How to Write Great Cover Letters

How to Write Great Cover Letters | CorporetteHow do you write a great cover letter? Reader M wonders…

You’ve a lot of great job and interview tips on here, but do you have any advice on how to write a great cover letter (without sounding desperate or using too many adjectives)?

We’ve talked about what to wear to interviews, interview thank you notes, and given our best interview advice, but Reader M is right: we’ve never talked about cover letters. Personally, I hate them — you have to spend an agonizing amount of time customizing them and proofreading them, yet I’ve often felt like a better job tool is going onto the street and shouting, “Hey, anyone have a __ position that needs to be filled?” I particularly hate them when responding to a job posting online — from everything I’ve read the odds are good that a) the listing is a mere formality because of company operating procedure, and the job has already been filled, or b) even if the job is actually open, a robot or intern will more likely be making a first pass at your cover letter and resume. And yet: a poorly written cover letter can do you in, so they’re unfortunately a necessity.

I have a few tips for cover letters, but I’m curious to see what readers say — particularly those who’ve read a lot of them. A few of my best tips, though:

  • Know someone. Don’t be afraid to drop names in your cover letter, and if you know someone working at the company itself you may want to send your cover letter through two channels: both through the official channel ([email protected] for example) as well as to the specific person you know, who may be able to walk your resume up to HR. (See our prior discussion on the pros and cons of recommending friends so you know what to expect.)
  • Keep your content tight. You need to stay laser-focused on your skills that fit this job. Reword, supplement, and give context to your resume so you’re not just repeating it (and, if you haven’t customized your resume for the job listing, your cover letter should make clear how your background benefits the job).
  • Focus on what YOU bring to the job — not what you’ll get out of the job.  It may be educational and a great way for you to expand your skillset, say, but those aren’t selling points for the person hiring you.
  • Think in keywords if you’re responding to an online job posting — mirror the language from the job posting to get past the robots.
  • PROOFREAD.  Errors of any kind are not allowed.

I was excited to see Ask a Manager recommending against closing cover letters with the promise/threat to follow up in a few days — it always has felt forced and unnatural every time I’ve done it, at least for a straight job application, but everything depends on the job and the circumstances.

Readers, what are your best tips for cover letters?  For those of you who read cover letters, what kind of cover letters MAKE the job application?  Does anyone care to share any amusing stories of cover letters that failed? 

(Pictured: Pen and Paper, originally uploaded to Flickr by LucasTheExperience.)

Comments

  1. I had execllent cover letter’s that I used at GW when I was first applying for a job in college. I got them from a FORM BOOK The onley probelem is that now I have a MACBOOK Air, and then I had a crummey Window’s 95 machine and I was NOT abel to transfer any of those files when I traded up to a MACBOOK AIR. I asked the salesman if I could transfer my program’s, and he said that I had to buy all new software for MAC. So I did, but then after I traded in my machine, I met this geek who told me he could have transfered the DATA from my machine to a USB port and from there to my MACBOOK Air. If I had done that, I would have ALL OF MY COVER LETTER’s which I could share with the HIVE! FOOEY!

  2. Senior Attorney :

    Whiny threadjack: Today is Mr. Senior Attorney’s birthday. I left him 6 months ago and have only spoken to him a couple of times since then, and not at all since he lawyered up about 4 months ago. It doesn’t look like there will be any progress on the divorce front, any time soon.

    I do not miss him, I do not wish we were spending his birthday together, and I am generally doing much better in every way than I was even a month ago. But I find myself feeling ridiculously melancholy today.

    Gah.

    Internet hugs or slaps upside the head would be greatly appreciated.

    • Big Internet HUGS!!! Hang in there!

    • T. McGill :

      Hugs! It will get easier. Here’s to hoping that in a few years, you can’t even remember what day his birthday is ;)

    • Internet hugs! I get it… my ex and I broke up 6 months ago and I’m much better off but the last week or so I’ve been feeling melancholy (good word for it!) and missing him. If you need a slap upside the head, I probably need 5 considering that a) we were only dating and b) he treated me like crap the last few months of our relationship.

      Here’s hoping this passes soon and you can get back to feeling like your kick-a$$ self!

    • Hugs! It is a normal part of the grieving process for the relationship that you feel more feelings on a day that formerly had significance within it. Even if you are better off without him, you are dealing with the death of all YOUR hopes and dreams for the relationship. Hugs and do something special for yourself today.

      If you are seriously considering reaching out or sending a card, then SLAP!

    • Downunder Dotty :

      For the first time after 3 years apart, I forgot my ex’s birthday last week until days after. It felt liberating and sad at the same time. He presumably celebrated it with his new wife (my ex best friend) . Thinking about it now I have a real sense of calm.
      Stay strong, you sound like a lovely person, who will be in a very different place next time his day comes around.

    • Senior Attorney :

      Thanks, everybody. I made it through the day and lived to tell the tale.

      Yes, it was my choice but it’s still sad and I am (temporarily, I hope) out of my house so that makes it sadder. And I think the first year is just going to be hard… all those significant dates rolling around with “First One Since The Separation” attached to them.

      Onward…

      • girl in the stix :

        Maybe think of the milestone dates as The First One of the Rest of My Life? My first Christmas w/o ex was awesome because I could enjoy it thoroughly without all the bah humbuggery and negativity. And make some new milestones for yourself!

  3. Cover Letters :

    My last 2 jobs (covering 13 years of my life) have all come through people I knew, so I haven’t written a cover letter in ages. Do they even work? How often do people hire people to whom they have no prior connection?

    In our company, we have to advertise each job opening, even if we have several preferred candidates in mind (so 100% prior relationship and 100% likely to get the job over a stranger). Is it usually like that?

    I ask b/c my husband is job hunting. I am trying to encourage him to go out every lunch he has free with a person (even if not blatant job-hunting, just b/c you never know where things will lead) even though we’re trying to cut expenses. He (most recent job search is 15+ years ago) is of the resume + cover letter mindset. Who knows — I’d like to know which is a better use of time.

    • Wildkitten :

      Lunches > Cover Letters.

    • Amberwitch :

      Where I come from, it is mostly coverletter driven. I’m half and half – recruited for two positions, applied for two, all within the past 8 years. I’m in IT in Northern Europe.

      Good luck with the jobsearch!

    • We also have to advertise every job, and internal candidates get preference (in the sense of getting shortlisted and called for interview, if they are, before external ones). So I agree that lunches > sending a letter into the void.

  4. I got my current job via Indeed, of all places. I had my resume posted, since I do freelance work in addition to full-timing it, and the hiring manager contacted me to see if I was interested in FT work.

    Before that, my two previous jobs were through word of mouth. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever written a successful (as far as actually getting me an interview) cover letter. They’re definitely my Achilles’ Heel. On the other hand, I’ve had great luck with connecting with recruiters and the like on Indeed as far as leads go.

  5. A perspective from the hiring side…

    We’re a small law firm and we’ve never hired an attorney through a job listing. We have hired almost all of our support staff (paralegals, assistants, law clerks, receptionists) though job postings. We use the cover letter as a screening tool to make sure that an applicant can write, that they can follow directions and that they can pay attention to detain. First, our ad always asks for the cover letter and resume to be submitted via email as attachments. Applicants who submit the cover letter as inline text only are not considered. Second, any grammatical errors or poor sentence structure or poor word choice will cause someone to be eliminated. Most of our applicants are eliminated at this step. Any signs in the letter that the person didn’t pay attention to the ad (like the wrong job title, or stressing their experience and talking about their goal of working in the medical field or in advertising while applying for a job at a law firm) will get someone eliminated. Once someone’s cover letter has made it past this initial review, only then do I look at the resume.

    Since I started paying more attention to cover letters at the initial review stage, I’ve spent less time on reviewing applicant submissions, we have had smaller and better batches of candidates in for interviews, and I have generally been more pleased with our hiring decisions.

  6. I have Opinions on this! http://andromedayelton.com/blog/2011/06/14/following-jenica26-my-thoughts-on-resumes-and-cover-letters/

    tl;dr Your cover letter ties together the narrative arc of your whole application package, playing to the part of our brain that likes stories; your cover letter is an argument supporting the thesis that you will bring value to an organization, using your past as supporting evidence to make a case about your future.

  7. Advice on DH's job hunt :

    I sent this to my DH. Can I also get some advice from the hive? Here’s the situation:

    – we relocated to a new country (from Canada to Silicon Valley) for my job about a year ago
    – DH finished his master’s about six months before we left Canada and was working in an entry-level gov job NOT in his field, but in the process of looking for a related role when we accepted the relocation offer
    – DH got laid off from said gov job 3 months before our move date and spent the next 3 months volunteering with a gov agency in a role related to his field
    – After we arrived in the U.S., it took about 10 weeks for his employment authorization to come through, by which time it was Christmas, so he didn’t start looking for work until Jan this year
    – It’s been 10 months and he hasn’t found anything. He’s starting to get discouraged (understandably).
    – all of his experience is in public sector in Canada, and unrelated to his field, with the exception of academic experience and the 3 months of volunteering
    – he’s had many interviews, but is usually told that the company wants someone with more experience.
    – he doesn’t have the connections down here for someone to help him out – I’ve got lots of great connections, but in a totally unrelated field (finance vs tech), so even my connections can’t help with their connections.
    – I’m starting to get worried about the gap – I think a 1 year gap in employment is starting to really push it.
    – What can we do from here – I’m thinking if nothing comes through by January he should go back to school so he can at least use the career center, but he’s really sick of school (he has 3 degrees) and it’s super expensive (I know, it’s an investment…)

    Sorry for annoying bulleted list, I got started and couldn’t stop.

    • Woops, meant to post this as a reply to yours, so sorry for the double post:
      He’s in finance? I know someone that was pretty successful out here getting jobs in that field (almost newly graduated) and the way he did it was to track stocks using a specific method & then used that info in his cover letter– it worked crazy well. Someone else I know never found a job in finance & ended up in a different field. As for me– it took me almost a yr to find a job in silicon valley & I ended up finding one through someone I went to college with. He may not know people, but maybe he knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone (or maybe you do?). Also, volunteering in that field might help– if the finance field is accounting, you should check out VITA (w/ the United Way), it’s a group that does free tax filings for low income individuals. I do stuff w/ them (I’m a lawyer, but you get certified through the IRS) and it was great, esp when I was unemployed.
      Also, I’d really suggest not going to school again- if 3 times didn’t help, I think a 4th will only create more debt & make him look like he doesn’t know what he wants. Volunteering for something helps keep him engaged, meeting people & will that void in his resume.
      Just my 2 cents, from someone who has been there. :)

      • Sorry…*I’M* in finance, and he’s in tech :) I suggested volunteering, and he’s going to start a blog which he can put into cover letters, so hopefully all this helps!

        • You don’t even know how many times I wish I was in tech rather instead of law while living here! There are soooo many meetups, hackathons, speaker series, cons, makers clubs & all sorts of fun things were he could meet other tech people. Also, I’ve heard interesting things about coding academies– he might want to look into those or taking a class or 2 to get engaged. I found a decent amount of people were into talking to me if I cold emailed them. There are some great emailing scripts here: http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/video-how-to-use-natural-networking-to-connect-with-anyone/
          Also, another suggestion– maybe get a professional resume writer to go over his resume, sometimes amazing friends will give me their resumes and they suck so badly I can’t believe they wrote them. It’s hard to talk yourself up and speak in terms that someone hiring will be attracted to.
          FWIW-I tried the blog route, no one ever looked at it and in hind site, probably not the best use of time.

  8. He’s in finance? I know someone that was pretty successful out here getting jobs in that field (almost newly graduated) and the way he did it was to track stocks using a specific method & then used that info in his cover letter– it worked crazy well. Someone else I know never found a job in finance & ended up in a different field. As for me– it took me almost a yr to find a job in silicon valley & I ended up finding one through someone I went to college with. He may not know people, but maybe he knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone (or maybe you do?). Also, volunteering in that field might help– if the finance field is accounting, you should check out VITA (w/ the United Way), it’s a group that does free tax filings for low income individuals. I do stuff w/ them (I’m a lawyer, but you get certified through the IRS) and it was great, esp when I was unemployed.
    Also, I’d really suggest not going to school again- if 3 times didn’t help, I think a 4th will only create more debt & make him look like he doesn’t know what he wants. Volunteering for something helps keep him engaged, meeting people & will that void in his resume.
    Just my 2 cents, from someone who has been there. :)

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