Cover Letters Dos and Don’ts

by Melanie Steimle

If you’re like most people, the thought of writing a cover letter doesn’t exactly make you want to do a happy dance.  You might have even heard that hiring managers don’t even read cover letters so you wonder why you should bother trying to write one. I, however, love talking about cover letters. I love seeing how drastically people can improve their letters by following a few guidelines. That’s not to say that writing a fabulous cover letter won’t take some time and effort, but if you follow the Dos and Don’ts below, I promise that it will be a much less painful process. (And you’ll do that happy dance when you get job offers!)

Do write a cover letter

Yes, it’s true: sometimes employers don’t read cover letters. However, if you don’t include a cover letter with your application, you risk looking uninterested in the position, especially when compared to those applicants who do take the time to write a letter of interest. My advice is to always send a cover letter with a resume. Not only does a cover letter indicate interest but it also allows you to communicate in a manner that is different from the way information is presented on your resume, which can be especially important if your background and experience are atypical of what the employer may be expecting.

Don’t use an online template

I have done a fair amount of Googling, and I’ve yet to find a cover letter that I would recommend as a model. I’m sure the good examples are out there, but chances are if you’re using as your guide a cover letter that you’ve found online, you’re going to be steered in a direction that is less than stellar. Also, don’t think that making minor tweaks to a cover letter you find online is a good idea. Employers can spot those in two seconds flats, and they won’t be impressed.

Do get specific

One of the most common errors in writing cover letters is being too general. I can’t tell you how many cover letters I’ve read that include something like this in the first sentence: “Given my educational and professional background, I am a perfect candidate for this position.” What does that actually tell you about the writer? Nothing. I suggest a “thesis statement” approach (remember those from English class?).  In your first paragraph, write a sentence that specifically but succinctly  mentions a few things that you will go on to talk about in the body of the letter. Not only does this give the reader some specific information about you right away, but it also sets up the organization for the rest of the letter.

Don’t summarize your resume

Another common cover letter mistake is trying to cram in so much information that the letter becomes a list of skills and job titles – basically your resume in narrative form. Your cover letter fulfills a different purpose than your resume; it’s an opportunity to give additional context to your key qualifications.  I suggest that before sitting down to write a cover letter, you put yourself through a mock interview exercise. If you had 90 seconds to explain to an employer why you are a good fit for the position, what would you talk about? This will help you identify the 2-3 key things you want to communicate to the employer.

Once you’ve identified a couple of experiences to write about, remember to use that English class concept of “show, don’t just tell,” and focus on results and outcomes, not just responsibilities. One other thing that I think takes a cover letter from good to great is to connect past experience to the future, meaning don’t just tell an employer what you’ve done in the past, communicate how your past experience will allow you to be successful in the new position. Employers aren’t spending all that much time reading your cover letter, so you need to connect all of the dots for them. Your job in writing a cover letter is to make it as easy as possible for the employer to see how you would be a valuable employee.

Do talk about your interest in the job/organization

One thing that can really help you tailor a cover letter to a specific job is to talk a little about why you’re interested in the job or the organization. If you’ve had a long-standing interest in working for a particular company, talk about how you first became familiar with the company or what you’ve done to engage with the organization. What you don’t want to do is parrot the company’s mission statement or goals. They know who they are; focus instead on your relationship to or interest in the organization. Another thing to avoid is focusing on what you’re hoping to get out of the job or company. In some cases and if done well, it may be appropriate to mention how the position fits into your career goals, but remember that your job is to communicate how you can benefit the company, not how it can benefit you. Avoid writing about skills or experience you hope to gain. Finally, it’s totally appropriate – and advisable! – to mention contacts that you may have at the company.

Do infuse your personality into the letter

Some people try so hard to sound formal and professional that their cover letters are practically unintelligible. One of the most common errors of trying to write in a professional tone is the use of passive voice (you should to say “I threw the ball,” not “The ball was thrown by me”).  One of the tricks I frequently use when I start to lose meaning in my writing is to get off the paper. How would you verbally communicate the thought? Once you know exactly what you want to say, it’s much easier to figure out how to say it.

Employers actually like cover letters that express the applicant’s personality. While your writing should be professional, it doesn’t need to be completely formal. However, in trying to put something of yourself in your cover letter, don’t cross the line into gimmicky. If your cover letter sounds like an infomercial, you are definitely in danger territory.

Do address major weaknesses in your application

This is kind of a tricky one. Generally you don’t want to call an employer’s attention to your weaknesses; however, if there is something on (or not on) your resume that will likely cause the employer to put your application in the reject pile, it’s best to address that issue in the cover letter. Examples of this include applying for jobs in a different state or country, career changers with non-traditional backgrounds, applying to a job for which you are overqualified, etc. In the cover letter briefly address the issue and explain why it won’t be a problem.Try to phrase this in positive terms rather than negative terms. For example, instead of “Although I don’t have a background in international development…” try “My project management skills, developed through eight years of business development, as well as an extensive schedule of international business travel have provided me with the experience and skills needed to make a successful transition to the field of international development.”

Do spell check

Yes, this one’s super obvious, but somehow those pesky spelling and grammar errors creep in. Your cover letter is an unofficial writing sample, so no matter how many times you’ve combed the letter for errors, make sure to have one or two others give it a once-over.

Don’t write more than a page

Cover letters should never be more than a page and they probably shouldn’t completely fill a page either. My own cover letters tend to be on the long side, so I know as well as anyone how hard it can be to cut things out when you’re dying to communicate to the employer just how perfect you are for the job. The best cover letter says what needs to be said and no more, so edit, edit, edit!


2 Comments on “Cover Letters Dos and Don’ts

  1. I enjoyed this, and felt like it was all excellent advice. I too have seen my fair share of online samples reworked (and not really very much) and used for cover letters. I agree that inserting your personality is one of the first ways you can set yourself apart and be memorable. One error missed: “two second flats” should have been (and I know you know this) “two seconds flat”—easy to miss.

  2. Absolutely submit a cover letter, always. And–and I can’t believe this has happened multiple times in my limited experience–do not under any circumstances begin your cover letter with “Dear Sirs”….I just…no. No, no, no. I have seen 5 or 6 of those in the last several months and it made me want to gouge my eyeballs out (and then perhas mail them to the offending party). Note: Hiring committees, HR department, and hiring bosses are not all male and you are insulting the women who have worked long and hard to gain their position by insinuating such. Also, why would said woman want to hire you after you insinuate that she doesn’t deserve to be in a position to be able to hire you?!?! Either begin with “Dear Hiring Committee” or look up the name of the person to whom you should address the letter.

    Like the post said, I also think it’s important to address in your cover letter a hole in your resume: you took some time off to raise your family (TOTALLY LEGIT!), or to care for a sick or aging parent, or because you had a major illness or injury, or to finish school, or whatever else. It’s much better to account for gaps in your employment history than to assume an interviewer just won’t think anything of it. There is something to be said for a potential employee addressing a less-than-ideal situation with forthrightness and honesty, both of which are desirable qualities. Much less desirable than, say, evasive lying.


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