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I have recently been given the task to evaluate applications. Note that I am not responsible for hiring, nor do I take any active role in the decision making. Instead I am only asked to provide feedback on my judgment of the candidate based on my technical experience related to the corresponding job position(s).

After having received these applications I am unsure of what the best way to proceed would be. Interestingly enough, I have seen other questions and answers around here, which simply state that a cover letter should not be included. I don't know about other countries, but at least in Germany I haven't ever seen or heard of an application without a cover letter. In these cases though, cover letters were present, but bad ones.

I am torn apart in this case, because on one side it is not strictly my job to judge the cover letter as such, but the candidate as a whole, in particular technical skills. On the other hand, I have been growing up with a certain importance being placed on cover letters, and hence, would not want to omit it from my evaluation.

The latter got the better of me and I did point out various deficiencies and what I inferred from them about the candidate to my superior - none of which was very positive of course. What surprised me though was that I got back opinions that I was being too elitist, so I would like to get a second opinion as a sort of reality check:

If a cover letter is included in an application, and it strikes you as being a badly written one, how would you evaluate the overall application based on that? Do you flat out ignore it and stick to the facts, or how much of an impact does/should it have ?


Minor details on what I considered bad in case it plays any role:

  • Grammatical mistakes. Fortunately, spelling mistakes are a thing of the past, but Word just doesn't fix grammar mistakes yet.
  • Logical fallacies - I may be prejudiced here due to having a strong background in predicate (and other) logics. Mostly, these are based on trigger words, which form logical implicitions (like therefore, hence, because of, etc.), but the two connected sentence have nothing to do with each other in terms of that relation. Other fallacies are maybe a risky try to impress with something the candidate doesn't have. For example, he first states that he worked on some jobs solo, emphasizing the corresponding soft-skills w.r.t. trust, responsibility, etc. and then following this up with what working in a team is like - although I have no evidence that he ever did work in one (which I don't expect from a fresh graduate for example, but it still leaves a red flag on that sentence).
  • Unfounded assumptions - A candidate claims to know what's best for the company
  • Inconsistencies - The candidate explains how he spends all his time to focus on improving in topic X, just before telling me the same thing two sentences later for topic Y, followed by topics A, B, and C.
  • Generally weak wording - Again I may be prejudiced, as for me and everyone in my peer group, a cover letter is usually written at least 3-5 times over in order to make everything sound just right. It is easy to see that these cover letters were just simply written once without giving it much thought.

closed as off-topic by Jim G., gnat, jcmeloni, IDrinkandIKnowThings, Garrison Neely Aug 7 '14 at 19:44

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  • 1
    Do you want to hire technical people who are careless about details? Logical fallacies are especially bad as they will creep into the coding work as well. Someone who shows no analytical ability in a cover letter is unlikely to have the analytical ability to design and implement a complex system. Escially be wary of ones where the cover letter doesn't match the writing style of the resume. People often hire out writing the resume and those are often exaggerated. The cover letter may more accurately reflect the abilities of the person. – HLGEM Aug 6 '14 at 20:05
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    You should judge the package as a whole. If the cover letter leaves you feeling the person is a poor communicator then they probably will be a poor communicator on the job also. However, I wouldn't be too harsh on 1 or 2 spelling/grammar mistakes. Most people start with a base letter/resume and tailor it for a specific job. It is common to inject a few errors in this process. While it is true that the person should proof their work that is easier said than done. It is sometimes hard to see errors in something that you've read 500 times before. Your brain has a habit of auto correcting mistakes – Dunk Aug 6 '14 at 22:23
  • Your giving to much credit to spellcheck. Spelling mistakes are any thing but a thing of the passed. – Brandin Mar 2 '15 at 11:30
  • Boy I'd love to have you question me about my cover letter. The unfounded assumptions bit sounds like something out of monty python ;) – rath Dec 3 '15 at 17:18
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Instead I am only asked to provide feedback on my judgment of the candidate based on my technical experience related to the corresponding job position(s).

Then you should do that.

Ignoring the relevance of cover letters, HR people or other people involved with the hiring can just as easily judge the quality of cover letters. Unless specifically asked, I would let other people do their jobs and focus on yours.

If you were in the interview team, then the cover letter is fair game. But if all you're supposed to do is vet technical capabilities, let others vet the non-technical bits.

  • Sure enough that's what I did - I just added my comments on the cover letter separately. The reason I got back to this question though, as stated above, is the feedback I got, which leaves me doubting that the others have a similar understanding of these cover letters. – Frank Aug 7 '14 at 5:12
  • @Frank: Have you considered that they did spot the issues with the cover letter, but didn't put as much importance on them as you might have done in your comments? – Bart van Ingen Schenau Aug 7 '14 at 10:18
  • Yes, I'm sure they did (these were so bad after all you could not not spot the issues), hence, it became interesting for me to think about how much importance one should put on them. – Frank Aug 7 '14 at 11:02
  • @Frank - personally, I won't even read them. They are boilerplate at best and lies at worst. – Telastyn Aug 7 '14 at 11:36
  • As someone who hires, I would disagree with Telastyn's comment. When evaluating prospective employees you should look at every piece of information available to you. A crappy cover letter says they are lazy about how they present themselves to you. This does not bode well for future performance. – MJ6 Aug 7 '14 at 14:11
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I try to treat all candidates fairly, keeping in mind that English isn't everyone's first language, and assess them primarily based upon the objective and factual content of their resume and/or cover letter and how that fits against the requirements of the position I'm looking to fill.

With that viewpoint in mind, here's how I'd treat the issues you identified:

  • Grammatical mistakes - Not relevant; ignored. Possible exception if the grammatical mistakes are so pervasive that I cannot even parse the resume/cover letter.

  • Logical fallacies - Depends on context, and upon the role I'm trying to fill. I'm not sure where in a resume or cover letter a 'logical fallacy' might be encountered. If, however, I found substantially flawed reasoning in relation to a point directly relevant to the position being applied for, I would at least note that the candidate's logic/problem-solving skills should get some extra probing in the interview phase, if they get that far. If the flawed reasoning is pervasive and egregious it may be grounds for disqualification, particularly if I'm looking for a good problem-solver.

  • Unfounded assumptions - Not relevant; ignored. If anything, a candidate 'thinking they know what's best for the business' would be treated as a positive in my book, because it shows they're engaged, thinking critically, and putting some ideas forward. That's better than an apathetic or deferential candidate any day, as far as I'm concerned. And that applies whether or not I personally think the specific idea(s) they put forward have merit.

  • Inconsistencies - Note for later. These are things that can and should be probed as part of the followup interview, if the candidate makes it that far. I'll keep note of them. Or if the candidate was on the fence between getting an interview and not getting one, substantial inconsistencies can push them into the 'not getting one' pile.

  • Generally weak wording - Not relevant; ignored. Unless I'm after an author or a technical writer, I really don't care if they're not the best wordsmith in the world.

Generally speaking, I also give far more weight to a candidate's resume than I do their cover letter. What I'm looking for is a set of specific abilities and skills, and my goal is to identify as many people who probably have those skills as possible. If I throw out good candidates for spurious reasons such as grammar and phrasing, then I'm really just working against myself. The same applies if I advance an unqualified candidate simply because they wrote a good cover letter or picked a fancy-looking template for their resume.

So my advice is to focus on the things that are directly relevant to the position the person has applied for, and ignore everything else. The rest can be sorted out further along in the interview process. You don't want to discard good candidates for bad reasons.

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First of all, I think it would be hard to ignore the cover letter. Once you've read it, it will affect how you feel about the resume - you can't "put the genie back in the bottle". That being said, I would try to limit the impact it has on your objective consideration of the skills and experience listed in the CV. For instance, grammatical mistakes may indicate communication issues where the candidate may not be a native German/English/whatever language. But that may not be an issue for the particular environment.

In other words, issues raised by a review of the cover letter go to the "soft" skills of interpersonal communication and should be addressed in an interview. However, if it's totally unreadable, I would probably toss out the entire application.

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If a cover letter is included in an application, and it strikes you as being a badly written one, how would you evaluate the overall application based on that? Do you flat out ignore it and stick to the facts, or how much of an impact does/should it have ?

It is far better to accidentally reject a good candidate than to accidentally hire a bad candidate.

Sure, it is possible the applicant is great and just goofed on the cover letter. But a poorly written cover letter means the applicant either:

  1. Didn't take the application seriously enough to put effort into the cover letter
  2. Is not good with written communication

The first is someone you nearly never want to hire. The second is someone you generally never would want to hire.

Why would you not utilize this easy distinction at the stage where you are selecting candidates to interview?

  • These were my thoughts as well in the beginning, though the feedback I got from our HR seems to indicate that your bold sentence isn't that bold for everyone. Is there some data you are aware of to support that claim? or how good or bad these candidates would have to be for it to apply? or do we just share this as a sort of gut feeling? – Frank Aug 7 '14 at 5:18
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My view is that if they didn't want you to take the cover letter into account, they should not have given it to you.

The goal is not to interview all possible candidates, but that the ones you do interview are likely on paper to be good at the job. You work with what you are given. I have seen some good candidates with terrible resumes or cover letters and they get eliminated from many jobs because of that. (In the cases I am thinking of they got eliminated in round 1 and only looked at again after none of the first group of candidates worked out.) You always end up eliminating some people who might have been good. But as long as you find others who will be good, who cares.

I would provide the feedback in such a way that it wasn't specific to the cover letter. For instance I would pick a bunch of technical abilities you need and evaluate on those but those do not have to be specific languages. So I might rate each candidate on such things as:

  • Specific technologies
  • Complexity/difficulty of project described (4 years of routine stuff is less valuable than one year of complicated stuff!)
  • Problem solving ability
  • Analytical ability
  • Attention to detail
  • Business domain knowledge

Now you can use the cover letter to mark some of these factors down without having to say specifically it was the cover letter. In fact by weightin/analyzing the other technical attributes you see, you might even find out the strongest candidate is someone who has not directly worked in some of the technologies you are intereested in.

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Communication is an important part of any job. These people are giving you a sample of their communication skills at a time when you can expect that they should be doing their best job.

I take the same view of cover letters and resumes, if your communication skills come across poorly in either one, that is a strike against you. You may still get further in the hiring process, but this is part of the entire evaluation. If the candidate can not manage to do a good job when their own best interests are in play, how much can I expect from them as an employee. The cover letter should be trying to sell the candidate and I don't think it is unreasonable at all to include that in your evaluation.

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