I suck at cover letters
August 13, 2013 6:25 PM   Subscribe

Please give me your tips for the ever essential skill of writing a knock out cover letter.

My job application efforts are being sabotaged by my inability to write a good cover letter. While perfectly alright at writing many things for pay, this particular writing task is causing me trouble.

Some of this is because I am not good at applying to adult jobs for people with university degrees. My family background considers getting a call centre job a great deal, and I already had a huge problem with overdressing to interviews. I'm not finding all the free cover letter examples are a good source because I can't tell a good example from bad.

I can't even answer the question, if you're applying for a job via email, if you attach the cover letter or if that's in the body of the email and I only recently realized "to whom it may concern" was causing my writing to look staid and stilted.

So please share all your tips for cover letters, including formatting, word choice, etc... Any and all advice will be gladly taken.
posted by Phalene to Work & Money (35 answers total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this is helpful, and it goes against a lot of the conventional wisdom. But I've hired a lot of people, and I can't remember a single time that a cover letter actually HELPED one of them. It hurt some when they had glaring errors or such. But frankly I almost never do more than quickly skim them. So I'd say keep it short and sweet, and don't obsess over it too much. Maybe it's different in the jobs you're applying for, but I doubt your cover letters are sabotaging your job search unless they're truly awful...
posted by primethyme at 6:30 PM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Truth, Phalene. Nothing but the truth about yourself, and nothing but the truth about the organization to which you are applying, and what you can offer to accomplish their larger mission.

Truth is so hard. And it cuts through so much bullshit, and so much... Shall I be polite? Imagination.
posted by paulsc at 6:36 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Short, sweet perfunctory. None of my awesome cover letters have even been read lately.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:44 PM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

I leveraged a headhunter heavily for my last job change and wound up completing the grueling month long phone / in person /Skype / phone interview process before formally submitting an online application to the job. By that point, I knew the HR rep personally (originally introduced via the headhunter), had a rapport with all the managers and instead of writing a cover letter, wrote a comprehensive thank you letter that summarized the interview process. When I talked to the HR rep a few days later, she indicated that she rarely reads cover letters, but that she had shared it with the complete team, given its nature.

1. HR doesn't generally really read cover letters.
2. Do some research on the company to find out who the people are that are hiring.
3. Connections are handy. If you can't network into it, head hunters aren't all scummy and bad.
4. If you need to write one, write it short, because unless you've already interviewed for the position, they aren't going to read it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:55 PM on August 13, 2013

As one who has also read many cover letters I think the preceding advice is good. All I ever did was skim--an excellent one (what ever that is ) will probably not help but a bad one can be an immediate turn off: My recommendations:
Make sure you have the name of the company, position etc correct
No spelling errors
Very brief and to the point. I would think 4-5 sentences at most.
Do no try and impress with overly elaborate script/font/paper/color etc. Professional and understated
Let the resume speak for itself
Personalize it for the particular company and position--I have received more than one referring to a different position and/or company.
Good Luck
posted by rmhsinc at 6:55 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

primethyme is right on. As a hiring manager, I looks to see (1) that the letter exists; (2) that it looks like a modicum of effort was put in; (3) that the writer doesn't appear to be crazy/inept/etc

Here's a sample perfect cover letter (from my perspective):
Hi! I'm very interested in your Sprocket Counter position. I've counted sprockets before at a number of organizations, and I'm particularly interested in your sprocket organization because I'm drawn to the educational sprocket industry. I like counting sprockets that others rely on to get things done.

I hope to hear from you.

Alternately, if it's a stretch position, something like "While I haven't counted sprockets previously, I have experience counting widgets, and I'm a very fast learner. I'd like the opportunity to show you that I can learn to count sprockets quickly."

As others mention, short, sweet, and doesn't ring up any demerits for crazy, poor grammar, etc.
posted by colin_l at 6:55 PM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

SHORT, relevant, and echo as much of the job ad as possible back to the reader.

For example, If they are looking for a monkey trainer who speaks French and has 8 years experience in programming, mention how excited you are to train Monkeys again, especially leveraging your knowledge of French and 8 years experience doing it.

Don't be cute, coy or long winded. And proofread 3x.
posted by mazienh at 6:55 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, here is a generic version of the cover letter that has secured me several interviews. Note, I am Australian - there may be cultural differences at play here, but this has worked for me. These are for mid-level corporate jobs. JD = Job description; this is absolutely as long as I would write the cover letter; absolutely no mistakes in terms of spelling or grammar; make it clear it's not a generic leter; be sure to use some of the exact words from the job description or ad as people really do respond to it and it demonstrates you've read the ad/job description carefully.


I am writing in response to your advertisement for a [JOB]. My success in the field of [JOB] at [CURRENT EMPLOYER], broader work history and former role as [SOMETHING SIMILAR OR IDENTICAL TO JOB] gives me a unique capability to fill this position. I have created and managed a wide variety of [ACTIVITY MENTIONED IN AD OR JOB DESCRIPTION] that have been recognised as best practice, worked with [KIND OF STAKEHOLDERS MENTIONED IN JD], and [ONE OTHER THING MENTIONED IN JD].


I have a strong record in [ANOTHER THING FROM JD]. I take great pride and pleasure in this aspect of my job, and helping [DO THAT THING].

My [JD SKILLSET SKILLS] are excellent, and have been demonstrated in my work [FOR/IN OTHER JOBS I HAVE HELD IN THE PAST].


Thank you for your time and consideration of my application.
posted by smoke at 7:09 PM on August 13, 2013 [51 favorites]

smoke, really great. Every generic bit of it.

But, tl;dr.
posted by paulsc at 7:24 PM on August 13, 2013

I would say, Paulsc, that it doesn't matter is a particular person does or doesn't r - the trick is having enough that if someone does read, there's something there for them, and even more importantly: nothing that would scare someone away. After all, cover letter will not secure the interview - it's just to ensure you don't get rejected at this stage, and that someone will continue on to the cv/selection-criteria-addressing, where the interview/not-interview decision typically gets made.

For what it's worth, my partner is a recruiter, and this was developed in conjunction with her.
posted by smoke at 7:30 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I recently hired for an entry-level position, and I definitely looked at cover letters. First, I wanted to just see if they included one, because it proved that they could follow directions. Second, if it was terribly written it was a reason to weed them out. Third, if it was well-written it appealed to me because I value good writing. If it was really well-written and injected some personality, it made me want to call the person up on the phone. I dislike anytime someone says "I'm uniquely qualified" (really, you may be great, but you're probably not uniquely qualified to be a part-time admin) or any other superlative that they can't back up.

I also recognize that they are really hard to write, and I don't have a ton of specific advice except that the cover letter should be the body of your email, and you can just address it to "Hello" or "Dear Hiring Manager."
posted by radioamy at 7:37 PM on August 13, 2013

My wife is a hiring manager. She would probably throw away an application with a letter like colin_l suggests.
posted by AtomicBee at 7:39 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I will state in advance that this is contingent on the type of job; there are some jobs that expect a few sentences max, and others ... a page or two expected (seriously).

So 2 ideas that I haven't seen here:

-If you can't break into an industry, find people who either have your desired job title or help people get those jobs. They are likely to have the info that applies to your specific job industry. People that have the desired job have shown me their prior application material, or helped point out words used in the industry, things that you should emphasize, etc. Some recruiters (if it applies to your industry) can be helpful, too, and show you the typical application material, although it varies by recruiter/head hunter as to whether or not they are helpful.

-This only applies to a type of job that did require detailed cover letters (college/faculty university programs). Something exactly like Smoke's letter and.... I used to take the job descriptions (skills required 1,2,3, skills desired A) and wrote the letter addressing every single point with examples. I was invited to >90% of the interviews, but these were very targeted applications (only if I wanted it/had the skill set, etc.).

One more point-I sometimes talked to people who reviewed the letters (again at universities) and was told that they had rejected candidates based on their letters due to 1) errors in spelling, grammar, and 2) the job requested that you have skill set 1, 2 and in the letter they pointed out how they did not have it (and they got rid of the application material then....).
posted by Wolfster at 7:41 PM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

The in-email vs. attachment thing is a bit tough. I've received callbacks from both setups. I think the in-email cover letter is better for more casual job postings, or more low level jobs. If the posting is very formal, or it's a professional job, absolutely attach your cover letter, along with a very brief please find attached blah blah blah very interested in the position blah blah blah kind of email.
posted by snorkmaiden at 7:56 PM on August 13, 2013

It is increasingly the practice that hiring managers never see cover letters. I have been involved to some greater or lesser extent in 50 recruiting efforts in the past ten years and the only times I saw cover letters were when I was directly receiving the applications. If HR or recruiting or another manager was getting the submissions, the cover letter inevitably was detached.

Here's what I loved to see when I did get the letters.

"Ladies and Gentlemen:

"I am writing to apply for the [senior analyst] position you recently advertised on [place]. As the enclosed resume details, I have had progressively more responsible [associate analyst] roles over the past [ten] years and have been consistently recognized for my performance. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other qualifications I have, and learn more about your needs, for this role.

"Yours sincerely,

posted by MattD at 8:05 PM on August 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

So I'll go against the grain here. I go through lots of resumes, and I always start with the cover letter. This is the chance, in a narrative, to explain your qualifications in a very straightforward manner, as they specifically relate the the position. It's also where you can talk a little more holistically about your past experience, again as it relates to the position. If you are trying make a move into a different field, you can explain why and how your past experience is applicable.

It's also a place to explain any gaps (especially recent ones) in your resume. If you're applying to a job in a different city, you can emphasis your ability to relocate, and the time frame in which you can make it happen. I am in the middle of hiring a position right now (two of four preliminary interviews complete), and there were a couple of situations where clarifications in a the cover letter about gaps in resume would have landed someone an interview.

I don't penalize people for having a short cover letter, but a good cover letter is absolutely impactful in my hiring process. No more than one page, but three or four paragraphs is fine as long as it's pertains to the position, your abilities, and experience.

If you don't know specifically to whom the letter should be addressed, I use "Dear Hiring Manager". Here is a cover letter that I did for my aunt. I've left the notes in that directed to her. She was laid off during the recession, and at age 50 was trying to move into a new field. I'm happy to say that she did indeed get a job in the dental field that paid significantly more than her previous job!

Dear Hiring Manager,

(Paragraph 1- you can customize this if you are responding to a specific ad. If someone you’ve talked to recommended that you send in a resume/application this is also a good place to state this “I recently spoke with Dr. Jones, and he suggested that I contact you regarding dental technician opportunities”.)

I am writing to inquire about opportunities at your office/firm/company as a dental technician. I recently ended seventeen years as a jewelry waxer at XYZ Company when my department was downsized in January. After speaking with several dental professionals and doing research on my own, I learned that the skills I have developed and refined during my career in the jewelry industry are parallel to those required by dental technicians. With this information, I have decided to make a career transition to the field of dentistry.

(Paragraph 2- this is where you should talk about your specific technical skills- I just cut and pasted the below information that I found on the web. Also speak to your general workplace experience.)

In my previous position, I employed the following skills to create fine jewelry: plaster casting, electro-spot welding, metal casting, metal polishing, wax modeling, ceramics, wire bending, electroplating and sandblasting. In addition, I am accustomed to working as part of a team to meet tight deadlines to deliver quality products to clients.

Although I would be new to the dental field, I feel that my years of experience would make me an ideal candidate for a dental technician position with "COMPANY". I realize additional training will be necessary, but I believe that my background and motivation will ensure a fast learning curve. My resume is enclosed; please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have or additional information that you may require. I welcome the chance to speak with you about openings for which I may be qualified.


Kimdog's Aunt
posted by kimdog at 8:13 PM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

The larger point that I meant to make, and somehow failed to complete, is this: you have a finite amount of time and energy. I believe that you will get a much larger return on that time and energy by doing things like networking than by trying to fine-tune a cover letter. Your question gives me the impression that you're focusing on the wrong things. There's no secret cover letter trick (or resume trick) that's going to get you an interview. But knowing people in the company (or even in the industry) certainly can. That's the best way to get professional ("adult") jobs -- it's far more effective than applying cold, no matter how good your application materials are.
posted by primethyme at 8:14 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know if my advice will be helpful, because I work in a very niche industry where the hiring process is unusually informal. But I've been told that I rock a cover letter. So take this however you like.

I approach cover letters in the same tone/voice as professional email. So, not super formal "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN", but a little more formal than something I'd send to a friend. Grammar, spelling, and usage should be perfect. I tend to err on the side of being more fluent/natural rather than Formal Business Correspondence, if I can't manage both. If I don't have a name, I usually start with "Hi there!"

Also, keep it short. One paragraph. Two is OK, but you better need that second paragraph. Three is the absolute max I'd ever use. Which is submitted as the email you send your resume in, not as a separate file to be read on another software platform.

This one paragraph can cover the following bases:

- clarify your expertise and fitness for the job per the official job description (especially useful when responding to an ad).

- explain a little better something your resume might not do a great job of getting across. If I feel that I'm uniquely qualified for a position due to some aspect of my background that isn't at the absolute top of my resume, I'll make sure to mention that.

- talk in specific terms about what you can bring to the position that other people may not be able to match. Why are YOU the person for this job, not why is this the job for you?

My all time best cover letters manage to pull in all three of those approaches in a funny narrative/storytelling way. Short anecdotes about a time where your (relevant to this job opening) skills saved the day are always good. That said, this is not 101 level cover letter writing. But in general I think it's good not to be boring.

My typical B+ level cover letter (not the one where I happen to have an amazing anecdote that perfectly illustrates why I'm the one to hire) is a lot like what smoke supplied upthread, to be honest. Though probably half the length.

Pro Tip: When filling in the blanks with skills/qualifications from an ad, mix around the order and paraphrase. This is the "jedi mind trick" of the cover letter universe.
posted by Sara C. at 10:02 PM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

At lots of large companies the cover letter goes in the trash unread. All they want is your résumé, and they need to know which job you are applying for. Ideally you submit that data online via their website.
posted by w0mbat at 10:28 PM on August 13, 2013

I am not a hiring manager, but I have been involved in a lot of hiring processes over the years and have read many, many cover letters and resumes. I also work in IT and I'll tell you what would get my attention: A cover letter in nice big font (like 36pt or higher) that says:

Hi! This is my cover letter. Your company: I WANT TO GO TO THERE
Next stop, my actual resume!

Thanks for your time,

D. Creature

(Of course use your best judgment about this kind of approach, but in my personal experience in all the companies I've worked at --in the IT field-- the folks who excel are the ones who can combine skill and experience with a "roll with it/let's get shit done" kind of attitude and who don't take themselves too seriously. I would be seriously intrigued if I got a cover letter like the one above, especially if it was combined with a resume that was relevant to the position.)
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:35 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

At lots of large companies the cover letter goes in the trash unread.

Well, perhaps, but at lots it doesn't and there is no way for the applicant to tell the difference. The OP is asking for cover letter help, after all.

I also work in IT and I'll tell you what would get my attention: A cover letter in nice big font (like 36pt or higher) that says:

I work for IBM, and I can 100% guarantee that a letter this would immediately and irrevocably land you in the reject pile.

Don't take chances with cover letters. The risks are too high and there is no discernible downside to taking a low-risk approach.
posted by smoke at 11:57 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

You don't write the cover letter for the HR drones filtering out resumes. It's for the hiring manager and interview committee. You want to demonstrate three things:

1. You can write. written communication is pretty important in many places, and your cover letter needs to demonstrate that you can write. And spell things! Spelling errors are how people's cover letters end up earning them a rejection more than an invite.
2. you've done research on the employer and the position
3. you understand which skills and technologies in your background are (or should be) appealing to them.
posted by pwnguin at 1:00 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have gnashed many a tooth over the in-body text vs. attachment question. I used to adhere pretty strongly to putting my cover letter as an attached PDF, to retain more control over it looking nice and greater ease for employers to print and save it as a document. In this instance the email itself was literally a few sentences, one of which said that the cover letter was attached. However, I've recently been putting the text directly into the email, and also attaching a PDF with the same letter. It does feel like I'm getting slightly more response this way. I can see why it's good to make sure the text is right out there, ready to catch their eye-- maybe their attention inadvertently seizes on some skill you mention, or whatever. That's not possible when the letter is a whole 'nother click away. I also wonder-- with no small amount of horror, given how fucking long I tend to spend on cover letters-- if hiring managers may not have realized that there even was substantially more text in the attachment.
posted by threeants at 1:20 AM on August 14, 2013

And yeah, despite spending far too much time belaboring over waaaay-too-long cover letters that start to suspiciously resemble novellas, almost every one that's actually snagged me an interview was written after taking a deep swig of self-esteem juice* and writing a SHORT, confident letter in muscular prose. You'll want to fill that big blank page with everything there is to say about yourself and your qualifications. But that's not what it's for. Your resume should really be doing 98% of the heavy lifting in terms of qualifications; the cover letter shows that you (hopefully) write well, or even, in some cases, simply that you know to write a cover letter.

*not an actual liquid; do the shopping cart dance in front of a mirror to upbeat music for 3-5 minutes to experience effects
posted by threeants at 1:27 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I disagree with all the advice about keeping it really short. Which, I think, just goes to show that it really, really matters what industry you're in/trying to get into. I think you need to tell us something beyond "adult jobs for people with university degrees," because apparently, IT and some of the other fields people have talked about above are sufficiently different from the fields I've been involved in (I have worked and hired in non-profits, government, higher education, and law) that the exact opposite advice will apply.

AskaManager.org gives some of the best career advice I've read on the web. Here's her stuff on cover letters. But again, her experience is in specific fields, so I think you need to focus on advice for the actual fields you're applying in.
posted by decathecting at 5:16 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with decathecting - I came here to suggest Ask a Manager.

I'm in the process of hiring for an almost entry level position currently. In the job description, it says "attention to detail" is required, and says "submit resume and cover letter". Any applicants that just submit a resume are going in the trash, because they've obviously proven that they do not have attention to detail.

I'd also prefer a cover letter that explains more than "Hi, am interested in your company. Please see my resume." That to me is generic, and if your resume is exactly what I'm looking for, may get you to the interview. However, if it's not, I'd like some explanation of why you want the position - are the hours good for you, how does your work experience fit into this role, etc.
posted by needlegrrl at 5:30 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was going to write a long screed but stopped myself because like a covering letter, advice should be brief and to the point.

My approach is that a resume is for an outline of your work, qualifications and skills (your "specifications sheet"). The letter interprets and expands on the resume for the recruiter and explains why you're right for the job (the "sales pitch").

My process is to highlight key words from advert; always address those key words in your letter. Top with a paragraph introducing yourself very briefly, and tail with a paragraph summarising your marvellous skills and keenness to get this job.

After that, edit the letter and streamline it. Every sentence should be making a point about why you are right for this job.

Then CHECK. Double check. Get a friend to check it. Don't be the person who writes that she is "skilled in web two" or that "I am keen to break into the magasin field". (Did you check it again?)
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 5:58 AM on August 14, 2013

@mattd: "It is increasingly the practice that hiring managers never see cover letters. "

That may be the trend, but I tell my recruiters that I want to see those letters. To my mind, they're almost more important than the resumes, especially for knowing which ones you can bin without more than glance.
posted by colin_l at 6:26 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a hiring manager, I appreciate cover letters very much, as writing is a skill I value generally and find important in my work. All other qualifications being equal, a good writer will have an edge as a candidate for me. Someone who bombs a cover letter is going to need a gold-plated resume to get an interview. However, I'm also aware that a resume and cover letter are (hopefully) getting significantly more attention from a candidate than they'll probably have time to give to correspondence or other work-related writing, so I try not to over-value it. So I would classify the cover letter more as an opportunity to lose an interview than a deal-maker.

Where I'd say it's particularly important is in "stretch" or "switch" positions, as you need to make the case that your skills and experience are relevant to the position. (Networking is also important here, as your resume may not make it past HR's filters in that case. While I value cover letters, I'm not going to see them if the recruiter decides the resume doesn't look relevant).

I've used something along the lines of smoke's or kimdog's approach pretty successfully (and I'm not great at networking, so most interviews I've gotten have been on the merits of my application alone).

My job application efforts are being sabotaged by my inability to write a good cover letter.

How do you know this? Is this feedback you've gotten from HR or hiring managers? Or are you hung up on how awkward cover letter writing feels? Because I've written and reviewed a lot of cover letters and I love writing and editing, and I don't think cover letters ever feel comfortable or natural to create. So unless you've gotten feedback on the quality of your cover letters from at least one relevant professional, I'd wonder whether tailoring your resume to the position so it makes it past the low-level filters might be a better place to focus your energy.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:22 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

It may be helpful to think of your cover letter's purpose. In my mind, when I'm reviewing applications, the cover letter's job is to get me to want to look at the resume, and the resume's job is to get me to want to interview the person. That's it. In order to get me to look at your resume, your cover letter should tell me (1) that you are generally qualified for the job (but don't get into too much detail; that's what your resume is for), (2) that you know what my company does and have done a bit of research, and (3) that you know how to string a sentence together and you know how important proofreading important documents is. That's it.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:13 AM on August 14, 2013

For lots more help on this, check out http://askamanager.org/.
posted by blake137 at 9:06 AM on August 14, 2013

I do no more than skim cover letters in most cases. Keep it very brief, like:

My name is John Smith. I'm writing in response to your Job Finder advertisement for a Senior Widget Manager. I have 10 years hands-on widget experience, and a Bachelor of Widget Engineering degree. I'm looking for a salary of $70-$80,000. My resume is attached.

Thank you.

John Smith
posted by paulg at 1:35 PM on August 14, 2013

Could those of you who are advocating for 2-line cover letters (paulg, colin_l, etc.) specify what industries you're in? Because seriously, sending a cover letter like that to places where I've done hiring (mostly in non-profits and higher ed) would not only get you not hired, it would probably get you used as an example in training seminars about what not to do in order to get a job. My experience is limited to a few related industries, but I find it baffling that people would prefer to get a "letter" with basically no information in it. What industries are you in?
posted by decathecting at 2:46 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Information Technology.
posted by paulg at 8:39 PM on August 16, 2013

On the other hand, I also work in information technology, and a cover letter is a handy screening device if you want coworkers who can spell and write to clients without embarrassing your team. It's also a good way to find out which candidates actually researched my department, and which are applying for every job opening they see.
posted by pwnguin at 8:46 AM on August 20, 2013

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