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Recruiter Reveals: Do Employers Read a Resume or Cover Letter First?

So, you've found a job that checks all the boxes on your career wishlist. Naturally, you've meticulously crafted your resume, showcased your best qualifications, and taken that extra step to compose an impressive cover letteradding a personal touch to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the role and showcase your personality.

But, as you're about to submit your job application, nagging questions begin to surface: Do employers read the resume or cover letter first? Is one of them more important for the success of your application? Will anyone even read your cover letter?!

I hear you. These questions are all too familiar to millions of job seekers. (Myself included —back when I wasn't on the HR side of the equation.)

As someone who has reviewed over 30,000 applications, I can share an inside scoop that likely won't surprise you: there's no one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, opinions on the "resume or cover letter first" matter are probably as diverse as the number of recruiters out there.

However, there's a silver lining—there are some bigger trends out there that can actually give us some pretty useful pointers for your specific situation. And we're about to go over them:

By the way, while you're at it, check out what you must do to ensure your resume and job application stand out:

Without further ado, let's dive into these and shed light on whether recruiters will favor your resume or cover letter first.


Resumes and Cover Letters: Importance, Differences, and Roles

Whether it's a blind date or a job interview, first impressions matter. A LOT.

When it comes to job hunting, your resume and cover letter are essential tools for creating that all-important first impression. They introduce you to hiring managers, highlight your professional background, and lay out why you're the perfect fit for a specific position.

But, although they share the same ultimate goal—securing you an interview and the job—they are not the same. Now, let's go into the details of this whole "resume or cover letter first" debate.

How Resumes and Cover Letters Differ

A resume paints a complete picture of your professional journey—work history, education, accomplishments, and skillset—all neatly summarized. It's like your qualifications in a nutshell, giving employers a quick peek to judge if you fit the bill.

Now, a cover letter? That's your chance to add a personal touch. Tailor it to emphasize parts of your background that sync up with the job needs. It's your space to express excitement, show your interest in the company, and illustrate how your skills and experiences align seamlessly with the open position.

The Role of Resumes in the Hiring Process

Resumes play a crucial role in the initial screening phase of the hiring process.

Hiring managers often receive hundreds of applications for a single position and rely on resumes to filter out candidates who do not meet the basic requirements. A well-written resume grabs their attention and motivates them to dig deeper into your application, increasing your chances of being shortlisted for an interview.

It provides a comprehensive overview of your qualifications, making it easier for employers to assess your suitability for the position and compare you, your credentials, and your qualifications with other applicants.

Hello new resume, hello opportunities!

The Role of Cover Letters in the Hiring Process

While some job seekers may overlook the importance of cover letters, these documents can significantly influence the hiring decision.

A well-crafted cover letter allows you to showcase your written communication skills and elaborate on specific aspects of your background relevant to the position.

Additionally, a cover letter provides a space to express your enthusiasm for the role and the company. It allows you to demonstrate your understanding of the organization's values, goals, and culture, illustrating why you are not only qualified but also genuinely motivated and excited about joining their team.


Which Factors Influence Whether Employers Will Read Your Resume or Cover Letter First

Several key factors influence employer preferences regarding the order in which they review job applications. These factors can vary depending on the industry, company culture, and specific role you're applying for.

And as I previously mentioned, there are so many varying opinions among the recruiters community.

However, there are also some common factors that impact employers' opinions when it comes to the "resume or cover letter first" question. These can offer valuable insights into how your specific application might be perceived:

  • Role-specific criteria: When it comes to positions demanding specific skills or qualifications like IT, architecture, or engineering, recruiters typically prioritize reviewing the resume first. This initial scan helps them confirm whether you possess the necessary skills before getting into your cover letter. On the other hand, in more creative fields, such as journalism and customer service, employers are more inclined to read your cover letter first. In these roles, your cover letter is a crucial indicator of your writing skills and how well they align with their requirements.

  • Company culture and values: Employers who prioritize company culture and values often opt to read the cover letter first. Their aim is to evaluate whether a candidate aligns with their values and is sincerely invested in the company's mission and vision. This aspect holds significant weight, particularly in startups and small companies, where success hinges on identifying individuals who not only possess the requisite professional qualifications but also harmonize with the organizational culture. On the other hand, in more traditional or technically-focused industries, the resume might take precedence.

  • Application volume: The volume of applications an employer receives can also influence their preferences. Employers may initially skim resumes for key qualifications when flooded with applications to narrow the pool quickly. In contrast, if they receive fewer applications, they might take the time to read cover letters first to gauge candidates' enthusiasm and commitment.


How a Fortune Global 500 Recruiter Reviews Resumes and Cover Letters?

Ever wanted to hear a recruiter's first-hand experience and thoughts on this "resume or cover letter first" debate?

Well, I'm about to walk you through my job application reviewing process while working at Fortune Global 500 companies that have received 100+ job applications per position. Plus, I'll share my train of thought so you can understand the reasoning behind it.

  1. I always start with a resume. A resume gives me fundamental information about a candidate, their work experience, education, strengths, and other important qualifications, and helps me decide whether they meet the mandatory requirements.

  2. Then, I review a cover letter and make my decision.

So, I always start with a resume and solidify my decision with a cover letter. Based on that, we have three possible scenarios.

  • Scenario A: If a candidate fails to meet the mandatory job requirements concerning experience and education, I swiftly skim through their cover letter. (If a candidate puts in the time and effort to write a cover letter, I always read it out of respect and... well, curiosity.) However, even an exceptional cultural and personality fit couldn't compensate for the lack of essential skills. (I know this is harsh. But I couldn't recommend forwarding such candidates to a hiring manager, as they would unlikely pass the next review.)

  • Scenario B: If the candidate meets some job requirements but not all, I always read a cover letter to understand their motivation and culture fit. In this case, the cover letter is the most important factor as it can turn my decision in one way or another (aka in the direction of a rejection or an interview invite).

  • Scenario C: When a candidate meets all job requirements, I skim the cover letter. Like in scenario A, the cover letter doesn't impact my decision. These candidates are always forwarded to hiring managers—unless their cover letter or job application contains inappropriate or unprofessional content, which hasn't happened yet and hopefully never will.

As you can see, the cover letter is critical when a recruiter is on the fence about a candidate who doesn't meet all job requirements. Whether they read your resume or cover letter first, if you find yourself in this position, remember that crafting an impactful cover letter could tip the scales in your favor.


Resume or Cover Letter First: The Most Popular Approaches

As we've concluded, there isn't a definitive answer as to whether a recruiter or hiring manager will read your resume or cover letter first. However, there are three possible scenarios and approaches:

  • The Traditional Approach

  • The Cover Letter First Approach

  • The Hybrid Approach

And how understanding these approaches can help you during your job hunt? Because they provide crucial insights into why one of your documents may capture recruiters' attention.

The Traditional Approach

In the past, the traditional approach favored the resume as the primary focus of a job application.

Employers would typically start by reviewing the resume to get an overview of the candidate's skills, qualifications, and work experience. This method placed less emphasis on the cover letter, considering it more of a supplementary document.

The Cover Letter First Advocates

However, there is a growing movement among job seekers and career experts who believe the cover letter should be read first.

Advocates of this approach argue that the cover letter provides context and showcases the candidate's personality, passion, and specific interest in the role. They claim that the cover letter is an introduction and can pique an employer's interest, encouraging them to delve deeper into the candidate's qualifications outlined in the resume.

The Hybrid Approach

Many professionals now adopt a hybrid approach when reviewing job applications to find a middle ground. They understand the merits of both the resume and the cover letter and choose to evaluate them in tandem.

This approach allows employers to comprehensively understand a candidate's qualifications while also getting a glimpse of their personality and communication style.

Ultimately, for your success, it's not critical which document the recruiter reads first—what matters the most is crafting an all-around strong job application that helps you land interviews.

Ultimately, for your success, it's not critical which document the recruiter reads first—what matters the most is crafting an all-around strong job application that helps you land interviews.


Key Takeaways

The resume and cover letter work in tandem to create a strong, impactful job application. A resume is a factual foundation that outlines your skills and experiences, while the cover letter adds a personal touch, allowing you to express your unique value and personality.

However, while it's true that recruiters' preferences vary when it comes to whether they read the resume or cover letter first—some favor the cover letter, while others prioritize the resume—there's no need to let this concern you.

When these two documents are harmoniously crafted, they create a powerful duo that captures the attention of hiring managers—regardless of the order in which they are reviewed.

Here are key things to remember:

  • Factors like role-specific criteria, company culture, and the volume of applications can influence the order in which employers review your resume and cover letter.

  • In positions requiring specific skills like IT or engineering, recruiters often start with the resume to verify qualifications. At the same time, the cover letter may take precedence in creative fields like journalism or customer service.

  • No need to worry about recruiters' preferences—when your resume and cover letter are well-crafted, they shine together and grab hiring managers' attention regardless of the order they're read.

To maximize your chances of landing that job you have your eyes on—check out these HR-proof tips for designing a memorable resume and writing impactful resume content.


Next Steps

  • A poorly written resume is costing you opportunities. Explore the best resume writing services and let the experts transform your resume into a powerful, job-landing tool.

  • Actively looking for a job? Your resume is not enough. Choose one of the best LinkedIn profile writing services and let professionals optimize your LinkedIn for future employment.

  • Pass on the wisdom—share this article with a friend, family member, or colleague who needs help with their resume. And don't forget to bookmark it to have quick access to the best resume metrics whenever you need them.

  • Time for an upgrade: Select your new resume from our collection of 50+ professional, HR-proof resume templates and create a job-winning resume today.

Headshot of smiling business woman. Ana Colak-Fustin, founder of

Ana Colak-Fustin

Hi—I'm Ana! A recruiter, HR consultant, and founder of My career advice and job search tools have been featured in Yahoo News, The Muse, Jobscan, A Better HR Business, and other global media. Over 8,000 professionals have used my resume templates to land new jobs and power up their careers. Ready to join them? Your success story starts here.

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