Pimp my dull-ass cover letter
April 21, 2015 8:45 AM   Subscribe

So, I have the most soporific cover letter in the world. Sure, it's professional, but it's genuinely a bore to read. Are there any MeFites who can share some tips on how to craft a rockstar cover letter?

I have a lot of relevant experience and education for these positions, so I'm not super worried about those pieces. I'm hoping to hear about how you convey things like...

- Supreme organization and attention to detail
- Champion multitasking abilities
- Great communication in any medium
- Ability to maintain confidentiality
- Will bust my ass, with or without supervision
- Excellent on a team or flying solo

... without putting your readers to sleep. Any thoughts or suggestions will be tremendously appreciated.

Thanks, guys!
posted by schooley to Work & Money (21 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Given that cover letters are glossed over at best, you want to convey in the fewest words why they can really use you. So, focus on how you'll be able to make a difference immediately - something along the lines of: "With my x years of experience, I will require minimal training and can hit the ground running as soon as I join your team."
posted by Dragonness at 8:56 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Cover letters are overrated. You want 3 paragraphs, each with a few short sentences. None of the generic, undemonstratable qualities you mention here should go into it - you should highlight your relevant accomplishments, particular skills and specifically relevant experiences.
posted by vunder at 8:59 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine taught me about the Pain Letter recently and I'm going to try it next time I apply for a job. Explanation here.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:01 AM on April 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have used the Pain Point formula mentioned above to great effect. Way more fun to write, way more interesting to read, way more likely to get my resume on someone's desk.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:07 AM on April 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

You want 3 paragraphs

I prefer 3 sentences, in a conversational tone (this may depend on your industry).

Great communication in any medium

You convey this one—as they say—by showing, not telling. Write a snappy letter that DOESN'T include some form of "I am a good communicator," which is a clue that you might not be.
posted by the_blizz at 9:10 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Given that cover letters are glossed over at best, you want to convey in the fewest words why they can really use you.

Disagree - you want to stand out and tell the company why you are so awesome. Give them a detailed accounting of all the things you have done in your work life. Pretend you are telling your friend why you are so good at your chosen field. Don't be afraid to be casual and relaxed about it.

My anecdata, let me show you them: I rewrote my cover letter last year because my old one was putting me to sleep and I got an interview at the very next job I applied for with it. My fiance similarly redid his cover letter and he has gotten 3 first round interviews and one second round interview with it.

MeMail me if you want to see what my cover letter looks like.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:16 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yup, don't include any of the general statements listed above. Always use specifics (dig deep in your brain for times when your behaviors show the qualities in your bullet list).

Also, I'm a believer in a strong and unusual opening sentence. I have gotten feedback during interviews that employers noticed and appreciated my openings.

"When I first used Your Product 10 years ago…”
“Your Organization [or type of organization] has been instrumental in my…” [and then close with..] “I hope I can be part of sharing this [product/organization/service] with more [members of our community/of the world]
“In my 5 years as a Widget Developing Widget Developer, I have heard the name of Acme Widgets again and again as the leader in Widget design.”
posted by latkes at 9:29 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Been out of the job market for a few years, but the last time I was looking I used a shortened, British-ised (read slightly less shouty and Californian) version of this cover letter approach, heavily customised for each job.

It did the trick - I got emails back in each case and ended up being able to choose between two offers. Customising is the key - you need to rewrite these afresh each time, paying attention to what the hiring person is actually looking for, avoiding dull bromides and striking the right balance between formal and friendly. Basically, you need to get across a flavour of what you might be like to work with - enthusiastic, competent, clear and structured in your work.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:37 AM on April 21, 2015 [10 favorites]

Aren't cover letters more about the employer, and how you specifically fit their needs?
posted by amtho at 9:39 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm in the 'cover letters matter' camp. I got a lot of great tips from askamanager.org. I'm a librarian, just finished a round of job hunting, and got interview requests from about half my applications this time round, in a still very tight job market in the field.

I'm glad to send some samples by MeMail/email if you like, but my usual model is:

1) Really basic "I'm writing to express my interest in Position. I saw your ad in Location, and I'm particularly intrigued by it because X and Y.

2) Brief paragraph putting my job in context (there's so much variation between libraries I found it helpful to do 'here is my current job, here's the kind of stuff I'm doing all the time' that made my resume make more sense.) that usually ends with something like 'I really enjoy this thing that is also part of your job and am looking for a chance to do more of it'.

3) Paragraph addressing the top priorities in the job ad, with one or two examples.

4) Paragraph addressing secondary things in the job ad, with one or two examples.

5) Paragraph addressing other things I can do/am really good at that aren't a big focus of the ad, but which are relevant to the job and might make me stand out among applicants.

6) If necessary, a paragraph about anything else in the ad I haven't covered yet.

7) Any logistics/etc. (I was looking to move, so this often said "I'm particularly interested in returning to the Boston area, where I grew up and have a number of family and friends. I don't work on Fridays, so those are the best days for me to interview, but I can arrange other days with a little notice." or something like that.) And then a pleasant closing (usually "Thank you for your time and attention, and I hope to hear from you soon") and contact info.
posted by modernhypatia at 9:44 AM on April 21, 2015 [10 favorites]

If you aren't applying for a writing position, I like the T-cover letter. It's basically a list that matches up the requirements in the job application with short sentences how you exactly fulfill those requirements.

I've done my share of looking at cover letters / interviewing. Your industry probably differs, but the T-cover letter works because it speaks directly to what the job wants: actual relevant experience and goals achieved. You can't prove multitasking abilities or the ability to maintain confidentiality in a cover letter; you can only show that you're capable of such by pointing to specific job functions / periods in the past where these were a requirement and you succeeded.
posted by meowzilla at 10:10 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Potential problem with the Pain Letter: If you're wrong at guessing what the hiring manager's pain points are, you look like a smarmy asshole and may be passed over for a job you were otherwise totally qualified for. It's good to be personal and personable and show you understand the industry, but unless your role and skills are big Influencer-type ones, you may not quite be able to pull this off. When it comes off as false, it looks you're trying to pull one over on me, and you start off on a back foot.

Potential problem with the T-letter: It can highlight your weakest points rather than your strongest ones and funnel you into lateral moves rather than upwards ones. If you qualify very well for 3 of the 4 main qualifications, your 4th one with the weaker evidence may be the one that gets notice. This works well for the hirer because they want the best qualified candidate, but less well for you, the applicant, because you want a better job than the ones you've had before. Plus it's a fussy format that doesn't necessarily travel well over email.

However, the take away from these are: 1) show that you've engaged with the requirements of the job and the needs of the company, 2) show a little personality particularly by providing specific information, 3) make the letter easy to navigate for someone skimming it.
posted by vunder at 10:38 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm a strict adherent to the following mantra: the role of the cover letter is to convince the potential employer to turn to your resume (and that's all it's supposed to do), and the role of the resume is to convince the potential employer to interview you (and that's all it's supposed to do). Don't bulk up your cover letter, stick to only the necessities. Similarly, your resume should be a hard target get-that-interview document. If there's a 10 year old job that isn't relevant, don't list it.

Since time is limited and people don't generally like to read long paragraphs, the bulk of my cover letter is a list of bullet points sandwiched between a couple of sentences about how you're excited about the opportunity. You lead into the bullet points like this.

I believe that I am a great fit for this position because of these specific reasons:
  • X years of experience working with technology Y in production environments
  • Superb interpersonal communication skills and a collaborative philosophy in the workplace
  • Passion for insert-something-specifically-relevant-to-position-here
This is very similar to the T-cover letter described above, which I'd never heard of and quite like now that I've read about it. I'd recommend either that T-cover letter approach or this one. I've had excellent luck with the bullet point cover letter.
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:41 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

To me, a cover letter is proof that you can write and organize your thoughts. I don't necessarily read them looking to be convinced about someone's experience, but more so to understand if they can write well and show good judgement in what they chose to highlight in their cover letter. I personally look at every resume first, and when I finally spot a resume I am interested in, only then do I invest the time to read the cover letter.

I tend to think that if you had a good resume, a bad cover letter will get you tossed into the "no" pile, but if you have a bad resume, a good cover letter will not move you into the "yes" pile. Other managers may disagree.

So, I would keep it to three paragraphs and try not to be too long. Provide a little bit of narrative or examples that wouldn't make it into your resume to highlight your accomplishments or soft skills. Make sure there are no sloppy grammatical errors or wasted words/wishy-washy language and you'll be fine.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:26 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I want to second the recommendation for the Ask a Manager blog, especially her cover letter section. The Pain Letter thing sounds like exactly the kind of gimmick that she would recommend against, as it really could come off pretty smarmy.
posted by aabbbiee at 1:34 PM on April 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm in a hiring role for the first time and it was an eye opener to realize that the software we use to collect applications, resumes, cover letters, etc., actually ranks candidates by the way keywords in their resumes and cover letters match up with keywords in the job description. My advice is to literally copy and paste the most relevant part of the job description (that actually describes the duties you'll be doing) and write around some of their specific terminology so that you show up high in that ranking.

The way our system is set up, cover letter is often the last thing I, as the hiring manager, see. If the application includes any sort of supplemental questions, be sure to answer those concisely but completely. Those were most helpful to me in sorting through hundreds of applicants and getting a quick feel for someone.
posted by Clustercuss at 3:38 PM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I just got through hiring for a new position and maybe I'm just weird but cover letter was super important to me. I got several hundred applications that all seemed fairly generic and a convincing cover letter certainly helped weed out people who had actually invested some time and thought into applying to the position and others who had just shrugged and hit the "apply" button.

The best cover letters are direct, to the point, and express enthusiasm for the job. Just a few explanatory lines in an email is enough. Some people went wayyy overboard and wrote multiple dense paragraphs, which is not really needed. Also, some people use really flowery language and try to write flattery, which again comes off weird. I also didn't like it when people were overly forward and aggressive. I'd just phrase it as a concise business correspondence between 2 equals. You have something I want (job), I have something you want (skills).
posted by pravit at 8:31 PM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

It depends a bit on the field.

As a hiring manager, I don't see a lot of cover letters period and I definitely don't see a lot of good ones, but the one good one I saw (and we hired the applicant) stated strongly what they were good at and what they weren't, and what kind of role and team would be a good fit and what wouldn't.

Among a million applicants who are all trying to come off as bright-eyed bushy-tailed hardworking detail-oriented team-players with excellent communication skills who would love nothing more than to bring value to our organization, it was really nice to see someone exhibit an actual personality and opinions and clarity about what they want.
posted by phoenixy at 12:52 AM on April 22, 2015

Oh -- and while you want to show excitement for the job, there is also a thing as showing too much enthusiasm and confidence in the cover letter, and if you do so you can come off as really inexperienced and naive. For example, I think the example cover letter Happy Dave links to from Craigslist has the right general idea, but the particular example in the ad is a little too breathlessly eager for my taste. YMMV. (Of course, that example is for a marketing role, which probably has very different standards and norms than some other roles.)
posted by phoenixy at 1:14 AM on April 22, 2015

For example, I think the example cover letter Happy Dave links to from Craigslist has the right general idea, but the particular example in the ad is a little too breathlessly eager for my taste.

Absolutely - I toned down that aspect considerably when I started using that broad format. Very country and industry dependent, of course.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:41 AM on April 22, 2015

I always include a sentence like, "I am so jazzed about this position!" -- "jazzed" is slightly unprofessional, but it shows enthusiasm and personality, which is what I most want to convey about myself in a cover letter. (Obviously, I'm not applying to jobs at stuffy offices, where I'd want to find a more professional way to convey that.)
posted by spindrifter at 9:42 AM on April 22, 2015

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