Resumes, cover letters, interviews ... What really matters in a job application?

Expert answers the age-old question: Does the cover letter matter?

To get a broader view of what goes into a hiring decision, the EAB Daily Briefing sat down with Peter Keating, EAB's executive director of career management. With his invaluable expertise on the hiring process, we broke down the components of an application—and what to do after your dream candidate has accepted your employment offer.

Question:  Peter, you have been a career management leader at the Advisory Board and EAB since 2003, which gives you invaluable expertise on the hiring process. From your perspective, what's more important to an organization when deciding whether to extend an interview to a potential job candidate: The resume or cover letter?

Peter Keating: If you're just focusing on those two things, I think a candidate's resume tends to be more important because it includes the most specific information on the person's past experience. The candidate's presumed skills and competencies—based upon what is shared in the resume—can then be validated and confirmed during the interview process.

“The resume is the anchor.”

That said, I have seen some very powerful cover letters that displayed a lot of thoughtfulness about why the individual wanted to work at the company and outlined the exact skillsets he or she could bring the role and organization at large.

But cover letters are also an area where I see frequent mistakes. If you're writing one, be diligent and be sure to include the specific nature of the role and company, why you want the role, and how your values correlate to what the company considers important.

Typically though, in my mind, the cover letter is just more of an inducement to go deeper on the resume. Bluntly, the resume is the anchor. You won't have a good understanding of someone until you have seen what they’ve done.

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Q: Ok, so the resume is generally the most important piece of the job application puzzle. How can a candidate distinguish his or hers from the rest of the pack, especially given space limitations?

Keating: Well, first off, in the world of electronic paper, I find the traditional one- to two-page resume standard immaterial. If your past work experience cuts across another page, that's not a deal breaker for me.

However, I caution that it is still important to be mindful that less is more and only include the most relevant content. So maybe leave off that sophomore year internship that is probably no longer applicable.

Now in terms of what impresses me in a candidate's resume, I typically appreciate when someone has done a very good job not only sharing their background, but also laying out some of his or her objectives when thinking about the role at hand and possible next steps. It almost gets the interview started because the candidate is already articulating what he or she wants to do, which is where I start most interviews.

I also find that a summary of key skills—especially for someone who may have had a variety of different roles—can be very useful.

Be careful not to assume that the recruiter or hiring manager has knowledge of the companies you've worked for, the nature of your past titles, etc. Instead, I suggest providing a one-sentence description of past employers so the recruiter can get a vision of the size and complexity of the organization.

Q: Moving on to the interview itself. What should interviewees be conscious of, and what can they do to make the best impression?

Keating: So, I see interviews as having three component parts to them: the initial relationship-building phase, the content phase (this is the questions we ask of the candidate), and then the reverse of that (this is the questions the candidate would want to ask us, the hiring panel).

“One of the most telling things ... is if he or she does not have thoughtful questions.”

Phase 1: I most notice the non-verbal aspects in this phase, including the candidate's energy level, posture, organization, preparation (does he or she have all the necessary materials?), and professional dress. Those things matter, so being conscientious of them as a candidate is quite helpful.

Phase 2: At the Advisory Board and EAB we use behavioral-based interviewing techniques, so a candidate's ability to answer the question asked and to drill down on particular issues, noting a specific instance in which they have exhibited a certain behavior, is what I look for and am most impressed by.

Sometimes you have dynamics where a person has a strong first answer, but when you get down to a deeper level, things sort of fall apart. That's not great.

Prior to interview, a candidate should try to get an understanding of what type of interview they're walking into (case study, behavioral-based, etc.) and prepare accordingly.

Phase 3: This is one of the most overlooked areas of an interview, where candidates can fall into a trap of unpreparedness. One of the most telling things about a candidate is if he or she does not have thoughtful questions prepared or has questions that seem self-serving.

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I appreciate someone that has an authentic interest in the organization and a great desire to understand the role beyond the job description or interview. It shows to me someone who is thinking about this as a decision they will want to make for the long term.

Q: So let's say the interview goes well, an offer is extended to the candidate, and he or she accepts the offer. Where do you go from there in terms of onboarding and making sure the new employee feels like a valued team member from the start?

Keating: After the interview process is over, it is very important the hiring team puts their feedback on paper, documents where the candidate came out, and how the team made a decision on a particular candidate. 

We stress strongly the "lifecycle" of the candidate experience, from his or her initial interview all the way through to joining the organization, and we do everything we can to make that process feel very smooth and natural.

The best way to make the new hire feel like a valued team member is to get him or her up to speed rapidly—which, depending on the level they came in at, might require a heavy amount of training and a general philosophy around helping grow and develop people.

In many instances, having a strong training and development program can allow an organization to bring in extremely gifted—but potentially more "raw"—talent and then, through training, hires become more able to contribute to the organization.

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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