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27th Apr 2022

Job-specific questions are better than cover letters — here’s why

While cover letters are still the norm, job-specific questions are quickly becoming a better way to hire.

When you start your hiring process, the most common approach is to ask candidates to apply for your job with a resume and cover letter. This is how it’s been for years, after all, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that candidates dislike writing cover letters and companies often don’t have the time—or patience—to read them. The result of this is a loss of time on both sides; where the candidate is frustrated that their words have been ignored, and the company is burned out from trawling through hundreds of similarly-written letters.

Fortunately there is a solution to this, and it’s simpler than you might think. Employers can make smarter hiring decisions, in less time, by dropping cover letters and asking candidates to answer job-specific questions instead.

Sometimes referred to as “work samples” or “screening questions”, we’re going to tell you what job-specific questions are, why they’ll improve your hiring process, and how you can implement them in your company.

What are job-specific questions?

Job-specific questions measure how effectively a candidate can perform a job role by putting them in hypothetical scenarios similar to what they’ll experience when working. They’re presented as questions, and the closer your scenario mirrors your actual job, the more reliable they’ll be.

They’re intended to be used in the very first stage of the application process, and can vary from asking candidates how they would react to a user reporting a bug on the company website, to how they would respond to another department asking for help when the candidate is snowed under with their own tasks.

The only thing these shouldn’t do is ask job seekers to work for free or fix an existing problem within the company.

While job-specific questions require a bit more effort than simply asking candidates to submit a cover letter, they’re considered much more predictive in terms of a candidate’s fit for a role. For instance, debiasing recruitment platform Applied found that 60% of people hired in their recruitment process that utilized job-specific questions would have been missed had they done a traditional CV sift.

Why should I use them over a cover letter?

Simply put: because most cover letters today aren’t written with one job in mind (yours), whereas job-specific questions are. We polled hundreds of job seekers from every corner of the world, coming in all types of professions and skill levels, and found that only 30.5% of them wrote a unique cover letter for each job.

This is bad news if the cover letter is the most important indicator for you when hiring. It means that more than 66% of the cover letters you receive are a general copy-and-paste deal, and you can ask any recruiter how hard it is to glean useful information from these.

If you’re on the other side of the spectrum however, and don’t find much value in cover letters, then is it really fair to be requesting them when you know they’re scarcely going to be read? Especially since not all disciplines require a strong written ability, which is essential when writing a cover letter, and that some disabilities make this even harder for people.

Here’s something else to get you thinking: in the same report we mentioned earlier, we learned that job-specific questions are massively desired by candidates. A whopping 84.4% of people said that they would rather answer job-specific questions than submit a traditional cover letter. So if improving your candidate experience is on your radar—as it should be for all companies—then that’s another major reason to make the transition over to job-specific questions.

If all of that wasn’t enough, you also need to consider that screening candidates through cover letters opens the door to several unconscious biases coming into your hiring decision, which makes it difficult to build a diverse talent pool and give every applicant a fair chance.

So how do I write job-specific questions?

There are several approaches to creating job-specific questions. Here are a few steps based on the Applied methodology to guide you:

  1. Select the core skills that would be necessary to succeed in the job. We recommend a mix of 4-6 "soft" and technical skills.
  2. Think of real-life situations that candidates would encounter during the job that would test the skills you’ve listed.
  3. Turn these into hypothetical questions (‘What would you do if…’)
  4. Create a scoring criteria with clear and objective definitions of what would constitute a good, bad, and great answer.
  5. Test the questions among current employees at the same level as the role you’re hiring for.

Doing this will help you modernize your recruitment with a simple, unbiased method that makes life easier for both you and your candidates.

Even with this information behind you, though, we know it’s not always easy to turn advice into action. That’s why we offer our services to companies in the video game industry looking to improve their hiring process and #RethinkRecruitment. If you’d like to learn more, get in touch with our Head of Recruitment, Sara Machado, to book an intro call.

Contact Sara

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