Just read an interesting post on Craigslist about how to write a cover letter and it got me thinking about the validity of cover letters for selection.
While Mike Aamodt has written some really good stuff on the validity of recommendations and references (see page 4) , I'm not aware of any similar research on cover letters. I'll agree with the poster on Craigslist that there are ways to word cover letters so they are more eye-catching and make you stand out from the crowd. But does this change in style of presentation have implications for the utility of this type of information in predicting performance/fit/etc.?
Let's take a look some potential issues:
1) First and foremost, we have the same problem with cover letters regardless of how they're written. Namely, who wrote it? This is a form of self-presentation, open to all of the biases and flaws inherent in all of these types of information (resumes are the same; one reason why I recommend standard applications). If I happen to have a friend who's an English major, I've got a leg up on everybody else, even if my qualifications aren't any better.
2) Assuming the sender actually wrote the letter, does this really tell you anything more job-related about the person? Really all you know is that the person was motivated to write a "creative" cover letter, which isn't really telling you anything at all.
3) Reviewers of cover letters already have plenty of built-in biases . Do we really need to add "attraction to flare"?
4) Last and not least, if everyone starts writing their letters this way, this would become the "standard way" and pundits will start telling everyone that now they have to embed video, make their resumes scratch and sniff, whatever. This is the old game of staying one step ahead of everybody else.
All that said, if getting people to think about different ways of presenting themselves makes them think more about WHAT to present that's related to what the organization is looking for, and represents their personal style better, that could end up being meaningful. Still, I can't help but think this whole dance would be a heck of a lot easier (and more valid) if attraction and selection decisions were consistently based on the results of well-designed assessment tools.
Thanks to recruiting.com for the link to the original article.