Ditching CVs and cover letters

Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

Reach has been experimenting with a new approach to recruitment: abandoning CVs and cover letters in favour of three focused questions. It's worked really well for us. The process was fairer and more effective, and candidates liked it too. 

Recruiting a strong team is one of the most important things to get right, especially for a small charity. I’ve never been happy with traditional methods: application forms are cumbersome and shortlisting from CVs and cover letters seems too subjective and ineffective. Too often, I’ve found that a great applicant turns into a poor interviewee, or I worry that we missed someone with potential because of the volume of words we had to read. I was keen to try a more objective and focused process. The approach that we followed is essentially borrowed from Applied who make their excellent resources available for free. 

What we did 

We used the following approach to recruit for two very different roles:  a service co-ordinator and a head of service. 

In both cases we honed in on the most essential attributes (a mix of skills, experience and qualities) and worked up three questions designed to draw out those attributes. We put these questions up on Survey Monkey, and pointed people to them from the job adverts. We also asked for contact details and CVs, but we kept this data hidden when shortlisting. 

We reviewed all the applicants' answers to each question in turn one, and scored all of them, before moving on to the next question and so on. We then shortlisted for interview, based on these scores. 

Why we did it

Reducing bias 

Unconscious bias tends to creep into the selection process. Doing it this way removes much of this bias at the application stage:
•    Blinding – by viewing answers without any other contextual data, you are forced to judge candidates on their answers only  
•    Chunking – by viewing answers in isolation, you avoid the ‘halo’ effect where you start marking a candidate up (or down) because you feel strongly about their previous answers 
•    Randomisation – by viewing answers in different orders, no one candidate gets unfairly penalised by fatigue.


Source: Applied

Making the process more efficient 

It’s really hard work sifting through CVs and cover letters and making sensible judgements. You can expend quite a lot of time just eliminating applications where people have just bulk applied with little thought, or where they do not meet essential criteria.

Increasing the chance of shortlisting the best candidates 

I was first motivated to try this approach for the entry level role because CVs and cover letters seem a particularly random and unfair way to judge people who are only just starting on their careers. It was so effective in highlighting the actual abilities of candidates that we decided to use it for our senior role too. 
The process cuts out the noise and sharpens the focus for both the candidate and the recruiter. While CVs can be misleading, a well designed ‘work sample’ is the best test of candidate’s ability. 

Source: Applied

What happened

For our service co-ordinator role, we had a very strong response: over 100 candidates, about 70% of whom had put in a decent application. Shortlisting itself was far easier than it had been for similar roles in the past. It was far easier to weed out the poor applications, and get a much clearer sense of what different candidates could bring. 

For our head of service role, we were unable to appoint first time round so we had to run a second round of recruitment. We received roughly 40 applications each time, and almost all applications were strong. The first time, we did not look at CVs until we met candidates for interview. We then discovered that we had shortlisted a good number of people who were very bright and full of potential, but who simply didn’t have the experience, and seasoned judgement to be able to carry out a senior leadership role. We realised that we had underplayed experience in favour of qualities like openness to learning.
For the second round, we tweaked the application to emphasise relevant senior experience, and did our first sift on that question alone. We then scored the highest ranking candidates for answers to their other two responses. This gave greater weight to candidates’ relevant experience and was more efficient. Once we’d created a shortlist, we reviewed CVs as a way of triangulating. This modified approach produced a more balanced shortlist. 

Shortlisting was far easier than it had been for similar roles in the past.

What we learnt

It is a bit scary

Honestly, ditching CVs and cover letters did feel a bit scary when we recruited for our Head of Service because it’s such as key role for us, and traditional methods felt more familiar. But the evidence for this approach is compelling. 

It is a much more effective way to shortlist the best candidates

The process makes it easier to focus in on the key qualities that you need. It makes candidates focus their applications only on these attributes, and removes irrelevant details.  And it is much easier to compare candidates’ answers to questions than it is to compare cover letters and CVs.

The approach is perfect for roles which require little previous experience. It also worked really well for a more senior role but you need to focus your questions and the process to ensure the right balance between experience and potential.

It really does radically reduce bias

Viewing candidates’ answers without any contextual data, such as where they’ve worked or details of their education, means that you just focus on the attributes you’ve prioritised. Seeing each response in isolation means that you cannot build up a mental picture of a candidate (and if you are like me, start willing some to do well because you liked one of their previous answers). Of course this is only one small part of building a more inclusive recruitment process, but it is a good start. 


It makes candidates focus their applications only on these attributes, and removes irrelevant details.

You need to invest more time upfront

It will certainly save you time down the line, but you need to invest more time and effort at the outset. You need to be crystal clear about the attributes you are looking for, and prioritise ruthlessly (no more than six!). You then need to design questions that test these attributes well. A lot hangs on getting these questions right.  

Candidates really like it

We were a bit worried that this approach might put people off, but they really liked it. Many candidates spontaneously gave us positive feedback, saying that it felt more relevant than doing a traditional CV and cover letter and gave them a chance to really highlight why they felt they were right for the role. A few even claimed to have enjoyed the process. 
Quite a few said that it gave a good impression of Reach. This is important for us, given how competitive the job market is. 
Most significantly, candidates said the process felt transparent and fair. This may turn out to be one of the biggest benefits of this approach, especially if confidence in fairness encourages more people from under-represented backgrounds to apply. 

Many candidates spontaneously gave us positive feedback.

Survey tools work as a hack – but only just!

You can ‘blind’ and ‘chunk’, and analyse equalities  data using Survey Monkey, but it’s pretty clunky for reviewing responses. It's not designed the job and you have to create manual workarounds for scoring, and for communicating with candidates. If we'd have had the budget, we would have used Applied's platform, since from what I've seen it would make the process much smoother for the recruiter and candidate, and would generate fascinating data.

With thanks to Applied for letting me pinch their resources and ideas.


What questions did we ask? 

Since we published this blog, we have been asked what our three questions were, so here they are. 

I want to emphasise that these questions sit within a process (define the attributes, design questions to test these attributes). And we are learning as we go, so our questions are definitely not perfect! I’d recommend following the Applied guide to designing work samples. 

Head of Service role questions

  1. Why are you a great fit for this role? Please reference the person specification and draw on your track record of leading and developing a service circa 300 - 500 words.
    This question  is a little like a traditional cover letter, but worked better because it elicited responses focused solely on attributes in the person specification with an emphasis on their experience of service management. 
  2. Give an example of an improvement you have made to a service you have managed – what steps did you take and how did you assess the success? circa 200 - 400 words.
    To test: user focus, outcome focus; openness to learning.
  3. Suggest a partnership that could add value to Reach. What value would it bring? How would you set about developing it? circa 100 - 200 words.
    To test: ability to develop & maintain partnerships, strategic thinking, understanding of needs of sector.

Service coordinator role questions

  1. Why are you interested in this role? 
    To test: enthusiasm for role and for Reach.
  2. We devised a customer service scenario.
    To test: customer service skills. This question did not work very well.
  3. Describe an achievement that you are particularly proud of. It can be from your experience of work, education or volunteering.
    To test: Self-motivation and ability to use initiative, effort in work, responsibility and reliability; positive can-do attitude. This question worked really well. 

Very happy to chat on the phone if anyone wants to ask anything more specific.