How to write an awesome cover letter (or not)

I take a lot of pride in writing awesome cover letters. And you should too! If you have to struggle to write a compelling cover letter, I’m going to bet that you’re not super excited about the position that you’re applying for. At my first computer science co-op, my manager told me straight up that one of the main reasons I got the interview was my strong cover letter.
A good cover letter accomplishes several things. It:

    • Illustrates your achievements and qualifications.
    • Shows evidence of your abilities as they relate to the job.
    • Demonstrates your enthusiasm and passion for the company and the field.
Photo Credit: gabriel amadeus via flickr

Photo Credit: gabriel amadeus via flickr

Recently, Brian was hiring for a few new positions at his workplace and I was helping him review resumes and cover letters. Perhaps predictably, great hilarity ensued. A few of the stand-out moments really epitomized the things you should NOT do in a cover letter.

  • In her opening paragraph, one woman attempted to describe why she wanted the role by stating, “I’m really interested in science, medication and research.” I’m not sure what kind of medication interests her best, but I’d be very concerned about hiring a communications assistant who does not differentiate between the usages of closely related words.
  • Another candidate started her cover letter by stating that she, “… saw the companies’ ad online…” Yikes! This person clearly does not know how to pluralize OR use apostrophes!

I rejected both of these candidates immediately after reading those sentences. The common point between these examples? It wasn’t their lack of skills or experience that turned me off. Actually, both of the candidates above had an acceptable level of work experience and education. It was their inability to communicate clearly that sent them straight to the reject pile.

For a professional role in a company, I would never hire anyone who could not communicate clearly – especially when it is via a cover letter. There is absolutely no excuse for sending in a cover letter that hasn’t been double checked for grammar and spelling. In my opinion, if a candidate cannot communicate when there is no rush or stress, how can I be sure that they will be able to communicate well under pressure in the workplace? Quite frankly, those types of mistakes would be embarrassing for the business.

So what makes a good cover letter? I’ve found that when it comes to writing cover letters, often the simple statements are the most effective.

  • Avoid long, flowery sentences and instead, identify those qualities and accomplishments that you want to highlight and state them in plain words.
  • Never use a word that you don’t understand and always check for spelling and grammar.
  • Identify key words from the job advertisement and address how you meet those requirements.
  • Be personal and passionate.

For many people, I think that that last point can be the most difficult. However, a cover letter that shows passion will not only show off your writing skills, but also demonstrate to the recruiter that you’re not just interested in a job, you’re interested in this job. It pays to take a sentence or two and make it personal.

A quick example:

“I’ve always been an avid reader. While in college, I divided my time between the stacks of literature in the library and the stacks of projects I had to finish for my commerce degree. Now as a new graduate, I’m very excited to combine my education with my love of books and apply for the position of Regional Accounts Manager for Acme Books.”

Imagine that your cover letter is the summary of a story – the story of you! Make your opening paragraph engaging and personal, and you will convince the reader to give the rest of your application a closer look. Don’t just tell them that you are applying for the job – that is evident and unnecessary to restate. Tell them why you want the job. At the least, try to make it something more unique than, “I am very excited to apply for the job of widget pusher. I think you will find that my qualifications are excellent.”

So far, Brian and I haven’t found any applications that caught our eye. We’re still looking! (So if you’re in Vancouver and looking for an admin job… )

Does anyone have any other cover letter tips or cover letter horror stories?

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  1. Good post! Cover letters can be very important in landing a job. There are so many applications/resumes that most hiring managers receive I think the key is having one that stands out. If yours does not stand out, then you’ll likely be tossed with along with the majority of them.

    • CF says:

      Definitely – It’s your only chance to show something a little bit personal before the interview. Anything you can do to differentiate yourself from the masses is a good thing.

  2. I’m going to send this link to Greg. He is working on a cover letter for his resume as we speak!

  3. Thanks for sharing such great tips! I always struggle with knowing what to put into cover letters.

    • CF says:

      I do too – it’s kind of weird writing a whole page about how great you are. I find that it’s easier when it’s a job I really REALLY want though because I have lots to say.

  4. My best cover letter is the one I use for coaching. It starts “in media res” and that really grabs people. I wish I had a way to use it in my real life. Oh well.
    I think the beginning goes something like this,
    “That smile, the self-assured realization that they have mastered the skill.” Then it goes on to explain that’s why I like coaching, blah blah blah.

    • CF says:

      That’s awesome! I think that sounds like a perfect way to open that sort of resume. People want to see that a potential coach is confident and self-assured.

  5. Vicky says:

    A cover letter horror story would be reading cover letters that referenced a competitor’s company instead of the one they were applying for. 🙂

    The new thing for cover letters is to have it in a table format where you list all the company’s requirements on left side, and examples of your experience on the corresponding right side. Clear and concise!

    • CF says:

      I haven’t seen any of those yet. It would certainly make it very clear and readable. I would worry that it would just turn into another resume though.

  6. WorkSaveLive says:

    Poor grammar and punctuation drive my wife INSANE. It’s so funny that she’ll find a piece of literature or media from a company and if she sees one issue with it she’ll write them off as ignorant. lol.

    Cover letters are extremely important to landing a job as it helps bring your resume to life and often connects the dots from your bullet points (on the resume) to how it will transition to the job you’re applying for.

  7. I’m glad you have so much enthusiasm for cover letters and have had some real benefit from writing them. I’ll be honest that when we hire people at my work we rarely ever read the cover letter. However, I completely recognize that this is not the case everywhere.

    • CF says:

      I have encountered companies which asked people NOT to send cover letters at all. But for those that do, I like to make sure mine stands out. 🙂

  8. When I was recently hiring an entry level case manager I was shocked and horrified by how many letters I received addressed,
    “Dear Sir”. Dear Sir? Umm it’s 2013, and I’m a woman. Those applications went directly into the trash.

  9. Great tips! Thank you! You can never get enough advice when it comes to a good cover letter!

  10. There is definitely a knack to being able to write good resumes and cover letters.
    I have had to employee quite a few people over the years and some things really stand out when compared to others.

    One of the more inventive things I once had was someone that posted a picture of themselves with paper that smelt like the perfume the person wore.

    I remember thinking it was a really odd thing to do, but still to this day it stands out to me.

    • CF says:

      It would stand out to me too, but I am not sure that I would hire them for it, lol. I once had a candidate list under his interests – “crab fishing and air cadets”. It just seemed really odd to me at the time and I still remember it.

  11. Catherine says:

    I was always taught a cover letter/resume get you the interview, YOU get yourself the job! Hugely important!

  12. eemusings says:

    Finding that balance between professional and personal is the tough part! In my field, the latter is probably more important – passion and creativity rule.

    • CF says:

      That’s true, it depends on the field. In my field, geekery rules all. I knew a girl who once got a job at a tech company for putting her address in GPS coordinates…

  13. Leah Williams says:

    I found your post very helpful and I was wondering if you could help me out with a few things. As a soon to be college graduate with little applicable work experience, I know a finely tuned cover letter will be an important aspect of my job search. But since I’m applying for so many varied positions I was wondering if there is some sort of format I could be following. Often times I see articles about what details make a strong cover letter but I haven’t run across many examples from which I could gain ideas about formatting or that give further insight into what makes a great cover letter.

    • CF says:

      Structurally, I think you just need to keep it to a nice, clean block format – the company’s name and address in the top right corner, a salutation, the bulk of your cover letter, and then a closing statement and signature.

      Content-wise, I really do suggest tailoring each cover letter to the specific job. Use your opening paragraph to really say something about yourself and why you want *that* job – NOT why you want *a* job, but why you want that job in particular. If you take the time to make it personal and figure out why you want to work there from the start, it’ll make it that much easier to identify the skills and experiences that you have that make you a good fit for the position.

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