how can I write shorter cover letters?

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A reader writes:

I am struggling with cover letters. I think I write thoughtful, well-organized letters. I have revised my layout so that my letters are more concise; however, I often still struggle to keep them within one page. I think it’s part conditioning from having to write 10-15 page papers in college and part that I don’t want to leave out anything that could impress them and strengthen my candidacy. I think I get nervous because I know I have a very limited window for grabbing their attention and I want everything that could remote qualify me on the paper.

I think this is hurting my chances of getting a job because a) I spend so much time agonizing over every single line I may have to eliminate in a letter that I neglect other job-searching duties and, b) with the limited amount of time employers have to spend on applications, being too wordy could get me disqualified right there.

If you have any advice for getting my cover letters down to the basics, I would really appreciate it.

You just … have to do it.

Writing concisely is a demonstration of respect for the reader’s time and an indication that you understand that employers are busy and don’t want to read pages from you. Those are things that you should want to demonstrate just as much as whatever else you’re trying to demonstrate through the cover letter.

Employers are going to want you to write quickly and concisely on the job, so start showing with the letter that you’ll be able to do that.

And those lengthy college papers? Banish them from your mind. In the work world, the shorter you write, the better. Some managers literally refuse to read any memo or proposal that’s longer than a page or that isn’t written in bullet points. In the workplace, the more efficiently you can convey what you need to convey, the more you’ll be able to advance your own interests and projects.

(Besides, most of what qualifies you should be in your resume anyway; don’t repeat it in your cover letter. Your cover letter is for stuff that isn’t in your resume.)

So just make the switch, and stop indulging your own desires to say more. (And it is self-indulgent; hiring managers certainly don’t want it.)  Give yourself a firm time limit of 20 minutes per cover letter and no more than a page, and stick to it.

{ 94 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Anonymous

    I think the OP and I are having the same problem. I’m a recent grad, my resume is internships and field schools, so saying my resume should tell why I’m a great candidate isn’t the same for me as it would be for someone who’s worked professionally in my field already. My resume isn’t obvious. Rather than “I’ve done tasks A, B, C, and A at __ job” I have “I did __ B at __ internship, did A for __ as a volunteer, worked part-time somewhere that involved C, had a field school where I did D.”

    So I’m left kind of wondering what I can possibly leave out of my letters. They’re never more than a page but a solid page is still a lot. I need to convey that all of that was working towards the jobs I’m applying for now, point out the achievements that fit with the opening, etc.

    Reply
    1. Josh S

      You really don’t need to convey all of that. Well, not in a ‘wordy’ way.

      You can simply say, “All my experience to date has been building so I can do JOB. Even when I was in [Unrelated Field], I still did [Task Related to JOB]. I can’t get away from my passion about [Field of JOB].”

      You don’t have to point out in your cover letter that you did A at OldJob1 and B at OldJob2. Those should be the bullet points on your resume, and presumably the recruiter will read your resume. (Actually, A and B shouldn’t be ‘job responsibilities’ so much as ‘WOW! Look at the things I accomplished while at OldJob!’)

      If the stuff on your resume is just a list of your various responsibilities at previous jobs, change it. It should be a marketing document that points out ONLY the things that make you a good candidate or show relevant experience/accomplishments to your next job. Cut everything else, because it’s noise to the person reading it.

      Reply
      1. Anon op

        I mean… I don’t have more than a couple of accomplishments or relevant bits of experience. I have never, save for one field school, had enough responsibility to do anything worth bragging about.

        So my resume is pretty much tasks I’ve done before and that one aforementioned accomplishment. There’s not much else to say that goes on a resume. Then the cover notes things I was commended for, but they’re not official recognition or anything.

        I guess the problem I have is that I have nothing impressive to talk about.

        Reply
        1. Josh S

          It doesn’t have to be ‘impressive’ as in “OMG did you see that 16 year old kid that created a cancer test in his spare time?!” It can be as simple as the informal recognition from your boss that you had the longest stretch of being on time that he’s ever remembered. Or whatever.

          Ask yourself these two questions: “Looking back at my time there, what am I the most proud of doing/accomplishing?”
          “What did I do while I was there that someone else might not have/probably wouldn’t have?”

          Surely you have something that you’re proud of having accomplished, or something that you were proud to be a part of, or that you smile about when you remember it. Write those things down.

          The cover letter can include things like, “My boss even said at one point, ‘I’ve never before had an employee who fixed all the spouts on the chocolate teapots so well,’” if it’s not already on your resume. But your resume should be entirely OTHER than your job responsibilities.

          Reply
          1. CJBran

            Thank you for your post, Josh. That answered my questions about cover letters and has prompted me to take another look at my resume. My thought was to save some accomplishments for the interview but alas, those face-to-face interviews aren’t happening like years before!

            Reply
    2. fposte

      I’m wondering if you’re repeating your resume too much, which especially happens if you’re organizing things chronologically. (I see a lot of cover letters that basically do this; they can be structured akin to “At internship A, I learned stuff and demonstrated my blahbity blah. Then at volunteer position B, I was responsible for whosiwatsis and developed my thingy. In my current job C, I took on the challenge of whatever and gained expertise in nothinginparticular.”

      Instead, try working thematically and feel free to engage with some experiences more than others. “I’ve always been drawn to work in the chocolate field, whether it was my internship in chocolate weaponry or my volunteer experience in Hanukkah gelt, which allowed me a fascinating glimpse of the financial side of the industry. Really, though, it was my involvement in the no-melt research at Hershey U that convinced me that chocolate is where my life’s work lay: that’s where I learned the intricacy of the craft and refined my understanding of the science, and where I was able to bring my previous experience to bear in several key moments where our unit was faced with a high-risk milk chocolate situation but triumphed against adversity.”

      Not everything on you’ve done deserves equal time. You’re telling the story of you, not annotating your resume.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yes! So often cover letters just read as a presentation of the resume in narrative form. There’s no need to present your resume twice.

        Also: volunteer experience in Hanukkah gelt!

        Reply
  2. sam.i.am

    I think you’re thinking about it the wrong way. A cover letter isn’t an encyclopedia. It’s a marketing document. You don’t have to list EVERYTHING relevant to your candidacy, just the select best relevant things. It’s like a movie trailer vs. the movie itself. If you see a good trailer, it doesn’t give away the entire plot, but shares major plot points and unique details to make you want to see the whole movie. Likewise, a good cover letter touches on broad skills and specific results to get them to interview you.

    And I’m going to disagree with Alison here — don’t just take 20 minutes to write you cover letter. Take those 20 minutes to write everything. And then take an additional 20 minutes to edit it. The general rule of thumb (at least how I remember it) is that you can generally cut 1/3 of your first rough draft.

    In the immortal words of Mark Twain, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.”

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I would like her to do it all — writing and cutting — in 20 minutes, but I will compromise with you on 30 minutes total. For the first few. Then I want it all in 20!

      Reply
      1. Henning Makholm

        Excuse me, but that is exceedingly unfair. Writing shorter (and doing it well) takes more time than writing longer, and in all other contexts you praise cover letters that are “brilliant”. Is your advice only for people with the superhuman genius to just jot down something “brilliant” in 20 minutes without even setting it aside to think about it?

        And now you want people to write cover letters assembly-line style, 20 minutes for each, and still have the results be brilliant, tailored and reflecting some deep research about the target organization?

        Brilliant, or written in 20 minutes: Pick any one.

        Reply
        1. OP

          Thank you for posting this because I was worrying that I was somehow inferior and that I will be unable to succeed in an office environment if I can’t knock off a quality document in 20 minutes!

          Reply
          1. Anonymous

            I hadn’t looked for a job in over 2 years so my cover letter skills were lacking (none as I got into my old job by temp agency). It look me 2 days to come up with something good, another day to make it into something great, and 1 extra day for feedback/proof reading/final touches. I’m not saying all cover letter should take 4 days to write, but once I had my “skeleton” set for that specific field it took me 20 minutes to craft a personalized letter for each additional job I applied to.
            For what it’s worth, I got an interview at MIT (I KNOW RIGHT) with my 4 day cover letter. I didn’t get the job, but THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the department complimented my cover letter! Biggest ego boost ever! I accepted a similar position a few weeks later at another school.

            Reply
            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              This is the key here, I think:

              “once I had my “skeleton” set for that specific field it took me 20 minutes to craft a personalized letter for each additional job I applied to.”

              Reply
              1. Anonymous

                Exactly. I just wanted to convey I understand going through days of agonizing work on a cover letter, but that should be a one time thing per field/position and personalized for each application doesn’t mean throw away 100% of all the previous work you’ve done (unless it sucked).

                Reply
            2. Henning Makholm

              So how much of the finished product consist of things that are tailored to the job posting you’re responding to? My impression is that one should shoot for about 80% or more, because the CV is for demonstrating how great a person you are in general, and the cover letter is for pointing out the fit between you and the specific job posting — including the dreaded “why do you want to work for us in particular?” question.

              Do your 20 minutes include coming up with stuff to write, or just the mechanics of typing it in once you’ve collected your thoughts? For most jobs I could see myself applying for (if I were looking, which I’m not — hi, boss!) I wouldn’t be able to come up with a satisfying “fit” story in 20 minutes. I could possibly type it in in 20 minutes, though — if I seriously committed myself to producing rough, uneven prose with no structure to speak of and every second sentence starting with “But” or “Also”.

              Reply
              1. Anonymous

                I would say 75% is the “skeleton.” I already know what I’m able to do, how awesome I am at it, and how that can translate into an advantage in the new position. I’m assuming one would be looking for jobs in the same field so you already know what is important outside of the listing of the qualifications, too. 25% is demonstrating you’ve actually read the job description, pulling out key words and weaving them into your introduction of yourself, and just generally putting into words why you even are applying for this job. Just think of how you felt when you came acros the posting and go from there. It really doesnt take longer than 20 minutes to do that because You know yourself pretty well by now I and what your strengths and goals are.
                20 minutes for all the hard stuff. Then you take a few minutes to read it over. A few minutes to reword/rework for flow. A few minutes to proofread. And you’re done. It honestly shouldn’t take longer than 45 minutes for a cover letter to be finished because you don’t have to start from nothing.

                Reply
                1. Henning Makholm

                  How can you already know how your particular awesomeness will translate into an advantage in a new position, independently of the actual position you’re applying to? How would you already know what is important outside of qualifications to the particular employer you’re applying at, independently of who that particular employer is and what they’re asking for in their posting?

                  And even if you already do know those things, I repeat that coming up with a coherent reason why I would want that particular job would take me significantly longer than 20 minutes. What I feel when I come across postings is “yeah, I might be able to do that, sort of, perhaps”. Now, if I were unemployed and needed an income, that would surely motivate me to spend some hours developing a story that connected me to that particular posting and (opposed to “I need an income”) were fit for telling in an application, but it wouldn’t make the task any less work for me. Some of us are simply wired such that enthusiasm is something that takes significantly more than 20 minutes to whip up.

                  As for”pulling out key words and weaving them into your introduction” — yuck. I’m not the hiring manager here, but I see some of the incoming applications we get, and it curls my toes every time I recognize an exact phrasing I remember putting into the posting — in an attempt to attract applicants that they would resonate with, to be sure, but simply parroting it back at us is not a resonance, merely an echo. (Then I count to ten and do my best to ignore it, because it wouldn’t do to recommend rejecting everyone on that account).

                2. Jamie

                  @ Henning

                  “Some of us are simply wired such that enthusiasm is something that takes significantly more than 20 minutes to whip up.”

                  Not in regards to CLs (for me) but this really resonated with me for other things.

                  Sometimes at work in brainstorming meetings (especially with sales or people with customer facing positions) I feel like I’m disappointing people if I’m not immediately turning cartwheels over a proposal. I just need more time to mull something over and look at all the possible ways it can implode before I can get unequivocally excited about something.

                  Well, actually, I don’t think unequivocal anything is in my nature – but the point is the same. Initial caution doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad idea, and certainly doesn’t mean I won’t support it…it just means I want to flesh out all the details first.

                  Anyway, sorry for the thread-jack but I liked that wording a lot and may paraphrase that the next time I’m in a brainstorming session.

        2. Ask a Manager Post author

          Henning, if someone is spending a long time on their cover letters and is happy with that, so be it. I’m not going to come in with a stopwatch and insist they speed up. But the OP said that she’s spending so much time on them that she’s neglecting other parts of her job search, so yes, I want her doing them in 20 minutes. You can write a good cover letter in 20 minutes if you’re not agonizing over it, particularly if you have some core text that you adapt most of the time. (And I’ve never said you need to do “deep research” about the org — far from it.)

          As someone who writes for publication every single day, I can tell you first-hand that you can write quickly if you’re committed to not agonizing.

          Reply
      2. OP

        If I am only spending 20 minutes on the cover letter, how long should the letter ideally be? I’ve been writing full-page letters and I have a hard time imagining writing a quality page in 20 minutes. Also, I keep reading that employers will chuck an entire application for a single grammatical or spelling error so I worry about missing things and getting eliminated from the running if I spend too little time on the letter.

        Reply
        1. AP

          Personally? If I have to read 300 of these things over a few days, I’d love a half-page to three-quarters. Some of the best ones are even shorter! So many of them have two straight paragraphs of blather that’s obviously copy/pasted from every other cover letter they write – I skip that part, it’s unnecessary. And as many people mentioned above, there’s no need to repeat everything that’s already on your resume – I’ll be reading that too, no need to do it twice.

          And I will use a red pen to circle your typos but that’s just because I’m crazy.

          Reply
        2. sam.i.am

          My cover letter is about 400 words, give or take. I think 350-450 words is a good range, especially when we’re emailing them and not sending out a pretty one-sheeter.

          Structurally, I think a paragraph to open, two paragraphs describing specific accomplishments and how they relate to the job, and then one paragraph to close, is a good template to follow. Once you get that template down, the 20-minute cover letter will come easily.

          I’m also going to continue to disagree with Alison on the timing thing (Sorry!). Writing concisely is a new muscle you haven’t exercised and it will take some time to strengthen it. I think you’re overthinking the typo thing. Obviously, don’t have them, but unless they’re generally a stumbling block for you, don’t worry about them. If you have a friend who’s a good writer, ask if they’ll look over things for you–we’re always happy to help! Other tricks? Print out your letter and go over it with a pen and read your letter to yourself backwards.

          Some practical tips to consider:
          – Make sure each word is utilized. Think of “I am writing to you to request your consideration for the position at your company of Assistant Director of Chocolate Teapot Manufacturing” vs. “Please consider me for Assistant Director of Chocolate Teapot Manufacturing.”
          – Structure your sentences Subject-verb-object. Extraneous clauses are the most common culprit in wordiness.
          – Write. Often. Write emails to your friends. Start a private blog where you describe all the good things you did that day at work. Which will also help when you need those accomplishments to crow about in your next cover letter!

          Reply
          1. fposte

            I actually prefer a little variation in sentence structure, but the “make each word count” notion is really significant. That’s also where Alison’s encouragement to resist excessive formality and instead write in your own voice can be very helpful–it’s often trying to be formal that makes people put in the extraneous stuff.

            Reply
          2. Blinx

            450 words? Yikes! Just checked my last cover letter, and it tops out at 150 words, including my address! I think succinct is best.

            Para. 1: You posted a job and I’m applying for it
            Para 2: Here are 2 or 3 highlights of my experience that match what you are looking for
            Para 3: Love to work for you, here’s a link to my portfolio and my phone number. Call me.

            However, in all truthfulness, I haven’t been successful in getting responses. Perhaps I should beef it up?

            Reply
            1. fposte

              Admittedly, I’m hiring for fairly communications-heavy positions, but yes, 150 words seems like you’re not taking advantage of an opportunity to shine there. You can be succinct without being scanty.

              Reply
        3. OP

          Thanks!

          Another question–do you prefer cover letters to be contained within the body of the email or to be emailed in a separate Word/PDF document?

          Reply
      1. Rana

        Yes. I can blather away at great length (as those of you who read the comments regularly can attest!) but it takes effort and discipline to cut it down. Since I’ve written a number of book reviews, which tend to have pretty constrained word counts, I’ve gotten pretty good at it, and, in fact, rather enjoy the process.

        Some people are better at generating text, and some are better at editing it, and a rare few can do both at once. Me, I’m best off “barfing on a page” (as one colleague put it) and cleaning up the extra crap until it’s all lovely and concise.

        An example: here’s the edited version of this comment:

        Yes. It takes effort and discipline to cut blather down. I’ve gotten good at it, as a result of writing book reviews with constrained word counts, and enjoy the process.

        Some people are better at generating text, some at editing it; a rare few can do both. Me, I’m best off “barfing on a page” before cleaning it up.

        Fun stuff!

        Reply
        1. fposte

          I think that barfing on a page must be an academic trope, because I heard it in grad school and use it with people now too. (I even checked the archives here to see if we’d talked about this before!)

          But there are different kinds of writing problems, and when we’re talking somebody who’s fiddling and fiddling and never letting go, a really stern deadline is a godsend. If you’re working on a task where you have no clear sense of “good enough,” there’s a sharply diminishing degree of returns and a growing anxiety after a certain point. A deadline relieves you of the burden of making a judgment you don’t really know enough to make.

          Reply
          1. Rana

            That’s a really good point. I work best when under a tight deadline, too. I guess I’d never really thought in terms of a deadline counted in minutes, though!

            Reply
  3. Karl Sakas

    Yes — outside of academia, shorter is better! When I write my boss a longer email, I’ll usually write a 1-3 sentence summary at the top, including the action I’m requesting from her.

    OP, you mention “I think I write thoughtful, well-organized letters.” I’m curious how you define “thoughtful” here.

    If you’re seeing ‘thoughtful’ as “demonstrating I read the job posting and am showing why I’m a match for both the company and the job,” that’s good. If you’re seeing ‘thoughtful’ as “a brilliant magnum opus,” then you’re over-thinking it.

    I want to read cover letters that demonstrate the writer is enough of a match for me to scan their resume. Sure, get the grammar and spelling right, but beyond that, a cover letter is very much a functional document.

    Reply
    1. OP

      I research the organization and point out in the opening paragraph of my letter, a component that I really and respected and would make me excited to work there (ie something I found in their mission statement of one of their press releases. Then I go through the job announcement and pick out three job duties or three qualifications and write a paragraph about each one and detail how my past work experience supports that duty/qualification. So, yes, I do think I’m thoughtful in writing critically about why I’m interested in the job and why I can do the job.

      Now when I started job-searching, my cover letters were a mess. They would frequently go over a page and go on about the accomplishments I was most proud of, even if they were only very loosely related to the job description. That’s what I mean when I said I’ve gotten more concise, but I do need to work on it even more.

      Reply
      1. LL

        You should include why you’re excited to work there, but you don’t need three paragraphs detailing how you’re work experience is relevant to the qualifications – that info really should already be in your resume. Are you rehashing your resume in your cover letter, or is this info not included in your resume?

        Reply
        1. LL

          Also, you say don’t have many accomplishments so your resume mostly lists job duties. This article by Alison addresses that: http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2009/06/29/the-no-1-question-your-resume-should-answer

          If all you did were your responsibilities, think about how you did them that sets you apart. Did you improve upon an existing procedure? Did help solve a problem? etc.
          As far as strictly job duties, I would list them separately under skills. For example data-entry and inventory management would be under skills. Now if you saved the company time or money because of how you managed inventory, then you would put with your accomplishments.

          Reply
      2. AP

        I don’t think you need a full paragraph for each of three duties – can you get that down to one sentence? Especially since you seem to be a recent college graduate – the tasks you’re applying to do can’t be THAT complicated.

        I do love that you’re looking at their websites and explaining why you’re excited for that particular job!

        Eek, sorry if this and most post above sound a little harsh. All in the service of better cover letters and jobs for AAM readers!

        Reply
        1. OP

          Actually, I’m not a recent graduate (although I can see how my post makes it sound like I am.) The whole “humanities student who was taught to write absurdly wordy papers” conditioning apparently takes years to overcome. I also haven’t had much experience with writing in the workplace in the years since I had graduated college.

          I think part of my problem too, is that I get very excited when I have Relevant! Work! Experience! that I’m compelled to go on and on about it (I think this is what Allison was talking about self-indulgent). The last time I conducted a job search, when I actually was a recent grad, I struggled to write even two paragraphs about my skills and qualifications. Now, when I see white space on the paper, I had an automatic reaction that it should be filled in.

          Reply
          1. Nev

            OP, I had exactly the same issue to overcome and it took me some writing, some brainstorming and soul-searching to overcome it (well, not completely – I still can’t get it done in 20 min). My advice is as follows:
            1. Think about all great projects/achievements you have done that can be relevant for the positions you are applying.
            2. Write short bullets for each project /achievement (ideally no more than 2 lines) trying to quantify as much as possible the outcomes.
            3. Tailor your resume for each position selecting from the list of bullets, while keeping your resume within 2 pages.
            4. Write concise cover letters thinking of them as advertisements (short & sassy), whose only goal is to distinguish you from the crowd, and make the recruiter read the resume more thoroughly.
            5. My cover letters have the following structure:
            – Paragraph1: what is the position & how I find about it.
            – Paragraph2: 3 reasons why I want to work for the company and 3-4 reasons why I meet & exceed their requirements (bullet style).
            – Paragraph3: ideally I am closing with a part of their mission statement I identify myself with + request for an interview. If I really know the company and their issues I suggest a meeting to discuss my ideas/vision for the role.

            I hope this approach could work for you and help you advance quickly in your job search.

            Reply
      3. OP

        *a component I really liked and respected*

        This is why I don’t think I can write a cover letter in 20 minutes. I’m too prone to typos.

        Reply
      1. Sophia

        Yes. All our positions say to email materials in. Also, part of the fax was cut off… I didn’t look closely but it looked like the education on the resume was missing. Why do we still use faxes again?

        Reply
      2. Anonymous

        The other side of the coin: job postings that insist on mailed or faxed applications. I actually landed a SUMMER job once that way, likely because few other people would bother mailing or faxing.

        Reply
  4. Liz in the City

    I’m bookmarking this comments section. Why? Because even though I’m in marketing, I have the darndest time writing a decent cover letter about myself or even mustering enough enthusiasm about what I’ve accomplished at current-job-I-can’t-wait-to-leave to write abot it decently. Yet, somehow, fposte’s and Josh’s samples were strangely inspiring. (And yes, Alison, I bought your book.) Sometimes I wonder if I should just pretend I’m writing my resume and cover letter as though my friend were doing it, since I have a great track record of getting other people into jobs / grad school (7 for 7).

    Reply
    1. GeekChic

      Pretending as though your friend were writing the cover letter is technique I’ve used in the past.

      I also agree completely with AAM’s stance that a cover letter should be written in 20 minutes. Then again, my biggest problem was over-thinking things and then fine-tuning them over and over and over….

      Reply
  5. JT

    Writing something very concise can take longer than writing the same information with more word – it can take some effort to pare away extraneous words. Two approaches that help me to write concisely are speaking out loud and outlining/writing key points first.

    If the OP or anyone is interested, I have a presentation on “punchy, effective writing” that I’d be happy to share. Contact me via email you’ll find through my website.

    Reply
  6. K.

    And those lengthy college papers? Banish them from your mind. In the work world, the shorter you write, the better.
    Truth. When I went to business school, I was still thinking about my undergrad writing (even though I’d been in the working world a few years). thought school = long papers. My first paper wasn’t graded, thank God, but the professor basically wrote “No one wants to read all this. You’re boring me.” Business writing and academic writing are not the same. Lesson learned the hard way, but that’s how they stick. And it has stuck – right now I sit on a board with someone whose emails are no shorter than four paragraphs, ever, and in every one, he’s taking those four paragraphs to say or ask something he could say or ask in three sentences. And it annoys the HELL out of me.

    Reply
    1. Rana

      I have to say, when I was teaching in college, I was impatient with those long wordy overwritten papers too.

      There’s a difference between writing five pages because you have five pages worth of information to convey and explain, and writing five pages when you have one page of information, don’t know how to explain it, and so fill up the rest with thesaurus-abusing fluff. When I assigned a paper of “about x pages long” that was meant as a signal that you needed to make an argument that required at least that much space to do it justice, not that I expected you to ramble away vaguely until you reached the end of page x.

      Now, not all professors bother to explain this (some of them, I suspect, don’t even think this clearly about why the paper should be that length – they just have a vague sense themselves of it being “right”) and it’s not something that’s inherently obvious to students. Plus, if you don’t understand academic arguments as a reader there can seem to be a lot of extra “stuff” in a book or article. (And, sometimes, there is!) So I understand why this impression is out there that college papers “must” be “wordy” and “long.”

      But, trust me, most professors would prefer well-done, concisely written work to long, meandering accumulations of multi-syllabic words and vague, unsupported assertions.

      Reply
      1. Josh S

        …said the person who took 4 paragraphs to say, “Your writing should be as long as necessary, but no longer.”

        Reply
          1. fposte

            Given that it’s amiable regular commenter Josh, I’m going with “teasing” there.

            It’s funny, though–I’m really prolix here too. I wonder if the most long-winded of us have had to find ways to control that tendency and are thus more conversant with tools for conciseness.

            Reply
            1. Rana

              Maybe. I’m pretty chatty in life, too.

              But, honestly, I do get a little fed up with the “Oh, stupid college professors! Why do they suck at preparing people for professional life?” on-going complaints.

              Because (a) some of us do actually give a rats’ about student success, even though (b) that’s not our job. College education is about learning ways of thinking, analyzing, researching, and communicating in order to advance human knowledge; it’s not job training, for all that many people think of it that way, and for all that there’s some overlap between the two skill sets. It’s bad enough that business has decided to fob off entry-level training onto colleges in the first place, at the expense of everything else being taught there; now they want to complain that they’re not doing a good enough job? Yeesh!

              *steps off the soap box*

              Reply
              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                You know what though? If colleges still want to insist that they’re not intended to prepare students to get a job, then they need to be much more explicit about telling students that. Because I guarantee you that the vast majority of college students are enrolled because they think it will help them get a job and not because they want to learn how to think better or advance human knowledge. And colleges these days know that.

                So if schools are really committed to NOT being the job preparation that most students think they are, they need to communicate that much more clearly to students and prospective students.

                Reply
                1. Rana

                  I think the problem is that the people marketing the schools and promoting them (administrators, presidents, PR), and the people talking up the importance of going to school (businesses, parents, politicians) are not the people responsible for actually educating students (professors, graduate students).

                  None of the professors I knew, either as a student or as a colleague, thought of their work as job training, and expressed regular frustration that students expected it to be. We did our best to point out areas of transferable skills, but there are limits! and it’s really frustrating for all concerned when you’re trying to explain the intricacies of a complex subject to students and give them practice in wrestling with it, and people outside the classroom are badgering you to teach them how to write cover letters.

                  I think I’m also irritable about the whole “long papers” thing, period. When you can take an entire shelf’s worth of scholarly books, several years of primary research filling two file cabinets — together comprising tens of thousands of pages, often in more than one language — and long hours in the archives and library, and transform that into a 30-page document, that’s not “long.” Nor is expecting students to be able to summarize a 400-page book’s argument in a paragraph or less, which is something we regularly do.

                  The problem isn’t professors demanding weirdly long papers for the sake of lots of writing. It really isn’t.

                2. Ask a Manager Post author

                  Schools need to get everyone on the same page about this — if professors believe they have a different mission than the one the administration is selling and students/parents are buying, there’s a problem. It needs to be dealt with.

                  But yes, I do think that professors teaching students to write long ends up being a problem for many of those students in the workforce. I think we differ over whether that should matter; you’re arguing that it’s irrelevant because that’s not why professors are teaching them to write the way they do. I agree that that’s where professors are coming from, but think it poses a problem for students once they’re in the workforce regardless.

                  But I maintain that this comes down to schools selling and students buying Product A, while professors are providing Product B.

                3. Jamie

                  “and it’s really frustrating for all concerned when you’re trying to explain the intricacies of a complex subject to students and give them practice in wrestling with it, and people outside the classroom are badgering you to teach them how to write cover letters.”

                  I don’t think anyone is saying that every professor should be teaching them to write cover letters…but the career counseling center certainly should.

                  To Alison’s point, “Because I guarantee you that the vast majority of college students are enrolled because they think it will help them get a job and not because they want to learn how to think better or advance human knowledge. And colleges these days know that.” I would add and their parents who are paying tuition.

                  I am budgeting very carefully to put two kids though college currently with another graduating next year for the sole purpose of giving them better employment opportunities later. I’m passionate about knowledge for it’s own sake – but they have library cards for that – I wouldn’t still be driving a 2007 car so they could engage in intellectual pursuits for the sake of it.

                  There are a lot of purists in academia, and that’s fine – but make no mistake about the reason why people are enrolled and why parent’s write checks…it’s about employment.

                4. Rana

                  *sigh*

                  See, I do get why people go to college. And I do understand that colleges, as collective entities, are being asked to “prepare students for jobs.”

                  But what does that mean, precisely? Does it mean teaching people how to use faxes and email and MSWord? Or does it mean that people who’ve learned to think critically about complex subjects are likely to do better when asked to prepare a report on the variables involved in Chocolate Teapot distribution efficiencies overseas than someone who’s never read anything more complex than a high school textbook? Does it mean that “useless” degrees like, say, art history, shouldn’t be taught, simply because an administrative assistant wouldn’t find that information useful in his professional life? (But! On the other hand, someone working in graphic design might find it very useful.)

                  So I toss the question back: if colleges and professors are supposed to prepare students “for employment” then perhaps all the myriads of businesses and industries out there should coordinate and draw up a list of what “professional” skills look like, and how to teach them. I’m sure asking the theoretical mathematician to teach students how to prepare tax forms will go over well, and the expert on policymaking in sub-Saharan Africa will be glad to step up and educate their classes on how to fill out diversity forms for HR.

                  Or, maybe, you know, businesses could actually train their new employees?

                5. Rana

                  And, sigh again, professors are not “teaching students to write long.”

                  They just aren’t.

                  They are teaching students to write arguments that simply cannot be accomplished with a paragraph’s worth of text.

                  Yes, some students try to accomplish this by padding and blathering away and using more words than necessary, because they think that page count is what’s most important, not content.

                  And you know what? Those are the students who get Cs and Ds, because they are, in fact, “writing long” rather than writing well.

                6. Ask a Manager Post author

                  Sigh, right back. I’ve worked with, managed, and mentored tons of recent grads, many very smart and from excellent schools. In almost every case, they had to be broken of bad writing habits they learned in college. Good academic writing does not prepare people for good other-parts-of-life writing.

                7. Rana

                  I can’t argue with that. It’s just frustrating being blamed for not teaching A when one’s job never was to teach A, and you have no experience teaching A. I don’t expect new students to know how to write academic papers, or former employers to have told them how; it’s my job to teach them that.

                  Similarly, I would argue that it’s the responsibility of employers to teach new employees the proper way of doing things in their particular industry, and the responsibility of students to recognize the different requirements for a research paper versus a letter to Grandma… or a cover letter.

                8. Rana

                  I mean, just look at how you framed this, just now: “bad writing habits.”

                  They’re not bad habits. They are habits that are, as you note, appropriate for a particular context. That they are inappropriate in a business context doesn’t make them wrong; it just means they’re not appropriate in a business context. They were perfectly appropriate in their original context.

                  So the problem isn’t that students have been taught “bad habits”; the problem is that they think that school habits are the same as work habits. That is what needs to change, and I fully support you in your efforts to change that.

                9. Rana

                  I apologize for taking up so much of your time with this, by the way. If you want me to put a sock in it, I will.

                10. Ask a Manager Post author

                  I don’t think it’s professors’ fault. I think it’s schools’ fault for not being clearer to students and parents about what they’re offering (and in many cases being outright misleading). I think we both agree on that, actually!

                  “I mean, just look at how you framed this, just now: ‘bad writing habits.’”

                  I’m using that as shorthand. They’re not inherently bad; they’re just bad for the context they’re being used in.

                  “I apologize for taking up so much of your time with this, by the way. If you want me to put a sock in it, I will.”

                  Nope, I find the topic really valuable. I only wish it weren’t so deeply threaded, which is an annoying feature of the commenting system!

              2. Ask a Manager Post author

                I have no idea what the answer is; that’s for colleges to solve. All I know is that there’s something wrong with selling one product while delivering another.

                Reply
          2. Josh S

            Sorry. Too much snark, not enough caffeine in me that late at night. :/

            Trying to be funny and came off as a jerk. Apologies.

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            1. Suzanne

              I’m late at the table, here for this interesting discussion.

              I do find it interesting that employers complain that colleges don’t prepare students for the work world by teaching appropriate skills, and when colleges try, as Rana pointed out, to teach how to think, how to pull information together and make connections, employers seem to think that is worthless. And then complain (I read it frequently in business journals) that they highly value critical thinking skills but can’t find employees who have any.

              I’ve spent some time working in a vocational school. Trust me, most of the students that come in lack critical thinking skills in a very obvious way, and the education they get at a career college will not do a thing to alleviate that problem. They may come out knowing how to draw blood, but little else.

              Reply
    2. Natalie

      When I edited my campus newspaper, we had the same problem with student writers who only had academic writing experience. Semi-colons have no place in a news article! (Or in most business writing, I’d imagine.)

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      1. K.

        What’s funny is that in my job, which I kept while going to business school, I did a lot of very short copywriting – tag lines, catalog copy, etc. So at work I was writing stuff that was short (and never had a problem keeping work stuff short), but I just had this block when it came to school. I wrote a frillion 3-5-page papers in undergrad, with success.

        It’s definitely stuck, though. My business writing is concise and I thank that professor for doing me a favor so early on (this was maybe six weeks into school).

        Reply
  7. VintageLydia

    I am ever so thankful that my first professor for my first class of college after my associates gave us page -limits- instead of page minimums. We had to write memos and grant proposals and reports similar to what we’d need to write in our field using her own work and work of her peers that work outside of academia for this reason. She also took care to point out that concise writing written in common vernacular (versus the jargon our field) would do us much better than the ten to twenty pages other classes wanted from us.

    Reply
  8. AnotherAlison

    Even though my comments on here border on novella length, I can and do write concisely in business. Beyond writing cover letters, this is an extremely important transferrable skill, so keep working on it.

    I write for executive consumption, and my task is often to take the most complex issue in our industry at the moment and distill it into a 1-page memo. (Something that takes 2 days to research and digest, summarized in 1 page.)

    I hate doing this, and it does take longer than if I could just write 14 pages including everything I know, but it really forces you to think about what’s critical to our business.

    The EVP that I report to for this part of my job sends me emails with the entire thing in the subject line. That’s concise!

    Reply
    1. Jamie

      I was thinking along similar lines. I wasn’t going to chime in here because it seems hypocritical since I ramble like crazy in most of my comments – but at work I’m famous my bullet points.

      Keep it short, people will not read a wall of text.

      That’s one of the things I admire about Alison’s style. I will comment and drone on and on and once I post I’ll see a comment from her responding to the same topic and it’s right to the point.

      I wonder if this is my verbal meandering outlet since I stopped recapping. If I stopped opting here I wonder if my work emails would get all along and anecdotal. A social experiment in the making…

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        That’s funny — because often I think that your and other people’s comments do a much more patient job of explaining something, fleshing it out with helpful details, etc., whereas my own comment was brusque.

        (And it’s not that I’m feeling brusque, but rather because I’m trying to answer lots of stuff, and efficiency starts taking priority — but I do often stop and notice the difference!)

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        1. Jennifer O

          I like the complement of writing styles. I love people being succinct and getting straight to the core of the matter. There are also times where further explanation, examples and analogies are helpful. I think there’s a good mix here (by both Alison and commenters like Jamie).

          Reply
  9. Elizabeth West

    I have trouble with cover letters. I feel like there really isn’t much to tell. Most receptionist jobs don’t offer opportunities to increase sales, or anything quantifiable like that. The best I can do is point out how I streamline processes or something like that. I’ve had a very dull career. :P

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    1. Kathryn T.

      A friend of mine once said about her awesome admin assistant “Administrative staff are like a pair of jeans. When the fit is poor, you can’t get them out of your mind. But when the fit is good, you don’t even notice them, you just know that everything feels great and you look amazing. And when you find the right ones, you had better treat them like they were precious jewels, because if you take them for granted they will fall apart and you will never be able to replace them.”

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yes! Write about this concept! Not the jeans per se — but your love of keeping things running smoothly without crises, and how you do that. I’d love to read that from an admin applicant.

        Reply
        1. Kathryn T.

          In particular (I am not an administrator OR a hiring manager, but I work in an arts organization where we depend on very good and very underpaid admins), if you talk about how you manage to avert crises before they even become apparent, ways you can tell that a process is going to cause trouble and how you take steps to stop that trouble from manifesting, you will pique some interest.

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    2. Aimee

      Elizabeth, my former manager once told me, “If no one notices you, then you are doing your job correctly.” The suggestions here about showing how you prevent and avert crises are excellent.

      Reply
  10. Hello Vino

    I’ve found that reading my cover letters out loud helps a lot. The language used for classic college papers is not appropriate for a cover letter. Short and sweet is the way to go. Sell yourself, entice the potential employer with your skills/experience, but save the details for the interview.

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  11. Aaron

    Use a simple template. They don’t need to know any more than this:

    Hi-

    I would like to apply for .

    I’m interested in your company because .

    I think I am the best candidate for this position because .

    One other thing about me is .

    My resume is attached.

    Thank you.

    Keep it to 3 paragraphs. You shouldn’t need more than 3 sentences to answer any of these questions. If you want to attach something else — a referral letter, a letter of recommendation, a portfolio item (or 2), go ahead and mention it (perhaps as a postscript)

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No, these won’t be that effective. You really need to write a more engaging letter — and definitely don’t say you’d be the person person for the job since you have no way of knowing and it comes across as silly/naive.

      Reply
  12. JNH

    I sympathize with the writer. I also find it difficult to edit my cover letters down to one page. This is particularly difficult in my field, where many job postings list 20+ qualifications AND specify that you must address them all in your cover letter. It can be done, simply because it must, but it’s tough. Contrary to what many commentators here say, it definitely does NOT take 20 mins. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Aimee

      JNH, I wonder if it would be acceptable to insert a two-column table into this type of cover letter. One side would list the job requirements, and the other would briefly state how the applicant meets each one. Has anyone ever tried that? Did it work?

      Reply

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