yes, you really should write a better cover letter

Periodically I hear from readers who tell me that after they started approaching their cover letters differently, as I advise here, they started getting interviews. And yet I know many of you are still unconverted and since I would like you to actually get interviews, I’m going to continue to beat you over the head about this.

If you’re applying for jobs without customizing your cover letter every time, you’re missing out on one of the most effective ways to grab an employer’s attention.

A cover letter is your opportunity to make a compelling case for yourself as a candidate, totally aside from what’s in your resume.

That because for most jobs, picking the best candidate is rarely solely about skills and experience. Those obviously take center stage, but if that’s all that mattered, there would be no point in interviews; employers would make a hire based off of resumes alone. But in the real world, other factors matter too — people skills, intellect, communication abilities, enthusiasm for the job, and simply what kind of person you are. A good cover letter can effectively convey those things.

A good cover letter does the following:

* It shows personal interest in working for this particular organization and/or in this particular job, and it’s specific about why, which makes it both more believable and more compelling. It’s human nature — people respond when they feel a personal interest from you.

* It’s written in a conversation, engaging tone; it’s not stiff or overly formal.

* Perhaps most importantly, it provides information about the writer that will never be available from a resume — personal traits and work habits.

What a good cover letter doesn’t do is simply summarize the resume that follows. Think about it: With such limited initial contact, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you squander a whole page of your application just repeating the contents of the other pages. Instead, a great cover letter will provide a whole different type of information. For instance, if you’re applying for a secretarial job that requires top-notch organizational skills, and you’re so neurotically organized that you alphabetize your spices and color-code your bills every month, most hiring managers would love to know that about you. And that’s not something you’d ever put in your resume, but the cover letter is a perfect place for it.

Approaching your cover letter in this way practically guarantees that you’ll stand out from your competition since only a tiny fraction of candidates tailor their cover letters like this. After all, imagine that you’re screening resumes and have 200 basically qualified candidates, with little to differentiate them from one another. Wouldn’t you give an extra look to the one person who expressed a genuine enthusiasm for your company and didn’t just send you a generic form letter?

Of course, this approach does take longer, so job-seekers sometimes argue that they have no time for this kind of personalization when they’re applying for 50 different jobs. But narrow it down and focus on fewer jobs, take the time to write a truly compelling cover letter tailored to each specific job, and it’s likely you’ll find that 10 truly personalized, well-tailored applications get you better results than 50 generic applications.

Now, there are certainly some hiring managers out there who will tell you that they don’t care that much about cover letters. But there are so many who do, and so many stories of a cover letter getting a candidate an interview when one otherwise wouldn’t have been offered, that it’s well worth the time. At a time when most job-seekers are wondering how they can stand out in a crowded field, this is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your chances of getting noticed.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Nadeem*

    That was a great article. So far my job search has been using generic resumes and generic cover letters with lack-luster results. I am going to try this and personalize it to each company, but is there such a thing as making the cover letter “too personal”? Is there a line a applicant can cross from personal insights to “too much information.”

  2. Nadeem*

    It was more of a hypothetical question. As someone who has solely written generic non personal cover letters, the thought of adding personal information and personality is a bit daunting. I’m currently trying to strike a balance between professional information and personal information on my cover letter. Its unfortunate I never developed this skill when I was employed!

  3. Maddy*

    Great post! Just like your example of a good cover letter, I tend to also talk more about my personal skills (organization, teamwork, detailed oriented, communication, etc) rather than my technical skills (proficient in excel, typing speed, etc). Is that the way to go? I feel as if they can read resume to find what my technical skills are.

  4. 3 + 5*

    I am a bit surprised that people don’t write a new cover letter for each application. When I was job hunting, I thought if I sent out 8 letters a day, I was doing well. No wonder it took me so much longer…!

    As a manager, when I review applications, if the letter and resume are more “generic”, I tend to think of the applicant as more “generic”. Make it easy for me to notice your packet, make it easy for me to find your qualifications, and make it easy for me to call you in for an interview. My time’s limited!

  5. Revanche*

    The more I hire, the more it drives me crazy when people write horrible cover letters, overshare personal agendas and life philosophies that have nothing to do with what they can bring to the job or why the job is a fit to them, and leave out a cover at all.

    So yes, yes, and YES, a good cover letter is necessary. And a bad one will sink your application.

  6. Nadeem*

    Do you have any additional examples of good cover letters? I think 1 more 2 more examples would clarify what a good cover should look like.

  7. Anonymous*

    can the hiring managers provide more example of cover letters. AAM gave a really good one, but I know that not all hiring managers wouldn’t agree or consider that that is the best cover letter. So I would like to see what other managers consider “good”.

  8. Liz T*

    I had an amazing job interview today, and was told right off the bat that my cover letter was by far the best they’d received. They talked about what terrible cover letters they got from so many others, just as you’ve described here. So yeah, I vote for good cover letters–and thank AAM for making mine so much better!

    (And my second interview is Wednesday, so wish me luck! I really want this one.)

    1. Anonymous*

      hi, is it possible that you show us your cover letter. I know AAM provides a good one, but I want to see what other people consider as a good cover letter too.

  9. Sarah Gross*

    That’s awesome that you’re driving this point home again — it can’t be emphasized enough. Plenty of people criticized me for spending hours on a single cover letter, but it didn’t seem like such a bad idea when I got a job after applying for only 5 (and I was only well-qualified for 3 of those.) Job seekers don’t have time to NOT customize cover letters — it’s definitely a quality/quantity issue.

  10. 3 + 5*

    1) don’t be gimmicky
    2) do highlight specific things from your resume that apply specifically to this job
    3) do show me that you have researched the company and the business we are in
    4) do highlight what you have found in your research that matches well with a skill you have

    If you do all those things, you will definitely stand out from the crowd.

  11. Sara Jo*

    Does the legnth of the cover letter matter? I always customize my cover letter. I provide a brief intro, three short paragraphs of support (it there are more then three points I use bullet points), and a conclusion. I keep it to a page or less. I have been having some other professionals look at my cover letters and one (strongly) recommended keeping it to a paragraph. Is there a point where cover letters become too wordy and what is that point? I feel like I have a bit more to explain to compensate for my lack of experience

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      A paragraph is barely a cover letter, and I suspect the person who told you that is just someone who doesn’t care about cover letters. The length you’re doing sounds perfect; just don’t go over a page.

    2. Jen*

      I tend to base the length of the cover letter on the length of the ad to some extent: if it’s a short fairly general ad, I do a brief intro, speak to the main points of the ad (and how my skills fit that particular setting), and keep it to 3 shortish paragraphs total, generally in the order the major points are listed in the ad, finishing with any practical information.

      If the ad is long and involved with lots of specific requirements or qualifications and details of expectations, then I go longer, up to roughly the length of the meat of the ad. (But never more than 2 pages, and I don’t count general information about the organization as part of the meat of the ad.)

      I also think that field makes a difference: I’m a librarian, so it’s a reasonably good bet that the people reading my cover letter don’t mind a little additional length if it provides useful information. When I’m applying for tech-focused jobs, I keep it much shorter and use bullet points for skills if I possibly can.

  12. Lynn*

    I am currently looking to re- locate to another state. Could you give me some good examples of some Cover Letters that would let the Hiring Manager know that I am very interested in the position and would be willing to come to that state for a face to face interview. All advice is welcome.
    Thank you

  13. Linda*


    I am doing an internship in one of the biggest companies,what they are doing is related to my studies because i got a diploma in IT Network, so please friends help me to write a letter asking a manager to hire me, my contract expires next year March 2012. PLEASE HELP ME I NEED THIS JOB TO BETTER MY FUTURE.

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