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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What does a good cover letter look like?

The Evil HR Lady, who I secretly worship, has shamed me into posting an example of a good cover letter.

But first, let's take a look at what I consider an example of how not to do a cover letter. There's nothing particularly wrong with this letter -- other than being an utterly wasted opportunity, and I'll explain why:

Dear Human Resources:

Enclosed please find my resume for the position of staff writer.

I currently work as a copy editor for Acme Company, where I am responsible for editing brochures, fact sheets, and Web content. Before that, I spent a year interning at Tiger Beat magazine, where I had the opportunity to write several articles for publication. I also majored in English in college, with a concentration in writing.

I am seeking a position that that will utilize my writing skills with opportunity for growth.

I hope to hear from you to schedule an interview.


Jane Doe

This letter doesn't add anything to the application -- it just summarizes information already available from the resume. That's just a waste of space, and space is already really limited! Plus, I hate this: "I am seeking a position that that will utilize my writing skills with opportunity for growth." Don't tell the employer what you want (and especially in such generic terms) -- tell them why they should want you. And be specific.

Plus, it might as well be a form letter, because nothing about it is specific to the job being offered or the company offering it. It's sort of the equivalent of a fax cover sheet.

Here's an example of a cover letter that would grab me:

Dear Ms. Smith:

I hope you will consider me for the position of staff writer, as advertised in The Washington Post.

I was particularly excited to see a position open at the Sierra Club, as I have long been a fan of your work. I'm impressed by the way you make environmental issues accessible to non-environmentalists (particularly in the pages of Sierra Magazine, which has sucked me in more times than I can count), and I would love the opportunity to be part of your work.

Reading over the job description for the position, I recognized myself. As you will see on my attached resume, I have more than seven years' experience in non-profits, writing everything from newsletters to Web sites to brochures to letters to the editor and op-eds. In addition to in-house publications, my work has been published in newspapers around the country.

Additionally, I am a fast, versatile writer, and I specialize in taking complicated information and presenting it in an easy-to-understand, upbeat format. I've never missed a deadline (in a recent performance review, my manager called me "the fastest writer on the planet") and pride myself on being able to juggle many different projects. My copy-editing skills border on the obsessive-compulsive; I have been known to correct mistakes on restaurant menus!

I think my skills and experience are an excellent match with what you are seeking, and I am excited about the chance to work with you.

If you would like to talk with me or schedule an interview, please call me at 555-555-1212. Thank you for your consideration.


Jane Doe

This letter does the following:

- It shows personal interest in working for this particular organization, and it's specific about why, which makes it both more believable and more compelling. It's human nature -- people respond when they feel a personal interest from you. Works in dating, works in job-hunting.

- It only briefly touches on the writer's work experience, giving just the upshot and leaving the details for the resume.

- Perhaps most importantly, it provides information about the writer that will never be available from a resume -- personal traits and work habits, and even a reference to feedback from a previous manager.

- It's far more interesting to read than the first cover letter. I want to call this person in for an interview, and I don't even have a staff writer position open ( nor do I work for the Sierra Club, for that matter).

Now, can you do this for every position you apply for? Yes. It's sometimes easier for non-profits, because you can talk about why you support their mission (so I admittedly took the easy way out in my example). But you can do it for regular companies too, with a little bit of research. No time for that when you're applying to 30 different jobs? Narrow it down and focus on fewer, take the time to write a truly compelling cover letter tailored to each specific job and company, and it's likely you'll find that five truly personalized, well-tailored applications will yield you better results than 30 generic applications.

Take my word for it: Your competition is sending in cover letters like example #1 (if they even bother with them at all). You will dramatically rise above the pack if you put in the time they're not.


Sparky Lightbulb said...

I followed a link over from Evil HR Lady's blog. This post is clear and brilliant. I'm going to make my students read it.

Anonymous said...

This one is a keeper. Thanks to you and the Evil One!

Lea Setegn said...

A note to all job hunters: Please, please, PLEASE write a cover letter to accompany your resume! I have spent the past two days reviewing resumes while my company's recruiter is out of town, and I've discovered that about 90 percent of our applicants (we get about 12,000 a year) don't send a cover letter at all. About 9 percent send something like the first example. I weep with gratitude for the 1 percent who write a cover letter like your perfect example. I think I can say this on behalf of every recruiter out there: Use your cover letter to give me a reason to put your resume on the top of the pile!

skinny size me please :-) said...

Cover letter 2 is vast improvement on Cover letter 1, but I would suggest a few refinements.

I like lots of it, but my cheese-o-meter fired off at "Reading over the job description for the position, I recognized myself"

It feels like a cliche in the making. And it's padding, and needn't be there (other than confirming that the job description has been read).

Actually its the phrase "I recognised myself" which grates. It is a bit ummm.....twee? self-regarding?

I thought "which has sucked me in more times than I can count" a bit colloquial/slangy for my (non North American) taste.

I'd also lose the "additionally" following on from the "in addition" in the earlier paragraph. It isn't needed as a segue anyway - it's padding.

I find the letter a tad self-congratulatory in tone. But I'm from an English/Antipodean background, and it may go over fine in the US.

But good on you for publishing it. I hope you don't mind my minor carping (some of which is cultural anyway).

The points you make are very strong.

If I can also add something - be aware if you're applying for jobs in other countries what the norms are there, both as regards CV/Resume formats, and style.

This letter wouldn't work as well in the UK, New Zealand or Australia as written (although the underlying points still hold good - that is, the letter should add something to the CV (not repeat it)

Thanks to Evil HR Lady and AskAManager, your blogs are enjoyed the world over! (my parts of the world anyway)

Ask a Manager said...

Skinny Size Me Please: It's interesting to hear the take of someone with a non-North American perspective. I actually found example #2 far less self-congratulatory than the usual cover letters I receive! And I enjoy the slighly less formal tone because it's a refreshing change from the usual very stiff sounding letters that scream "form letter." It gives me a better sense of the applicant, unlike most of what I see. But of course, this is just an example of what resonates for me as a hiring manager, and I have no doubt that others respond to other things. I found your take on it interesting!

Teri said...

I also found the "I recognized myself" a little grating, but that just may be because I would feel incredibly uncomfortable saying it. Also, in resumes I've reviewed, that type of phrase is SO often used by people who seem to have not even read the job description - or somehow think that a merit badge in sewing qualifies them to be a surgeon.

I think what you said about "30 cover letters" is dead on. I spent almost five years in continuous job hunting, after the company I was working for went under. It took that long to find the right job, maybe because I wasn't looking in the right way.

When I started out I was using my excellent mail-merge skills to send out 40 resumes a week. My cover letters looked more like #1 because I was trying not to be eliminated from consideration, so I was writing vague and encouraging things that essentially boiled down to "Hire me PLEASE!"

I did find two mediocre jobs that way, the second one a simply atrocious mismatch of me and them. I stayed there for two and a half years and I swear I started looking for a new job two days after I started.

Finally I found some advice like yours. Not only did I write more individually-crafted letters that were much more a presentation of what I have to offer, but I also realized that 90% of the jobs that I was applying for, that I "might" possibly qualify for were things that I would find monumentally distasteful.

This is a long way of saying: much, much better to spend an hour writing a single thoughtful, targeted, beautifully proofed and punctuated cover letter than to dash off ten of these generic ones.

I realized that the purpose of the letter was to show them how my resume related to their job description. So I would pull the relevant things out of the position description in my letter and talk about how the fabulous task on my resume involved doing JUST THAT THING that they were looking for.

Sometimes I felt like an idiot, because it felt to me like I was just parroting the description back to them, but I did it and I got my dream job.

In this dream job I had occasion to screen 90+ resumes for a position as my assistant. Boy oh boy. I realized that what had felt to me like "parroting" was actually incredibly helpful to the reviewer of the resume.

I used a cover sheet to rate the applications I received, including the number of spelling and grammar errors. My top three finishers had three or less, and the one I hired had none - and had a cover letter that parrotted back the description to me. But now, on the recieving end, I felt, "Oh my gosh, here is someone who ACTUALLY READ THE DESCRIPTION before they applied for the job!"

Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on jobs posted online, with no address or fax number to contact, just an anonymous email address? (I'm particularly thinking of

Should an applicant attach a cover letter and attach a resume, or may the email body/text itself be the cover letter? In many case, there's no indication what company you're even applying to, so things like header, "Dear Mr. Smith" [hiring manager] etc. can't be included because there's no way to know these things.

Thoughts? Thanks!

Ask a Manager said...

Hey, Anonymous. I would say that in cases where a job is posted without any indication of what company it is or a way to find out, you can use other ways to personalize your approach. In your cover letter, talk about the skills they're looking for (which should be evident from the job positing) and how you fulfill those needs. Make your application as specific to their stated needs as you can (without blatantly parroting their ad back to them -- and be honest, of course). And I think it's fine for the email body to be the cover letter rather than attaching one separately.

Anonymous said...

It's funny, your post reminds me of the last cover letter I had to write - it was two pages long, not as 'cheesy' as the European types would put it - but it was truly different.

At my interview, I was told that my CL was different from everyone else's.

Not having gone through this whole process (or read blogs like yours back then), I got worried, but calmed down when it was explained that this was v. positive.

Phew. :)

Anonymous said...

A cover letter full of subjective claims is useless. What you really want to include is:

1. The job you are after

2. Bullet points that show the match between the job requirements and your resume.

3. If there is some special, compelling, qualification that would not go into a resume, you can include that.

The cover letter should give the recipient a reason, based on your experience, to read the more detailed resume.

If you can put a good argument together defending your view you are welcome to fight me on The Recruiting Animal Show!

fifi said...

I'm jobhunting at the moment and this post has been a real eye opener as to what recruiters are looking for in a cover letter. Thanks

Matt Mortensen said...

If this post and the responses don't point out the subjective nature of recruiting than I don't know what does!

Unknown said...

@ Matthew: I totally agree, perception is in the interviewer, not the letter...but still an interesting topic that has many good points (in my opinion - ha ha).

Anonymous said...

thanks for the informative article. one question about cover letter format? is it wise to have a cover letter over 1 page even if i am extremely interested in a particular position? or is a drawn out letter frowned upon?

shaheerk said...

This post is just what I was looking for. I think I'll reference you (and give you a small bump) on my blog as well, so that others can come across it.

When I was in university, we were told to make a letter like e.g. #2, but #2 has some cheesy-factor in it (which others have pointed out). I think it's important to show your commitment to the receiving end so that they can actually consider you.

Great work. Thanks.

Tracy said...

Thank you for this post. I knew my cover letters needed work, but have had a hard time finding examples that sounded like something I'd write. This gives me a great starting point for improvement.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if there are different guidelines if you're applying for higher profile jobs that require an MBA.

Anonymous said...

I had to laugh at Teri's comments. She says she hired the person who had no spelling errors, and yet she misspelled "receiving" in her note.

Unknown said...

Great ideas for cover letters. Thanks for using an actual example. Too many times people talk about what makes a good cover letter, but never show you what that really looks like.

Anonymous said...

Pretty cool blog you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything connected to them. BTW, try to add some pics :).

Anonymous said...

naked ones...

uk jobs said...

Awesome post, might really help someone or more likely many people getting either a new job or a job at all.

And I do agree, it´s better to show something you´ve done.

Once again, Great post