising package few recruiters use it. It is wasting a lot of applicant’s time – applying for jobs they are not suited for.

      At 11 Recruitment, we have finetuned our system – asking applicants 5 to 8 questions prior to applying. This not only assists the recruiter but also give an indication to the applicant what we are looking for, so they can decide if they really wish to proceed applying to the vacancy.

  • Catherine Alsop says:

    It takes a lot of skill to win over a recruiter with a bunch of words that they have seen a million times before. I think Christian has a valid point by highlighting the fact that you need to show why you believe you are the right person for this job, even if you don’t have all the boxes ticked. The more driven and enthusiastic you are about the position, the better your chances, even if you lack experience in some aspects of the role. I’ll be thinking ‘top 5’ next time I apply for a position.

  • Yes Christian it sounds logical from the readers perspective which one is often blinded from when writing a cover letter.

  • Thanks for the info Christian, I totally agree.

  • Seriah Adamson says:

    Thank you Christian,
    I am currently building my expertise in writing cover letter as I just finished my degree as a mature age student. Therefore every job I apply for I am under and over qualified. Starting with the negative makes sense – its honest and saves some filtering work for the reader.

  • Megan Burnett says:

    Hi, thank you for the tips which I will take on board. Much appreciated.

  • Donna Gibson says:

    Hi Christian, thanks for the advice on how your cover letter should mirror the selection criteria. Thanks Donna

  • Insightful. Sound advice. Thanks a lot.

  • Thank you Christian,
    This made sense – I am always scared to include negative in my cover letter.


  • “…start with the negative”. I’ve heard about it for the first time. Thank You for this tip.

  • Gabrielle says:

    Cheers christian – this is helpful information and I agree – it makes a lot of sense.

  • John Kinsella says:

    I understood the need for “mirroring” or addressing the selection criteria in cover letters but I now appreciate the benefits of “pitching with the negative”. Thank you Christian for this insight.

  • Henry Tran says:

    Good idea. Combining both CV and cover letter saves us the trouble. Why write a brief introduction then add a cover letter later? Just do both at one go. If you fail CV screening, your letter likely would not be bothered with, either.

  • Chris Burgess says:

    I was trained and conducted Targeted Selections in the Police Force for applicants on promotion and am interested in this field which has very similar principles. I find your help and tips extremely educational and helpful.

  • Charmaine Tobias says:

    Your 60 second post was quite the eye-opener… thanks for bringing that to our attention Christian.

  • Neelam Shukla says:

    Thanks Christian,

    Until I read your article, it appeared to me that all was good with my CL, however, now I see why I don’t get the calls. Will be incorporating the cover letter as far as possible when applying for next opening.

  • Sonya Owen says:

    Great advice, thank you for sharing.

    • My pleasure. If you have not done it yet feel free to download our complimentary e-book on how to write great cover letters (available on our front page).

  • Cheryl Stevens says:

    This information, though valid, is in complete contradiction to advice given by the outplacement service I was registered with. I’m beginning to think everyone is looking for something different and it’s almost a coin toss as to whether you are one of the lucky few to progress.

    • Cheryl, Thanks for your comment. I can only share my experience. Yes, every job is different and every recruiter/employer recruits differently. However, they all want the best person for the job. I am not certain that tossing the coin is the answer any recruiter will give you. If you need a little be of help go you can download a free ebook on how to write effective cover letters: https://11recruitment.com.au/. Hope it helps…

  • Christian, I often have trouble with cover letters and as such I don’t always include one. I thought maybe it was better to not write one than to write a bad one. I’ll take note of your suggestions and hopefully it will give me an advantage.

  • Good to know what recruiters are looking for in regards to cover letters. I really struggle to write cover letters and subsequently I rarely do them.

    • Erica, most people struggle writing them, hence they usually fall flat. You can download on our homepage a pdf on how to write cover letters and I suggest you always include one.

  • Thank you Christian, I will try your suggestion.

    Kind Regards Sue

  • Shraddha Bhalsing says:

    Thank you Christian for sharing such an useful information.I am satisfied with the content of article.

    Shraddha Bhalsing

  • A really good common sense article that most applicants seeking jobs wouldn’t always consider. Thanks for the tips.

  • Marinika Poilly says:

    Wow! Never thought of it this way and it makes perfect sense!
    Thank you so much Christian!

  • Christie Russell says:

    Thanks so much!!! Yes I totally agree, how you’ve explained it makes perfect sense. I’ve taken this onboard, much appreciated

  • Peter Ruffell says:

    Interesting. I’ll try it. Thanks for the data.

  • Assunta De Bono says:

    Thank you Christian,
    Logical really and I appreciate the article because I have been looking for the edge over the competition.
    Your advice in this article is greatly appreciated.
    Kindest regards

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