how to write a cover letter that will help you get an interview

usnewsWhen you’re applying for jobs, your cover letter can be the determining factor in whether you hear nothing from an employer or whether you get called for an interview. And yet job seekers regularly give their cover letters short shrift – writing deadly dull missives that make hiring managers’ eyes glaze over or using them simply to summarize their resumes.

A cover letter alone isn’t likely to get you a job if you’re woefully under-qualified, but if you’re one in a sea of similarly qualified candidates, a great cover letter can be what spurs an employer to pull your resume out of the stack and call you. At U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about how to do it. You can read it here.

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Elizabeth West

    ARRRGGHHHHHH

    Thank you. I need this again. I suspect I’m either over- or under-qualified for most of the jobs I’ve been applying to. Regardless, cover letters are my bugbear. Query letters, too. They’re SO HARD. I never know what to say; I’ve probably made all the mistakes.

    If I could be totally honest, I’d say, “Hey, I know I don’t have a lot of experience, but I didn’t have any when I started my last job, and yet my boss said in my first review that I stepped up and made the job my own. I’m adaptable AF!” Also, it’s hard to make the case for yourself as an out-of-state candidate. I can’t say, “Please hire me so I can get the f**k out of here!”

    A good trick is to pretend you’re explaining to a friend why you’re excited about the job and think you’d be great at it. You probably wouldn’t stiffly recite your work history; you’d probably talk about what you’re good at and how you’d approach the work. That’s what you want to convey in your cover letter, too.

    ^^I think this will help a lot. :)

    Speaking of honest, this is about interviews, but it’s funny. (Language warning)
    If Everyone Was Honest at Job Interviews
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBvvmaPyj-k

    Reply
    1. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks

      Ha Ha. I totally agree with you. Sometimes I feel like writing a cover letter that cuts right to the chase–” Look, I’m a great worker. I believe I can do most (if not all) of the duties that the job requires. Whatever I can’t do, I can learn–just as I had to learn on my previous jobs. Hire me now. If it doesn’t work out, you have my permission to fire me.”

      Reply
  2. Ash (the other one)

    I fully credit my job search success to AAM’s cover letter advice. Now on the other side of things as a hiring manager I will say that a bad cover letter (or worse, no cover letter!) gets you sent to the “no” pile almost immediately, especially when I see phrases like “I’m the perfect person for this job” (ugh!).

    Reply
    1. PoorDecisions101

      I have managed to get interviews when sending through cover letters, but interestingly the last two jobs I’ve gotten were without cover letters, which I purposely do for jobs I don’t think I have a shot at.

      My theory is my resume is strong, so not sending cover letters lets the hiring manager fill in the blanks in a positive way themselves, while my cover letters appeal to a narrower demographic, since I try to be myself, leading me to more likely be ruled out. Of course I don’t really know why I wasn’t called into interviews where on paper I seemed a strong match, so this is all really supposition.

      Reply
  3. Hannah

    I really struggle with #2, because I always feel like I need to have evidence to back up my statements (or else they feel hollow) but then find myself rambling on for way too long.

    For example, I think I’m a great problem-solver, but when I try to describe a time when I solved a problem, it ends up being long and complicated.

    Do you have any tips about balancing times when you can just say “I have this trait” vs. times when you need a lot of evidence that you actually do? How is describing your personal traits like “I’m meticulous in my attention to detail” or “I’m an excellent problem solver” different from making eye-rolling generalizations about your fit for the job if you can’t back up those statements?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You can’t really just say “I have this trait” without demonstrating it in some way. Saying “I’m meticulous in my attention to detail” or “I’m an excellent problem solver” won’t carry any weight unless it’s immediately followed by evidence.

      Reply
      1. Anon16

        What about if it’s particularly technical or complicated to explain? For instance, I’d like to say I saw my role as a key problem solver, but when I try to find examples, I find the cover letter gets overly technical or complicated. Any way to just say that I successfully solved a lot of issues as a liaison between clients and vendors? I want to provide examples but feel they may be better in the interview.

        Reply
        1. Dan

          Well, if you have a technical role, a sought-after skill is usually along the lines of “takes technical material, and explains it clearly and effectively to non-technical decision makers”.

          If you are a key problem solver, you should be able to, in a sentence or two, explain *how* you are key. How did the decisions that were made based on *your* input improve the product, process, or client perception?

          Reply
    2. Anon Accountant

      “I’m have excellent attention to detail and am the only junior writer (engineer, programmer, etc) that reviews others’ drawings.” Or a line from my cover letter is “I have excellent attention to detail and my boss tells clients he can count on me to find errors others have missed”.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I think you could make that stronger if it were something like:

        “I’m regularly lauded for my attention to detail; for example, my boss tells clients he can count on me to find errors others have missed.”

        “Because of my strong attention to detail, I’m the only junior writer (engineer, programmer, etc) who is asked to review others’ drawings.”

        Reply
        1. Macedon

          Might be a person-to-person thing, but I’d find the first example a bit on the fluffy side – I don’t know your boss’ standard for good error-spotting, so you being lauded by a stranger doesn’t really touch me. Quantifiable results, or even something softer like your “I’m the only junior writer asked to…” are slightly more telling.

          Reply
          1. ICUUC

            Yes, this to me sounds too much like “I am a great team player”. I understand you can call the boss to confirm these things, but it does sound sort of “fluffy” to me as you say. I struggle with these un-quantifiable achievements myself and how to write them so that they don’t sound like I’m reaching for any crumbs I can get.

            Reply
          2. Elizabeth West

            I did one like this:

            Together, my team lead and I developed a teacup document process that helped reduce distribution time and meet month and year-end deadlines. It transferred successfully to other teams and teapot consultants’ output.

            It has a metric and shows that I can work on a team but without actually saying it. It lives in my template permanently, because I’m pretty proud of that. (Yes, I have a basic cover letter template, and it does have macros for changing it up.)

            Reply
        2. Anon Accountant

          Ooh sooooo timely for Alison’s feedback! Thanks! I’m in midst of job searching and it seems sooooo long. I’ll change it tonight. Thanks again! :)

          Reply
  4. ceiswyn

    Heh, I pretty much used all this advice when writing a ‘personal statement’ for Masters programmes!

    From my perspective, the major things to address were a) why was I, a mature student, completely changing my career path, b) the danger that my CV might look a bit dilettante as I already had a degree and an unrelated career and c) the fact that my CV was strong on skills but light on the subject in question. I also wanted to stand out; but in a good way :)

    My opening sentence was: “By the time I realised that I wanted to be a palaeobiologist when I grew up, I was thirty five years old with a successful career in software development. I am determined not to let this minor detail stop me.” I went on to talk about the continuity of my interest from childhood to adulthood, the blog posts I’d researched and written in my spare time, enthused over specifics relating to the discipline, and also wove together the disparate skills in my CV into a coherent narrative.

    I received offers for both the programmes I applied for, and will be starting one of them in the autumn :D

    Reply
    1. Midge

      Congrats! Your first sentence made me smile. I’m sure it had the same effect on the admissions committee. :)

      I also used Alison’s cover letter advice to write my personal statement for grad school. I worked really hard to use my interests and experience to tell a story about why I was a great fit for the program and how it could help me accomplish my goals. And it worked! I got into to my first choice program at an Ivy League school! I just graduated and am on the job market. So far I’m 1 for 1 on Alison-style cover letters getting me interviews.

      Reply
  5. Anne

    I’ve recently redone my cover letter template based on this advice (since it’s the same advice AAM always gives for cover letters), and well, I’ll report back on how it works out!

    Coincidentally I’m also reviewing cover letters at work right now for a new position, and I have to say, pretty much 100% of them are of the “summarize your resume” type, including the ones from really really good candidates. When I read through the cover letter advice on this site before I sort of panicked because I thought my old cover letters were really awful, but based on this experience I think they were perfectly average, because I think the vast majority of applicants aren’t following these types of advice.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes, exactly. That’s part of why it works so well: You will immediately stand out over nearly everyone else. When you’re one in a sea of similarly qualified people, that’s really helpful.

      It always blows my mind when people complain about being told to write good cover letters, while they simultaneously ask about other, much more gimmicky ways to “stand out” like Fedexing their materials to the hiring manager or sending a bar of chocolate or whatever. This is the way to stand out, and it has the added bonus of (a) working and (b) not making hiring managers roll their eyes at you.

      Reply
      1. Margali

        I’m in HR, and I received a really great cover letter recently. I forget if we had already filled the job or if the applicant didn’t have quite enough experience, but I do remember that in my rejection letter I made a point of telling her that the quality of her cover letter meant that I was tagging her file so that her name would come up automatically for me the next time a similar job opened.

        Reply
    2. KarenT

      I have to say, pretty much 100% of them are of the “summarize your resume” type, including the ones from really really good candidates.

      Agree, 100%. I actually rarely see a really good cover letter, so when I do it stands out. Because of the positions I hire for, I tend to see a lot of candidates with similar backgrounds (I work in publishing, which is a small industry and tends to have fairly linear progression). The same resume with a compelling cover letter would absolutely be a differentiation. I also think the candidates whose resumes I do see who don’t have the typical background generally fail to address why their unusual work history would make them a good fit for the role (I think they expect me to do that work for them).

      Reply
      1. hbc

        It’s mystifying to me. I suppose some people have a hard time understanding what it looks like from a hiring manager’s position, but if I can’t tell whether they’re making a deliberate change or are just blindly applying to every job within a 50 mile radius of your home, I’m not going to set up an interview just to find out.

        Reply
    3. Anne

      Well – I’ve cold-applied for four jobs in the last two weeks and today I was offered an in-person interview with one and a phone interview with another! So I must’ve done something right!

      Reply
  6. Actuarial Octagon

    I completely redid my cover letter based on AAM’s advice during my recent job search and one hiring manager said it was the best cover letter she had ever read!

    Reply
  7. k

    I’ve completely changed my approach to cover letters thanks to AAM. I think this is the only place I’ve ever seen the advice to write in your own voice. It’s such a simple, logical approach but it totally blew my mind. I used to think that cover letter were a complete waste of time because I was only familiar with them being a stiff retelling of your resume. I always dreaded writing them. Learning that you can sound like an actual human and not stick to rigid formats and phrasings was kind of liberating.

    Reply
    1. Cruciatus

      This is almost exactly what I wrote a few weeks ago on another post! I never liked the cover letter samples I found online. They were never quite right for the types of jobs I was applying to and they often felt so forceful (I will call you in two weeks to discuss an interview!). They just never felt right to me. So the idea that I should have my own voice was like a load off. I really do write like I’m trying to explain to a friend what grabbed me about the job and why I’d be good at it. I still can’t do cover letters in the 40something minutes I’ve seen Alison mention before but I *have* gotten much faster and they aren’t so awful to do anymore.

      Reply
  8. Anon Anon

    I just wish candidates would send a cover letter. Probably 80% of the applications we receive don’t provide cover letters, and there have even been a few people who have been referred to us by an existing employee who don’t bother to send in a cover letter. Sometimes I’d take bad cover letter over no cover letter.

    Reply
    1. Stranger than fiction

      My bf was just saying a lot of postings online, especially linked in dont give you the opportunity or ask for a cover letter. I told him to make it part of his resume doc. Would you agree that’s a good workaround?

      Reply
      1. Anon Anon

        I think that seems reasonable. Although in my case, there is a prompt to add a cover letter, and yet the majority of people who apply don’t send a cover letter at all.

        Reply
  9. TCO

    What do you think about including a brief mention of why you’re looking for a new job/looking to leave your current job? I’ve been at my job for three years and looking to move up. Right now I say something near the end of my cover letter like, “While I enjoy my current job, I’m looking for a role that better uses my strategy and leadership skills.”

    Does that help my candidacy? Hurt it? Does anyone care?

    Reply
      1. TCO

        Thanks! I’ve felt like stating why I’m looking for a new job mattered more when I had a short tenure (for instance, when the grant was expiring for my year-long position) but stating it feels a little silly in my current circumstance.

        Reply
    1. hbc

      I think the only reason it might help is if it’s rolled into item 6 in the article–you’re looking for reasons to change that are non-obvious from your resume. But since your reason for moving is pretty much the standard Stepping Up reason, it goes without saying. You’re better off using that line to give an example of what you’ve done that demonstrates those strategy and leadership skills, because if they’re not really being showcased at your current job, it might be hard to see that on your resume.

      Reply
  10. My two cents

    Thank you for all of your sage advice throughout the history of your column. I’ve been asked to write cover letters and resumes by friends (and friends of friends…) and family pretty regularly, and it can be a little daunting.
    (Yes, as mentioned here before, I have actually been asked to do them without any knowledge/description of the position/company being applied for and get “Does it matter?”)
    My most recent and very successful undertaking was for my son in law.
    He went from a fairly dead-end position with a local company to a higher paying position for a multi-state company. His benefit package is amazing – including a company car! So far, he loves the job and got big kudos on his first review.
    It was a bit tough doing the cover letter and resume because his formal education is lacking and his employment has been limited, but using your advice, he was able to get an interview.
    Thank you, Alison, for doing what you do.

    Reply
    1. Melly

      Are you writing the cover letters for these people in your life? It might be more helpful for them for you to share this information so they can learn on their own behalf (you can always offer to review their materials of course!)

      Reply
      1. My two cents

        Unfortunately, I have yet to find anyone who is motivated to learn on their own, even after I mention all the great reference materials available online for free . . . I DO like the way you think, trust me! To date, ONE person got me a gift card as a “thank you”. . .

        Reply
        1. Stranger than fiction

          I used to help family and friends too with these things and finally decided I was done after one friend refused to take any of my advice on her resume. Her husband was the one that asked me to help her and even he was frustrated.

          Reply
          1. My two cents

            Yeah – totally understood. I was told recently (by my Doctor…) that I need to learn to say “no” and set boundaries. “The qualities that make you a wonderful person are simultaneously causing your downfall.” Truer words never spoken. I always feel like such a bitch when I say “No.”, so much so that I rarely can utter it. . . Work, home, out and about . . .not so much in bars . . .thankfully ():-)

            Reply
    2. HMM

      I actually would be uncomfortable with this if I were the hiring manager and found out that the candidate hadn’t written their own cover letter. At least for roles in which writing ability plays a factor, I’d seriously question the candidate’s abilities.

      It’s one thing to give guidance and proof-read, but another thing to write it for someone else altogether. Am I just being a stickler about this? (Or am I misreading what it is that My Two Cents is doing for their family/friends?)

      Reply
      1. My two cents

        I see your point.
        I deal with it in my job when applicants clearly haven’t written their own entrance essays.
        I guess it does make me a hypocrite. Maybe I’m justifying it by thinking I’m helping a friend? That it’s up to them to interview well and secure the position? Idk . . .
        Co-workers would send me their kids’ college papers to “look over” and sometimes they were so bad, I pretty much did end up rewriting much of them. Ugh. It bothered me, but I suck at speaking up. (Thus, my love for online forums…)
        I really should think more of it “I’m helping you to help yourself” by letting them do the bulk of the work, but then I feel . . . bad . . .Or, yeah, it’s “easier” if I just do it myself . . .:-/

        Reply
  11. Anon16

    Agh, I spent a painstaking week working on a cover letter for a position I desperately wanted only to re-read it today and realize it was really just a generic summarizing-my-resume type letter. I recognize this is essentially what everyone does, but at a bigger or well-known organization, it’s not going to stand out. So now I’ve been mentally kicking myself all day. I guess you live and you learn with these types of things, but I’m worried I squandered that opportunity (or now exist in a sea of resumes/cover letters that say essentially the same things). Oh well.

    Reply
  12. I used to be Murphy

    Just want to second (or third, or eighth) this. I recently had to hire for a mid-level position and one of the cover letters for a candidate really stood out to me as personal, descriptive, and a bit funny. On paper she was a little under-qualified, but I liked her enough from her letter that I interviewed her. She was far and away the best interview and she now works for me and is doing splendidly. So yes, a great cover letter can really help you stand out among the crowd.

    Reply
  13. Cranky HR

    So would the opening of a cover letter I received last week, explaining that the candidate always wanted to be a mermaid, but doesn’t think they can endure sea shell bras, so they are are applying for our position though they will always maintain their love for the mer-people, fall under #2, 4 or 6?

    Reply
  14. Undercover and late

    I recently applied for a position online, where instead of a cover letter as such, a single page, in a font size 10 point or greater was to be attached. I was running out of time after a particularly challenging day and everything I wrote sounded lame. So I wrote about the day I had had and how what I had done addressed the selection criteria. I basically gave a snapshot of me on the fly. It was either a stroke of brilliance or folly but I’m still waiting to hear back.

    Reply
  15. I yam what I yam

    I’m still procrastinating on writing cover letters(even after following this site for as long as I have!) I still never know what to write without it sounding like fluff. I feel like I have to reprogram myself from crappy writing. But I am applying to receptionist jobs from a background of working at an edible arrangements (I miss my chocolate dipped fruit, but not the customers) so I have trouble connecting what little I have done(with no measures of my work). I’m going to sit down and make sure to thoroughly read everything AAM has on cover letters again!

    Reply
  16. Sue Affinity

    Firstly, I’d like to thank Alison and the commentators for an entertaining few days- I clicked on an article and have been going further down the AAM rabbit hole, being educated and amused in equal measure.
    I am reading (and now commenting) because I have been struggling at self-promotion- it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I’m self employed in dog training and see similarities between a cover letter and the “about us” page on our website- both need to outline experience, ability and professionalism, whilst demonstrating being easy to work with. This has been a helpful post regarding tone- a friendly but quiet confidence which doesn’t tip over into bragging territory.

    Reply
  17. Sue Affinity

    Firstly, I’d like to thank Alison and the commentators for an entertaining few days- I clicked on an article and have been going further down the AAM rabbit hole, being educated and amused in equal measure.
    I am reading (and now commenting) because I have been struggling at self-promotion- it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I’m self employed in dog training (I was almost tempted to say that I am a teapot user trainer) and there are similarities between a cover letter and the “about us” page on our website- both need to outline experience, ability and professionalism, whilst demonstrating being easy to work with.
    Not easy for me and not easy for the British in general, no-one wants to be seen as as an arrogant insufferable know it all, even if you are selling knowledge. .. it’s a hard line to walk.
    This has been a helpful post regarding tone- a friendly but quiet confidence which doesn’t tip over into bragging territory. Thank you!

    Reply

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