Why are 95% of cover letters not even close?

At Digital Mined we frequently use freelance platforms like oDesk and Elance, and are therefore used to reading through hundreds of applications from freelancers. Despite all this experience, we’re still surprised when really good freelancers lose out on jobs because of the way they apply.

We have already written a lot about what can be done to solve this particular problem (i.e. just read the brief carefully and reply to everything in it), so this time we will look into some reasons why these freelancers fail. To explain possible reasons, we will try to give a few practical examples based on things we have experienced in the past.

Here are a few possible reasons that cover letters are rejected straight away:

  • Bad English. It’s possible that a lot of freelancers know that they have limited skills in English, and therefore choose to write and send generic cover letters hoping that 1 in 10 (or 1 in a 100) will lead to work. On oDesk, this possibility is supported by the fact that about 10% of applications are withdrawn by applicants 1-3 days after being submitted. Freelancers know that there is a limit to how many submitted applications can be pending at any given time, and therefore withdraw their proposals if they do not receive a speedy reply.
  • Lacking skills. oDesk has recently introduced the possibility of asking targeted questions to each applicant as part of the application process. Some freelancers might be frustrated by this; however, we clients love it! It allows us to ask difficult, targeted questions, which immediately unmask unqualified freelancers and can save us hours of sifting through generic proposals.
  • Low ethical standard. There are bad clients out there who treat freelancers badly; there are also freelancers who care more about making money than meeting their client’s needs. As a client, I see it as downright disrespectful if I politely ask a freelancer for a brief answer to a particular question and receive no hint of a tailored reply in their response to the brief.
  • Not understanding the process. Some freelancers blame clients or their platform of choice if they do not get work. We would suggest that those freelancers get an external evaluation of their profile using Freelyzer to evaluate the market value of their work and applications. Most clients deal with 30-150 applications for every job post they submit. When we hire, usually no more than 2 minutes is spent per application.
  • Preferring to chat on Skype. A lot of freelancers know that they will have a higher chance of landing a job if they have the opportunity to interact with their clients on Skype. Most clients, however, do not want to spend time chatting with someone unless they are sure there is a good chance of the candidate being a good fit for the job. In the interviews we conduct, the very first question is often enough to unveil an unfit applicant.
  • Thinking it is all about them. A lot of cover letters read more like advertisements than replies. Upon receiving such cover letters, clients are usually thinking: Did they get the brief? Did they understand what I want? Are they able to come up with a thoughtful reply that shows they are qualified? Some of the best replies we have received were actually quite short; they succeeded by showing that the applicant had read, understood, and replied with their brain.
  • Quality of clients. It is very possible that clients get a taste of their own medicine when they price the work they want done so low that good applicants will simply not apply. As a client, it is often worth asking yourself what you have done to deserve your team; this applies both in good times and in bad. Having a clearly defined process and being willing to pay above market price can ensure that you get only the best people.

If you are a freelancer who thinks that most of the points above constitute “hard medicine,” please take them with love. Yesterday I flicked through 60 applications for a position and shortlisted 3, only 5% of the total received. There is nothing I want more than to increase this percentage, even though better applications would surely make my job harder.


About the author: Bjarne Viken

Bjarne Viken 2

Bjarne is a conversion optimisation strategist, who works with marketing managers and business owners to scale up their businesses by analysing how they can improve their online conversion rates.

He has worked extensively with many growing companies, helping them drive customer acquisition, push conversions and increase sales.”

You can find other articles to reuse on scaleup.com.au/blog. Please link back to the blog or just ScaleUp.com.au.

This article was first published by Bjarne Viken

1 reply
  1. Jeff Kontur
    Jeff Kontur says:

    Speaking as a freelancer who uses both of the sites mentioned (plus a few others), I have always suspected this to be the case. I do tailor my applications to the briefs. I also strictly limit my applications to briefs for which I am well qualified and where the client isn’t trying to lowball me on the job. I will give 30 rounds of edits to a client who values my work, if that what it takes to get it right. But only for those clients who offer that level of commitment in return.

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