Not too sure how to write a cover letter? You’re definitely not alone. On average, half of job applicants don’t send cover letters with their resumes, even when the job posting asks for one.
Some recruiters overlook the absence of a cover letter when the resume is phenomenal on its own, but many say it’s a sign applicants either can’t follow simple instruction, or can’t be bothered to put in the effort. Either way, that’s not the first impression you want to make on a recruiter.
But before you sit down to bang out a cookie-cutter letter starting with an introduction to yourself, an expression of your interest and excitement for the position, or your opinion you’d be a valuable asset to the company, take a second to consider what recruiters and hiring managers actually look for in cover letters.
First and foremost, they look for the qualifications and accomplishments that make the applicant a good candidate for the position. Second, they look for effective communication and writing skills, and last – dead last – they look for a glimpse into the applicant’s personality.
Above all, recruiters, hiring managers, and employers look for a reason to keep reading.
Starting your cover letter with an introduction, a thank you, or an expression of enthusiasm may seem the polite thing to do, but writing an effective cover letter isn’t an exercise in etiquette.
Recruiters are some of the busiest people on the planet. They read hundreds of resumes and cover letters every week looking for qualified candidates who can quickly and concisely describe how they meet the employer’s requirements. While recruiters appreciate you want to show your gratitude and enthusiasm, they’d prefer you skip the niceties and launch out of the gate strong with meaningful information they can use.
Use an employee referral to open strong
An employee referral might drop in your lap, but more likely, it’ll take a bit of legwork to get one. Either way, when you can get one, use it. A referral is the strongest way to open your cover letter.
Typically, a referral is someone who contacts you to say, “The company I’m at is looking for a _______; I think you’d be great for it, you should apply.” It may be a former coworker, a friend, or someone you’ve established a connection with through your networking efforts.
To the employer, however, it’s someone they know and trust who knows you and your talent and thinks you’d be great for the role. To the recruiter, it’s a green flag to fast-track you for an interview. Here’s an example of a strong opening using an employee referral:
“When my former colleague, John Smith, urged me to apply for the IT Engineer position recently opened up at AB Company, I wasted no time preparing my resume for this fitting opportunity. John and I worked together at XY company for three years, and have kept in close contact since he jumped on board AB in 2015. Given my significant contributions while working at XY, John thought AB Company would benefit from my talent.“
Another way to get a referral is to contact an employee at the company you want to apply to. If they’re receptive, persuade them to talk with you about the company, and ideally, the role. LinkedIn is a good place to try to get a referral, but it can take persistence. Some people are receptive and accommodating when contacted out-of-the-blue by a stranger – others not so much. Your persistence can pay-off though – big time.
It’s not just about getting a name to bolster your cover letter. It’s about showing genuine interest in the company you’re applying to work at, and on it’s own, that’s a big thing. Going farther than merely skimming the company’s About Us page will earn you brownie points with the employer. Here’s another example:
“On the recommendation of ComputerCo’s Senior Analyst, John Smith, I’m pleased to bid for the IT Engineer role you’ll fill next month. My qualifications and experience align well with your requirements, and ComputerCo’s supportive clan culture, as John vividly described it to me, aligns well with my tribesman nature, so it seems like a good match.“
Recruiters and employers alike appreciate applicants who connect authentically with the company. If you really want to work there, get a referral and use it to make a unique and compelling connection. It will be well worth the effort. Here’s a quick how-to.
Use facts to give clear information
Barring a referral, simply open your cover letter with relevant and meaningful information drawn from actual facts.
“After reviewing your requirements for an IT Engineer, I promptly composed my resume to highlight the relevant skills I’ve developed over three continuous years as an IT Technician. It describes how my education, experience, and qualifications align with your requirements, and I’m pleased to be considered for this fantastic career opportunity.“
It’s a strong opening that gives the reader useful information. Perhaps the most compelling (believe it or not) is that you actually read the job posting. This is a big deal to recruiters. As much as 98% of the resumes and cover letters recruiters receive are from applicants nowhere near qualified for the positions they’re applying for.
Opening your cover letter stating worthwhile facts, i.e.: you fully read the job posting, are qualified to apply for the position, and wrote a responsive resume, will give the recruiter something they don’t often get – a reason to keep reading.
From opening to close, avoid vagueness. For example: “I have worked on several large projects, completing them to the client’s satisfaction and in a timely manner”. This is vague narrative containing no real description and even less information. Recruiters need specificity to get a clear picture of what you did, how you did it, and what the outcomes were.
Be specific and descriptive. For example:
“I simultaneously worked on four complex model-implementation projects that exceeded all of the clients’ expectations. Adhering to my own strict and comprehensive check-list system, I installed each project bug-free, under budget by an aggregate 8%, and shaved five days off projected turnarounds.“
Much better. This is an actual accomplishment – specific and descriptive – giving the recruiter useful information.
Use bits of the job posting
The accomplishments you choose to highlight in your cover letter must be relatable to the employer. There’s no point in describing some amazing feat you pulled off in a previous position, no matter how remarkable, if it’s not relevant to the employer you’re trying to impress.
Put your writing efforts into developing strong descriptions of accomplishments you know the employer cares about. Choose one or two items from the job posting and spin your achievements to match.
A couple of concise, descriptive sentences relating directly to what the employer is looking for will do a nice job of addressing those particular required qualifications.
“My recent role as an IT technician challenged me to conceptualize the hierarchy needed to dovetail solutions across multiple small and medium-sized projects. As the remote technical consultant for a complex 2018 Active Directory networking project, I coordinated and implemented 48 domain controller upgrades for market-leading clients in Africa and Australia, exceeding expectations by shaving four days off projected turnarounds, respectively.“
Many job postings open with a bit of information about the company and what they’re looking for in candidates. Pick up on some of the verbiage and use it in your cover letter.
“In 2015, XY Company gave me my first opportunity to join an entrepreneurial IT team driven to over-achieve. It was an invaluable experience that demanded applying self-initiative to create imaginative solutions to complex issues. Through impeccable attention to detail, I hit the mark and became an essential contributor to solution-creation for some of the company’s biggest clients.”
It never hurts to talk graciously about former employers. Rather than merely describe something you accomplished, try giving some of the credit to your former employer.
“XY Company was a breeding ground of opportunities, many of which I availed of to develop solution-oriented skills most don’t acquire so early in their careers.”
“Switching gears on a dime is a skill I attribute to XY Company’s fast-paced environment where priorities frequently shifted instantaneously. Adapting quickly and efficiently, I earned numerous opportunities to work on assorted ad-hoc projects typically reserved for senior technicians, ultimately earning a swift promotion to lead technician for twelve clients.
Use I, me, and my – it’s okay
It’s practically impossible to write a cover letter without using “I, me, or my”. The trick is to use pronouns anecdotally. Make your “I’s, me’s, and my’s” serve a meaningful purpose and not merely to express what you are, how you feel, or what you think. Below are some of the most over-used and meaningless statements recruiters see over and over in cover letters – avoid them at all costs.
- I am excited to submit my resume for….
- I am confident I would be a valuable asset…
- I offer a proven ability to…
- This would be a chance for me to …
- I am proficient with…
- My skills are well developed…
- I am adept at…
- I bring to the table…
Using pronouns to describe your accomplishments is perfectly acceptable when they make up part of a meaningful narrative. With some deliberate thought and the help of a thesaurus, you’ll come up with ways to both reduce the frequency of pronouns in your cover letter and make the ones you do use necessary. Here’s a before and after to illustrate:
Before: “I was the go-to person for solution implementation and I led a team in designing and implementing interim solutions. I oversaw the processing of requests from customers for a large number of records in several database tables …….”
After: “Having earned a reputation as the unofficial go-to for solution implementation, I gained the opportunity to lead a six-person team designing and deploying interim strategies to process customer requests for 900 records in 10 database tables….”
It’s a subtle change that reduces the number of “I”s from three to one.
Use originality and authenticity
Recruiters and employers know a cookie-cutter cover letter when they see one. A series of cliches copied and pasted from a template or crappy cover letter example (littering the Internet in the millions) are as obvious as a fart in an elevator.
Cliches are the bane of recruiters. Avoid them by using your own original material. The examples provided in this article are intended to give you some ideas and inspire you to write your own descriptive material. If you can adapt one or two to your own professional accomplishments, go for it.
Don’t use your cover letter to rehash your resume. It’s lazy. Recruiters often read resumes before they read cover letters. If they like the resume, they’ll turn to the cover letter expecting (or hoping) to discover how the applicant connects authentically with the company.
Put together a responsive resume then write a complementary cover letter with fresh information. Use the strategy we reviewed above, selecting one or two items from the job posting. Write about your directly-related achievements in a way that will resonate with the employer.
Use the right tone
Adapt your “tone” to mirror that of the job posting. If it’s ultra-technical or stick-up-the-butt-professional, as painful as it may be, follow suit. The same goes for off-the-wall or unconventional ads. I once read a job ad that said, literally, “Our work environment is chaotic and we don’t always know what were doing.” Feel the vibe and emulate it, but always be professional.
“When I joined YZ Company as an administrative assistant, it was young, evolving, and chaotic. My organization skills kicked into overdrive and, in ten days, I designed and implemented a company-wide standardized system to identify priorities and execute strategies, transforming pandemonium into harmony. The immediate result was marked and measurable productivity that put two significant projects ahead of schedule, pleasing one client so much he took the entire office out to lunch.”
Use a call to action to close strong
Thanking the reader is a given, but don’t leave it there. Ask for the interview.
“Thank you for your time today. I invite you to contact me at 901.023.4567 to schedule our meeting, and look forward to the occasion.”
It’s neither needy nor cliche, as in, “Please call me to arrange an interview.”
Rather, it’s polite, it asks for the interview, and it expresses expectation on your part. I wont go into the psychology behind CTAs (calls to action), but suffice to say most people, recruiters included, respond to CTAs when they’ve already formed a favourable impression.
Polish it up
Don’t let all of your hard work get tossed because you overlooked a few important details. Take the extra steps to polish your cover letter to a lustrous shine.
- Check your word count – keep it to 300 or slightly under.
- Keep your paragraphs short with ample space between each.
- Use ATS-friendly font, no more than 11 point.
- Spellcheck, punctuation check, and proofread.