Hacking Our Hiring: Are Cover Letters Really Necessary?

A few things to consider and an alternate approach, if cover letters aren’t doing it for you.

(WOC in Tech Chat)

When you’re managing a hiring process, do you ask for cover letters? If so, why? We’re not anti-cover letter, but it’s worth asking whether they are helping.

The Pros and Cons

A good cover letter demonstrates the applicant took time to tailor their career and work experience for a specific position. They aspired to provide the nuance missing in résumé bullets.

But we also know they tend to be formulaic—applicants have virtually no chance of guessing how you’re judging their materials, despite their best efforts. Cover letters are also hard for hiring teams to quantify, as you compare applicants to each other. A lot of nuance may get redacted out. (Yep, we redact cover letters, too.)

The worst case is that a cover letter is a wasted effort on everyone’s part. We often see repetition and a rephrasing of career steps, or at best a few memorable details about a project that takes the place of a résumé bullet or two.

Try a Questionnaire

If you really want to understand some key traits of your applicant—problem solving, follow through, unique perspectives, collaboration skills, etc—we recommend you use a questionnaire instead of a cover letter. With a questionnaire, we can ask the specific questions we care about, and we give the applicant less guesswork about how we’re evaluating them.

Here is a sampling of questions we have asked in lieu of cover letters:

  • How did you hear about our job posting? (it’s always worth tracking sources)

  • What specific experience do you have in [role-specific requirement]?

  • Describe a time when you [role-specific work task]?

  • What perspectives can you bring to the role that will make us better?

  • Is there anything else we should know about you?

Our questionnaire aligns closely with our initial screening rubric questions…because we crafted them to be aligned. Because of this, the questionnaire answers we receive then drive a significant portion of our assessment, far more than we can extract from cover letters.

Catching Up on this Series?

Everything here is adapted from a presentation given by Tiff Fehr and Ryann Grochowski Jones at SRCCON 2018. The version you’re reading features greater detail about hiring efforts within The New York Times’ Interactive News Team, specifically, but offers information on ProPublica’s processes for comparison. Here’s what we’ve written about so far:

  1. Our reasons for improving our hiring, and the tools we’re using to get there.

  2. Ways to make looking at a big stack of resumes more fair and productive for everyone.

Next in the series, we’ll talk about phone screenings, in-person interviews, and coding exercises.



  • Tiff Fehr

    Tiff Fehr is an assistant editor and lead developer on the Interactive News desk at The New York Times. Previously she worked at msnbc.com (now NBCNews.com) and various Seattle-area mediocre startups.


Current page