Great Cover Letters
October 27, 2004 11:15 AM   Subscribe

How does one go about writing a really good cover letter without sounding like an utter wanker?

I've been looking for a steady job for a while, and I don't seem to get even to the interview stage very often. I suspect it's my lack of a cover letter. So what makes a good cover letter?
posted by cmonkey to Work & Money (19 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Short, to the point, and contains cues that indicate you were interested enough to do some investigation on your own. I've heard it described as your elevator pitch: if you found yourself in an elevator with the person who's doing the hiring, what would you say?

The tack you take depends on the industry you're looking for a job in. You may need to be flashier for an entertainment job than for a banking or law position. Figure out which job requirements have the best fit with your qualifications, and mention those things briefly. Ideally, they'll be both very important to the job and well within your core experience.

Investigate the company at least a little, and if you see something interesting, mention that. For example: if you worked for somebody who's one of their major clients, or you discover that they're opening a new office overseas and you're fluent in the language of that country, say so.

Don't go into detail; that information should be in your resume, or at least enough of it to make them want to call you for more specifics.

Make sure your grammar, spelling, and punctuation are meticulously correct. Edit, edit, edit. Each sentence should be as concise as possible: it should have a clear idea to convey, and it should convey the idea in as few words as possible. If you can leave a sentence out without making the letter confusing, you're not done editing.

If you can find the name of the person you're addressing, do so, and spell it right.
posted by spacewrench at 11:36 AM on October 27, 2004

Agreed with the above: make it, above all, short. Also make it skimmable--no semicolons or fancy writin'. If you actually haven't been sending a cover letter at all, I'm sure that's counted very much against you.

My other advice is to make the letter as pro forma as possible. Don't be clever, snarky, or 'inventive' with your letter. This is just annoying, in my experience, and will just get your résumé tossed. Give your readers a key fact or two to remember, instead of trying to demonstrate your personality--that's what the interview is for.
posted by josh at 11:48 AM on October 27, 2004

I agree with the last thing spacewrench said: if you can find a name, use it. Use "Dear Sir or Madam" only as a last resort.

Also, use the cover letter to elaborate on items in your resume that have any potential application to the job you're applying for.
posted by zsazsa at 11:49 AM on October 27, 2004

I disagree with Josh in a way. Don't be snarky, but clever is not necessarily bad. Assuming this is for a job in a career field that you know something about, I like to immediately bring up a major issue in the field and talk about your experience with it.

"Today's widget salesmen struggle with trying to make the product accessible to young people. My experience as the junior sales dude with Joe Blow's Widgetland showed me that reaching out to this audience requires very specific skills (show how you have said skills, etc)."
posted by GaelFC at 12:22 PM on October 27, 2004

definitely keep it short. definitely focus on one or two specific meta-qualifications you have (the individual skills should be readily apparent on your resume, but your more general qualification may not be). even friends i know who do hiring in creative fields are not impressed with flashy, superficial attempts to be memorable in a cover letter (you know, purple ink, wisecracks, emoticons, lists of hobbies). the shorter, and more fact-based, your letter is, the less you'll feel and sound like a wanker. a certain amount of feeling like a suck-up is unavoidable, however.

otherwise, proofread the hell out of it. get a couple other people to proof the hell out of it. and for god's sake, personalize it to the specific position. a unemployed colleague was complaining that he hadn't had an interview in nearly a year. i was not at all surprised to learn that most of the time, he didn't send a cover letter with his resume, and when he did, he wasn't even filling in the name and address of the firm. (well, i was surprised that anyone could get all the way through law school without learning that firm recruiters expect at a minimum a personalized cover letter, but not surprised to learn he wasn't sending them, given that he wasn't getting interviews.)
posted by crush-onastick at 12:53 PM on October 27, 2004

Holy moley. I can't believe you haven't been using cover letters. I'm not trying to be a smart-ass, but can you please explain why?
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:01 PM on October 27, 2004 [2 favorites]

Be yourself. Seriously. If this means being drab and plodding, then fine, don't force cleverness or wit. If you're actually a funny, witty person, then write something interesting that will get their attention.

Some employers might scoff at a cover letter that employs some humor, but if they do, then it's probably a pretty humorless office.

As long as your cover letter is representative of you, you can help ensure a good fit. So be yourself. If they don't like it, they might not like you in the long run.

Plus, a cover letter is a good time to take a risk. Your resume is the meat of your application. A cover letter is to tell them who you are, why in God's name you think you want to work with them, and what makes you different from the rest of the stack.

I say toss out every book that's ever been written on the subject and just write a real *letter*.
posted by scarabic at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

Can I say "proofread" again? I've been reading resumes and cover letters all day and I don't know how many stupid mistakes I've seen. Don't assume your spellchecker is getting them all - it may even be fooling with you; it changed the name of my software package to a different word in a couple of the cover letters! What fun.

What WE would really like to see, and rarely get, is a brief breakdown of every point on the job ad and why you're qualified. In table form would be even better, but we'll never get it. Of course, we're scientists and we're looking for a scientist, so this is a very sciency kind of cover letter to assemble.

Another point that's more general is that if you say in the cover letter that you have experience with X where X is vital to the job, you should probably make sure that your resume reflects that (ie, 1999-2003, Y corporation, used X to do important things). It's very fishy when your cover letter mentions X but then nowhere in your resume can X or a situation where you'd have used X be found.

Avoid adjectives. Someone today said that they had developed a "reverent appreciation" for a certain methodology. If we're in the church, maybe, but in the oil and gas industry? Whatevah.

Don't talk about yourself in the third person: "Mr Blah is very good at this and that. Signed, Mr Blah."

It's mostly common sense, but it truly is easy to get carried away with crazy adjectives and excessive verbiage. Keep it simple, straight-to-the-point, short, and specific, and you'll end up on the top of the pile.
posted by some chick at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2004 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Mo Nickels: I've never used a cover letter because I don't know how to write a cover letter. Every attempt I've made has come out sounding awkward and forced, so I just give up and email my resume all by itself. And while that worked fine four years ago, I've come to realize that I need one now.
posted by cmonkey at 1:33 PM on October 27, 2004

Keep it very short - 3 or 4 sentences.

"Dear Sir:"

First sentence says what you want. "I am looking for a position in competitive piranha training."

Second sentence explains why you think the person reading the letter a) meets your needs and b) should hire you. "I learned of your 100,000-piranha aquarium through our mutual friend Betty Fishfilter and was astonished to learn that your firm is not currently participating in the many fun and remunerative corpse-stripping events taking place in the Atlanta area."

Third sentence explains what you've done (enclosed your resume) and how to reach you. "I've enclosed my resume; my contact information is at the top, or you can call me at 1-888-PIRANHA."

The rest of the letter is phatic:

"I would very much enjoy the opportunity to meet with you in person and discuss how we might both benefit from a foray into competitive corpse-stripping. Sincerely yours, A. Toothsum, R.P.T."
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:43 PM on October 27, 2004 [6 favorites]

Phrases such as "leverage your solid basis in piranha deliverables with my comprehensive piscine management skillset to our mutual benefit" are probably to be avoided, unless the job you're looking for requires a talent for creative obfuscation.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:46 PM on October 27, 2004 [2 favorites]

Are you all speaking as past readers of cover letters?
posted by mecran01 at 2:22 PM on October 27, 2004

i am.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:29 PM on October 27, 2004

Yeah, even a basic cover letter is much, much better than none. I am a past reader of cover letters/resumes. No cover letter tells me that you sent out 1,000 resumes and dont particularly care about working for me specifically (If you wont take the time to write a cover for me, why should I spend time considering you) A good cover letter says exactly the opposite.

Here's the basics, though I wrote this in a minute or two - you should review yours carefully and place yourself in the readers place. If it sounds awkward or stiff, strike it:

Dear Superintendent Chalmers, [Try to get a name. Triple-check for correct spelling]

[First paragraph: What do you want? Why are you writing? Be specific.]

I am responding to your ad in the Weekly World News for a part-time lunchroom supervisor at Springfield Elementary School. I have attached my resume for your consideration.

[Second paragraph: How does your resume fit *their* position? Show interest. This is also a chance for you to highlight the parts you are proud of]

After working for 10 years as an army cook, dealing with unruly soldiers, I believe that working at a job supervising young children would be an ideal fit for me. Also, I understand from a recent news article that Springfield has close ties with ROTC and is full of ex army sergeants. During my time in the Corps, I was one of only five cooks in the Army to receive the Michelin Generaux, an award that recognized my superior cuisine and my skills at managing an efficient kitchen.

[Third and final paragraph: Suck up a bit and add followup info]

I would love an opportunity to talk more about the position and about how my skills and experience could benefit Springfield Elementary. I can be reached at 800-555-1212 or via email at


Thank you for your time,

posted by vacapinta at 3:06 PM on October 27, 2004 [7 favorites]

mecran01: Yes. Also, we hung the worst ones on the bulletin board over the copier so everyone could have a laugh. The worst was the guy who mentioned his "bitter divorce" in his resume.
posted by GaelFC at 4:01 PM on October 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

I worked in HR for several years. My one word of advice is don't ever, ever attach a photo of yourself to your CV. Every HR department has a bulletin board like the one GaelFC mentioned. Top 10 lists are a great one to pass the time, that's all I'm saying.

(oh: and don't submit your CV as a 27-page PowerPoint presentation, either. That was top of the list for a looooong time.)
posted by krunk at 7:07 PM on October 27, 2004

Always include and expound upon the " buzzwords" in the job listing. Common language is important. Personalize as much as possible, and always sell your value to the organization in terms of previous experience, or at least relevant, SPECIFIC instances of how your education applies to the specific job if you have no experience. After all, the cover letter is a qualifier for the interview. If you can't sell me in the letter, you won't sell me in the interview...I KNOW this to be true.

Don't forget to include your contact information, and please mention that you are available at MY earliest convenience. Do NOT specify that I must contact you during certain hours and times...this is my dime, after all, and I expect you to work with me, literally. I can leave a message...I'm used to that. But please consider how your voice mail message sounds.

Don't forget that, ultimately, if you get this job we will have to work together day in and day out, so if you do get the interview, ask questions about the things you care about, interview your potential peers, and make sure this environment works for you. Otherwise, we're ALL gonna be miserable...

Finally, write the word S-E-X in indetectable, very light pencil across your letter and resume for the subliminal effect. They'll be attracted to your letter and resume, but won't know exactly why... ;-)

And good luck. I hope you find a position that pleases you.
posted by airgirl at 8:30 PM on October 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

fwiw i've never bothered reading cover letters. ymmv.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:33 PM on October 27, 2004

Joel on Software has a great article on getting your resume read that has a couple of hints on cover letters.
posted by grouse at 12:47 AM on October 28, 2004

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