Is It Time To Scrap The Resume And Cover Letter?

May 30, 2014

“It’s time for the résumé and the cover letter to die,” writes New York Magazine’s Jesse Singal. He tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that the current cover letter and résumé packet is discriminatory and time wasting, and that companies should adopt alternative techniques when screening job candidates.

Tell us what you think on Facebook or in the comments.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And from airline tickets to another thing we've been using for a long time that people are now saying needs a change - the cover letter and resume packet. It has long been considered the best way for both job seekers and employers to wind their way through the hiring process. But that traditional resume packet is coming under criticism.

Jesse Singal is senior editor at New York magazine, wrote a piece called "Kill The Cover Letter And Resume" on the new Science of Us blog. He's with us from New York. Jesse, let's start with the premise that the resume and cover letter packet that everyone uses is, as you write, inefficient, time wasting and discriminatory.

JESSE SINGAL: So on the discriminatory front, I mean, we now have a lot of social scientific evidence that if you give a human being this sort of information, the kind of stuff you'd find on a resume, we're not very good at sorting what does and doesn't matter. So on one end of that, you have things like racial discrimination. You know, there's now a pile of studies showing that if you send out resumes with stereotypically black- and white-sounding names, people with white-sounding names will benefit. They'll get more interviews even when they are equally qualified.

HOBSON: And that reviewers, you write, will find more spelling errors in your writing if they know that you are black.

SINGAL: Yeah. Well, that was an individual study from a couple months ago. But, you know, it fits in with a lot of research that once biases trigger, we see someone's from a school we recognize or a school we look down on or they're a member of a racial group we might have prejudice against, we're going to evaluate them very differently. And that's the problem with the packet is it provides all this fodder for discrimination and bias.

HOBSON: What about the idea that it's inefficient and time wasting?

SINGAL: Well, on that end, the folks who study what does and doesn't predict whether someone will do a good job based on their application materials, they found that a lot of the times in reviewing resumes and cover letters we get hung up on credentials. You can't tell just from credentials whether or not someone's going to be a good employee.

And that's a problem. We get hung up on these credentials, and we'll hire one person because they have a credential, not hire another person because they lack it. And that's just not the best, most efficient way to go about this.

HOBSON: Well, one of the things that you have brought up in your article when it comes to bias is to screen these resumes and cover letters so that you don't know who it is you are reading about, whose materials you're looking at. Tell us how that would work.

SINGAL: For companies that just want to tweak the system and not sort of overhaul it entirely, one easy way to make things a little bit better would be to not provide identifying information on a resume. You could go as far as hiding what school people come from, what their name is, what their gender is.

And it sounds kind of crazy 'cause we're very much hung up on things like alma mater. But if you really just want to see they have the skills and background you're looking for, this could be a better way to do that.

HOBSON: And also having them do things other than just write a cover letter and tell you where they came from, doing some kind of an example of the work that they would be doing if they were to join the company?

SINGAL: Exactly. I mean, you know, in the case of journalism or academia, it's pretty clear what you could ask them to do. You could say, how would you design this study, you know, if we're trying to find out X? If it's journalism, how would you write an article given this fact pattern? And you could have them just go ahead and do a short assignment without providing any identifying information about themselves.

HOBSON: If you change the system, though, doesn't it become more work for the employer? And I know as someone who has been in many situations where we've been trying to hire people for whatever position, you already have a difficult time getting enough time to go through all the applications, go through all the resumes and cover letters, let alone having to look through people doing examples of the work that they might be doing?

SINGAL: That was sort of the most common critique of moving away from the packet. And part of me buys it, but part of me doesn't because when you ask for just a cover letter and resume, the threshold is so low that people can just sort of copy and paste their information and send out a thousand cover letters and resumes. So you'll have firms that will get thousands of applicants for a position, many of whom aren't qualified at all. And I find that to be sort of a time-wasting way to go about this.

HOBSON: You write that for the person looking for the job, the applicant, that the process of sending out resumes is soul crushing.

SINGAL: Yeah. You think about all the effort you put into making your resume or your cover letter stand out. And a lot of it is sort of nonsense.

I mean, even applying for the job I have now, you know, I had to present myself in a very particular way. And I think what I showed them is not that I'd be good at this job, but that I was able to present myself in a particular way. And sure enough, once I got to the second round, they had me actually do and editing test and they had me write stuff. They had me actually test the skills that mattered for the position.

HOBSON: What does your resume look like?

SINGAL: It's actually - I think it's one of those generic Microsoft Word templates. But I just - you know, you do as much name dropping as you can. You think what is an institution they'll have heard of. Make sure that's at the top. Make sure your fanciest awards that might not mean anything are listed there. It's all - you know, it's all sort of a game.

HOBSON: And make sure that the font is a good one. I think I used Garamond. I liked that font.

SINGAL: Right. I'm a Wingdings guy myself.

HOBSON: Jesse Singal, senior editor of New York magazine's Science of Us blog. You can find a link to his "Kill The Cover Letter And Resume" posting at our website hereandnow.org. Jesse, thanks so much.

SINGAL: Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: And we do know one person getting her resume together right now. She's in the studio with me, Robin - our Washington intern turned production assistant Lauren Menking (ph) is leaving us today.



HOBSON: Lauren, where are you going?

LAUREN MENKING: I'm going to be traveling this summer - going to England, going to Oregon.

HOBSON: Awesome.

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOBSON: Well best of luck. And thanks so much.

MENKING: Thanks so much, guys.

YOUNG: Lauren, you got my line there? Do you have my line there, Lauren?

MENKING: Got it.

YOUNG: Go ahead. Go ahead. Read it.


YOUNG: No, there's more. Go ahead. Production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. Lauren, best of luck. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.