The Cover Letter Writer’s Guide
Note: If Crafting Your Cover Letter and Three Cover Letter Pet Peeves had a baby then gave it steroids, it would be this post. If you’re familiar with those posts, then you’ll see some repeat content. If not, then read this instead of those. Either way, I’ve filled in some gaps so you’ll (hopefully) learn something new! Don’t feel like reading the whole thing? Take the course!
The Cover Letter Writer’s Mindset
There is no getting around it – writing cover letters sucks pretty hard. In my years of doing this work, I have never met someone who was excited at having to write a cover letter for a job application. Even people who otherwise love to write have trouble with these documents, and for good reason – they’re weird! In no other context is one expected to distill their education and professional accomplishments to four paragraphs, picking only two or three that really matter, and up-selling the crap out of them. It’s like writing a brief infomercial for yourself… and how many of us love those things?? My guess: not many.
I’ve had more than one client refer to the cover letter writing process as “icky” because, as I just said, you’re basically bragging about yourself for 300-500 words. This is something that we as social humans have been conditioned to be uncomfortable with – especially women. Girls and young women are called bossy for knowing their worth, and conceited for having the confidence to speak on it. We get reprimanded for our lack of humility for even acknowledging our greatness, so many of us stop. Fast forward to adulthood. We go to apply to jobs and feel extreme discomfort with writing out our qualifications… even when we have them!
None of this is useful when it comes to writing a cover letter (or in life in general). In order to write a great cover letter that will get you an interview, you have to get into the right writer’s mindset. 1) You have to believe that you’re qualified for the position you’re applying for, and that this letter is just making it easier for the employer to see that. It’s a marketing document, and the product is you. 2) You must know that your letter is just you stating relevant facts about yourself, your experiences, and your accomplishments that. After all, that’s what a cover letter is! (Unless you’re lying… which you most definitely shouldn’t be.)
Having this writer’s mindset helps to lessen the pain of crafting a cover letter because you go into the process knowing exactly what you are (and are not) doing. Now that we have that down, let’s move on to what the actual document is and what it’s supposed to look like.
What They Are (and Why You Have to Write Them)
Cover letters are not supposed to be great pieces of literature. You’re not writing to show off your literary chops, you’re writing to get a job. Of course you need to use proper grammar, syntax, and sentence structures, but leave the metaphors, similes, and other devices for another day. That’s not why we’re here. Like I said before, cover letters are marketing documents where you highlight your strengths as they relate to the job you’re applying for.
But wait, isn’t that a resume? Umm, not quite. While yes, your resume gives the employer a general sense of your qualifications for their job, a cover letter digs deeper into your most relevant experiences and provides a level of detail that cannot be achieved in a traditional resume. It’s where you can more specifically and explicitly connect the dots between what you’ve done in the past and what you can do for the company. In other words, a cover letter is not a narrative version of your resume! The resume provides the breadth and the cover letter provides the depth. It’s where you situate yourself within both the job and the company, and show the employer that it would be a mutually beneficial decision for them to hire you.
Cover Letter Construction
Cover letters are written in business format and should not exceed one page. “Business format” means you include your name and address, the name and address of the company, the date, and to whom the letter is intended before you go into the content of the letter. (If you don’t know, address it to the recruiter or “Hiring Manager.”) Yes, you have to do this format when you’re emailing the letter. (It a convention that has yet to be updated with technology.) Yes, it takes up a ton of space on your one paged document. This is why your paragraphs need to be concise. Remember – You’re not the only person working under these constraints, so instead of taking them personally, roll with them!
Speaking of paragraphs… Here is what should they look like:
The first is the introduction, where you (shocker of the year) introduce yourself to the reader. The formula for this paragraph is pretty standard. First, say who you are, what position you’re applying for, and where you found it. Next, give a bit of information on your education (especially if you’re a recent grad) and background details (current employer, reason for applying, etc). Finally, say something about your qualifications – why are you a good fit for this this position with that particular company. This last part should foreshadow your body paragraphs in both topic and organization. For example, if you say “My personal and professional experiences make me an excellent candidate” then you’ll use the next part to discuss these experiences in that order.
This paragraph is also where you can begin to connect yourself to the company. You should include networking events, informational interviews, and other places where you have interacted with the company, as these activities show that you have a demonstrated interest in working there. (FYI – LinkedIn is a great way to facilitate these relationships!)
The second and third are the body paragraphs. These are the meat of your cover letter and provide the reader with more information on the relevant experiences and skills that you list on your resume. Instead of stating the tasks and responsibilities of your previous experiences, focus on the results of your work. It’s one thing to say what you were supposed to do, but saying your accomplishments gives the reader more insight into what you actually did. One thing that I see quite frequently is a desire to list off every single thing that an applicant feels makes them qualified, without providing contextual details. Since the cover letter must be kept to one page, it is more effective to choose a handful of skills to discuss in-depth rather than providing such a survey. The resume is where you give that general overview, not here.
Be sure to highlight skills (and related experiences) that are related to the job. I can feel you rolling your eyes at the obviousness of this point, but I can’t count on all of my fingers and toes how many times applicants give deep descriptions about things that won’t matter to what they’ve applied to. Employers won’t care how great you are at Photoshop or InDesign if they want someone to be their investment manager! Such a skill could be a value-add, but it’s not worth taking up precious cover letter real estate to do so. That’s what the “Skills” section of your resume is for. To ensure that you’re doing this, go back to the job description and see what skillset the company has indicated they are looking for. (We’ll go how to incorporate this info later.)
The last paragraph of your cover letter is the closing. Here, you reiterate your interest in the position, say what you are most impressed with about the company, and tell the reader how you could contribute via the position you are applying to. Getting this part right is critical for getting hired, as a seasoned recruiter will be able to tell if you’ve personalized it or not. Vague statements like “I like your company because it is a leader in the field” will get you nowhere. Providing the reader with concrete reasons they are leader (to continue the example) and what sets them apart from their competitors is a much more effective move. Finally, it is typical to end a cover letter by thanking the reader for their consideration and inviting them to contact you to further discuss your qualifications.
Now that we’ve gone over the bones of a cover letter, let’s talk about how to fatten them up with great, relevant content!
Deciding What to Highlight
One thing that I constantly tell my career coaching clients (and some of the admissions ones, too) is that your documents must be relevant. Their contents have to connect in an obvious way to whatever you’re applying for, or else they won’t be effective. Given their length, cover letters are not the place for you to be subtle. You don’t want to imply that you’re qualified. You don’t want to hint at your accomplishments. You want to hit the reader over the head with your relevant dopeness or else they won’t get it and you won’t get the job.
But how do I decide what parts of my dopeness are relevant? The best way to do this is to go back to the job description and see what skillset the company has indicated they are looking for. If you’re lucky and have an informative job posting to reference, these skills can be found in the “Responsibilities” and/or “Qualifications” sections. If your posting is a little thin, do some research on the position itself to see what skillset is considered standard. Go to industry research sites like ONet (onetonline.org) to get some overall details on the job, or read job descriptions for similar roles on indeed (indeed.com) at different companies and compare. These sources should provide you with a decent amount of information to pull from.
Once you have an idea of what the job entails, go to the company website to 1) see how the position fits within the organization as a whole and 2) catch a general vibe of the place. Read up on the mission, values, and vision of the company, as well as the department or division that houses the position you’re applying for. Not only will this information will be useful in the closing paragraph of the cover letter, but you can also use it in your interview to answer questions like “Why do you want to work here” or “What could you contribute to our company.”
After you’ve gone through these steps, go back to your resume and pull out the three or four skills or experiences that are most related to what you just read. About each one, ask yourself: Where did this skill or experience come up in my research? Is this skill or experience explicitly written in the job description? Can I provide enough meaningful details about this skill or experience to make a body paragraph? Is this skill or experience representative of what I want to do in this role? Now pick the strongest two (or three, if two are related enough to put in the same paragraph). These are the ones that will make up the bulk of your cover letter. Congrats! You’ve got some meat for your bones.
But what if my experiences aren’t an exact match for the job? One tip: Don’t apologize! Do not apologize to the reader if you think your past experiences aren’t right for the position you’re applying to. Phrases like “I know I haven’t done [xyz123] things, but…” and “I realize that my past experiences don’t…” cause the reader to think about how you might not be qualified, which is the opposite of what a cover letter is supposed to do. Even if you follow these statements up with ways that you would be great for the job, the competing sentiments cancel each other out.
By acknowledging why you aren’t 100% qualified, you’re planting the seed of doubt in the reader’s head (or, probably more accurately, you’re watering the seed). If they have read your resume, the recruiter likely already knows the points where you fall short. Don’t remind them! Instead, focus on how your seemingly disparate experiences make you uniquely qualified for the position. You want to convince the reader that you’re able to do the job, and leave them wanting to confirm this with an interview.
Tips for Reusing Content
The cardinal sin of cover letters is using the same one for multiple positions. Never do this. Never, ever, ever use the exact same letter more than once.
Template cover letters are so so so obvious and so so so lazy. Yeah, writing individual cover letters is a pain, especially when you’re probably applying to a bunch of jobs that are very similar, but you need to resist the urge of just changing the company name and sending it in. People who read cover letters all day (aka: employers and recruiters; bka: the people who decide who gets interviewed and hired) know when a letter is a template: You only say the company name in the opening and closing. Your examples are general and disconnected from the position you’re applying to. You don’t give any specific reasons you want to work at the company and only have the vaguest sense of their position in the industry. (Or to be even more obvious, the job title is in bold or italics and there are multiple company names in the letter. I have seen this more than once.)
It’s more than okay to have the same starter text or use the same examples across cover letters. I’m not saying that you need to start from scratch every time! This is the most efficient thing to do when you’re on a job search, especially when the positions you’re applying to are similar. But you can not use the same letter! You need to switch things up enough so that the letter tailored to the position you’re applying to. Use language from the job posting or the company website. Toss in some knowledge that you gained from doing research on the company or the industry. Make it clear that you put forth effort into your application materials because lazy applicants don’t get hired.
Cover letters are a pain to write, but they should never deter you from applying to a job. Hopefully this post demystified the process for you, and gave you the actionable tips necessary for you to tackle this necessary evil of the job search. Want some guided practice? Download the workbook and have at it!