Tips for a great cover letter

Jul 2, 2012 by

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post with tips for making your resume better, so I thought I’d add the obvious companion piece and talk about cover letters.

Let’s be clear: as someone who hires staff, I understand the utility of a cover letter. But as someone who has spent a large part of her adult life hunting for a job, I kind of hate them. If you do them right, they take up a tremendous amount of time and can leave you feeling emotionally drained. That’s why it takes me so damn long to write them. On the other hand, if you do them really well, you’ll definitely get an interview. Plus, you can’t NOT do them, so might as well write the best cover letters you can. 

Here’s how:

  • Keep it shortI talked about this in the resume post as well, but it bears repeating. In this instance, no matter how much experience you have, your cover letter should NEVER go over 1 page. Hiring managers don’t have the time to read more than a page and may throw your application out if you ask them to (I’ve done it before). Keeping it short saves you time and effort as well.
  • Use examples – When you read a job description, it should be pretty obvious what the employer wants you to do. Your job is to provide an example or three of how you’ve done one or more of those tasks, ideally in a way to describes how you overcame a challenge to accomplishing that task or how you did it on time and under budget. Employers are inherently selfish so explaining how you’ve jumped hurdles and still kicked butt makes them salivate.
  • Explain why you care about the organization and the job – If you’ve been applying to jobs for a while, this can seem difficult. How can you possibly explain yet again why you care about the mission of an organization? If that’s the case then do what I do: clear your mind and think about why you want to work there. (And no, needing a job to pay your bills is not a reason – at least not for someone hiring.) Have you been reading about the organization’s work lately? Do you have friends who have worked there? Is it your dream job? If so, put that into your cover letter in a clear but not overly-effusive way.

Do you have other tips and tricks? If so, I’d love to read them in the comments!


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  • ranavain

    For me, the main thing I look for in cover letters is some PERSONALITY. I read letter after letter that says “Hi, I’m super boring and don’t know how to write anything more interesting than a string of platitudes about how I’m a good team player and a hard worker, and then maybe I’ll throw in some stuff that is just repetition of my resume.”  I mean, neutral is better than bad, but not by much! The cover letter is the way you distinguish yourself from the hundreds of other applicants with similar backgrounds, education and experience. I want to hire a real person, after all!

    • I completely agree! So many people say the same thing – over and over and over again – that if someone stands out at all, I almost always interview them.

      Thanks for the comment and keep ’em coming!