how long should you spend writing a cover letter?

A reader writes:

How long do you suggest job seekers spend on writing each customized cover letter? I have been really slow with this, always editing, rewriting, searching more information about the company to write the “why you” pieces, etc. There’s procrastination elements in it too, which makes it even worse. Consequently, I don’t have time to apply for enough jobs as I think I should. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve on this? How to write a impressive and tailored cover letter without having to take forever?

Well, as you know, I’m a huge proponent of customized, non-generic cover letters — letters that don’t feel like form letters and that give info about you that isn’t available from your resume.

But generally speaking, you shouldn’t be spending more than 20 minutes, tops, writing one (with the caveat that different people write at different speeds, of course).

In most cases, assuming that you’re applying for relatively similar jobs, you can have a few paragraphs that you use over and over, making minor tweaks to customize it to the specific job and adding a new opening paragraph or two to connect it to the particular job. You might have a a few different letters that you pull from, but once you’ve written a couple of them, you should be able to use a lot of your content over and over again, with only minor changes.

You shouldn’t need to do major research on the company at this stage — in most cases, you can just skim the key pages of their website so that you know what they do and what their style is. If the company is really unusual, you might spend a bit more time to make sure that you’re picking up on the cues they’re putting out there — but most companies aren’t particularly unusual.

Now, if you find your dream job, you might put more time into it — but even then, if you’re doing it right,the above should work.

As for the procrastination, tell yourself that the job is closing within 48 hours so if you want to apply at all, you need to do it now. In some cases, that’ll actually be true, so it doesn’t hurt to function as if it is.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonyymouses*

    Thanks for that question! The length of time confuses me too. I have a random question to add to to that cover letter one: Since I’m making a career change should I mention that on my cover letter? I’m still entry level but I taught English in Japan for a couple of years. I’m trying to get a receptionist job and having an interest in media, which I do have, is a plus. Do you think my honesty would help the cover letter? Thank you!!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, I think the more you can explain the sort of “narrative” of your path and current application, the better. (But concisely, of course. Couple of sentences.) The idea is for the person reading it to come away “getting you,” understanding who you are and why this would be a good fit.

  2. Jane*

    Writing a cover letter is a trainable skill. If a job seeker is doing it for the first time, and is not a writer by trade, s/h should expect to spend a few hours or even a few days to create a first instance.

    However, once a person has written 4-5 cover letters for similar (but distinct) positions, the next cover letter should be both easy and quick to write – 30min or less. It is also easier to write cover letters “in bulk” – say, if one allocates 3 hours on Tuesday to check for new job postings, write all cover letters for newly posted positions one after another that same afternoon.

    1. Cheryl*

      I agree that, at least initially, 20 minutes is unrealistic for a personalized and engaging cover letter. To the OP, when writing the “Why You” component of the cover letter, I actually use that as an opportunity to talk more about me. I reference their mission or vision, and then talk about why that’s my vision too! (Surprise!) “Like (the agency), I have dedicated my career to (ending educational inequity, or whatever), as evidenced by (job 1 and job 2).” Therefore, it doesn’t require too much research to find out the vision or mission, and usually when applying in a certain field, these tend to be similar among separate companies. Hope it helps!

    2. fposte*

      Though it often helps not to write the first sentence first. (This is true of just about every kind of writing there is, I think.) Or, at the very least, be prepared to go back and change it when you’ve finished. It often turns out that you set things up a different way than you initially planned.

      1. Susan*

        Cheryl and Fposte: Great tips on the cover letter, I like how you tweaked the company section to match your personal vision and experience. And fposte, you are so right…I always start with the second paragraph to the end, then go back and do the intro. I’ve always found that to be an easier method in completing any writing assignment…maybe its a kind of writers block.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        So true re: the first sentence. And a lot of time people get so hung up on how to begin that they agonize over that and never are even able to get to the rest and just give up. My advice: Just write some crap for the beginning and come back and fix it later!

        1. Natalie*

          One of my dad’s favorite sayings is “generate first, edit later”. It helped me a lot in college and continues to help me when I’m drafting correspondence.

  3. Michelle*

    I think it can take much longer to craft your first cover letter. It really depends but it seems to me if you haven’t spent time really crafting a tailored resume and cover letter, it could take upwards of 3 hours (with time for writing, re-writing, and editing).

  4. Mike C.*

    I had the hardest time writing cover letters until I had a systematic format. Without repeating your resume, answer the following questions with specific examples. Be sure to speak in terms of what you can do for the company, not what the company can do for you.

    1. What are the tangible and intangible requirements for the job and how do I support them? How can I compensate for requirements I may be lacking?

    2. How am I a great fit for the culture of this company?

    3. What extra things can I bring to the table that the potential employer might not know they want until they see it?

    Start with a basic introduction about yourself, finish with a standard “I’m excited, thanks for your time, you can contact me here and here, etc”, and the questions should form body paragraphs on their own. Put them together and you should pretty much have done the hard part. Edit for flow and spelling/error mistakes and you’re done.

    Keep the language business casual, and write the way you speak. You want to convey your personality and not shock the hiring manager when you walk in for your interview.

    After the first couple, you can get them out in 20 minutes or so. It took me forever to figure this out.

    1. Bob G*

      I think this is great advice, especially for people who need help just getting started.

      I agree completely about the cover letter being a great place to figure out what the hiring manager is going to see as “lacking” and explaining how that really isn’t an issue.

  5. Anon2*

    On this same topic, I have an even worse time crafting thank you letters, taking hours to days. A recent case in point: I had a four hour intview session, two individual, and one group. My potential manager sat in the group session, and I felt this person should receive their own personalized letter with more reiteration than the others. This left me with four ty ltrs to write, which all had to sound at least reasonably different because I assume they will share notes on all candidates. All sessions were behavior based and on a tight time schedule, so I received little to no personal/professional info from them with which to reference, and little time to delve, as I wanted to hit key job points first. So I’d love anyones tips on TY letter writing!

  6. Sarah G*

    Re: Thank you letters. Keep it brief, preferably emails, and I would say all 4 letters can definitely be very similar. That would be expected. Just thank them, express enthusiasm about the job, and reiterate one (or two, esp in your note to the hiring manager) points that show you were paying attention in the interview, maybe learned something new about the position or company (even if you didn’t learn a lot). You’ve already impressed them (or not); the thank you note is just to show your have manners and to put the cherry on top of the sundae. It should be brief, otherwise it will seem like overkill!! Example: Dear ________, Thank you for yesterday’s interview. I enjoyed meeting you and learning more about the ______ position. After learning more about Company X’s emphasis on customer service, I’m even more enthusiastic about being a part of your team. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, …

    (I jotted this down super-quick, just to give an idea. Get those thank you’s out NOW — getting them out quickly and grammatically correct is really all that matters.)

  7. Smithy*

    I have real issues with cover letters. I’m in the UK – the two websites I use are http://www.reed.co.uk/ and http://www.monster.co.uk . I’m sure the sites are similar to the ones in the US.

    The trouble is that you do not know who the company is – so it is difficult to tailor the cover letter, particularly as I am applying for admin, secretarial and pa type jobs. Also that 9 times out of 10, you are applying to an employment agency – and their agenda is not necessarily the same as that of the employer themselves. For example, I am very much an older candidate. Most employers do not have a problem with this – but the agency staff are mostly young – and they identify with younger candidates (yes, I know they shouldn’t, but they do). I do not put anything on my CV which gives a clue to my age, but as soon as they speak to me, it is often obvious they lose interest.

    So my real problem is how to make the cover letter relevant when you have so little information, and how to get yourself on to the agency’s shortlist. We are talking London here – where every job attracts dozens – if not hundreds – of applicants.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s not just London! In general, people should assume every job is attracting hundreds of applicants. I’ve literally never posted a job that attracted fewer than 100. That’s why cover letters are so important!

      In cases like you describe, don’t worry about tailoring it to the company — tailor it to the job (probably more important even when you do know about the company). Talk about what would make you awesome at the work they’re looking for someone to do.

  8. Isabelle_*

    Great to see the post and all those responses! I am no where near that 30 minutes now, but have decided to force myself to write in a certain time frame. I saw some advice that reminds me of professors advice on publishing papers: have an outline, start and continue writing no matter how unsatisfied you feel about the current sentences, and edit as if you’re the journal reviewer and have fun!

  9. Anonymous*

    I am still learning how to write cover letters. If I have 10 jobs to apply for, surely one can see the progression through them. And I’m sure I can still do better the next time.

    Unless you have a demanding timeline for a job, here’s what I suggest…write a rough copy, walk away from it for a bit, let the job details mull over in your mind, and then return to it. Also, if you know someone who is a good proofreader, let them read it just for looking for mistakes. Guaranteed you won’t find that one little misuse of an apostrophe or typo.

  10. Anon2*

    Good point! Although all my friends are sick of or too busy in their own careers to proof all my cover letters anymore. Wonder if folks on this site would want to participate in a group edit type forum…kind of a pay it forward type of thing? Then we can all stop ostracizing our personal social circles!

  11. Karl Sakas*

    Re: Cover letters — When I was applying, I’d spend about 90 minutes on company research, updating my letter, and editing it (after setting it aside for a bit). But I also wasn’t mass-applying to jobs — I decided that a smaller number of high-quality apps made more sense than a bunch of low-quality apps. Ultimately, that worked out.

    Re: Thank you letters — A brief “nice to meet you; I’d love to apply my X skills to help Y company” email is fine. When I get notes from candidates, it’s more about the fact that they sent the note (e.g., they understand nuance) than the message’s contents. The only add-on would be if they wanted to address a major omission or other mistake on their part.

    Following the Joel Spolsky approach, my company typically makes “move forward to another interview?” rating decision within 15 minutes of each interview… so while I’m a fan of paper notes in general, it won’t help you if we get it a couple days after we made our decision.

  12. Pingback: How to avoid wasting time in your job search | Job Market Success

  13. Kitty*

    One rule I have made for myself is to write the cover letter, then sit on it overnight (if there’s time) so that I can come at it fresh to edit for typos and grammatical errors the next day. I find for most of my writing that a break followed by review after sleep helps me to catch errors and maybe add or remove elements so that the letter and resume are improved.

    I’m not sure if it’s been addressed by AAM yet (new reader!) but are there any suggestions on how late before the deadline one should apply for a job? I know that ideally you want to apply as soon as possible, but I’ve been known to send in applications just under the wire (as in, day of deadline). Bad idea?

  14. Elizabeth*

    First, I just want to say that I find this blog really helpful. I’ve done a little bit of hiring in the past and this one of the few online resources that actually rings true with my experience. I have to concur with the people who are saying 20 minutes is unrealistic for a lot of people. I probably take too long on cover letters, but I find the first 20 minutes are usually me just writing things that sound…well weird. But I have to get them out in order to be able to compose something of quality. It takes me at least 2 hours to compose a cover letter that sounds good and is appropriate for my audience. I’d love to be able to whip them out in under an hour, but it’s not possible for me (yet), and I hope no new job seekers are becoming discouraged by the estimate of 20 minutes. Just to reiterate, however, this blog rocks and please keep up the good work!

  15. Anoop*

    How many bids you need to get a job (approximately)?

    this my question, that was asking to me in interview. please suggest me the appropriate answer of this question

  16. Katie*

    Wow – twenty minutes is a ridiculously short period of time to craft a well-written, targeted letter. This is totally off base. I typically spend between one and two hours writing cover letters. I make sure to incorporate the language of the job description because many (if not most) applications are now put through an automatic review process, one that actually scans letters looking for similar language as found in the posted ad. I’ve also found that applying to fewer jobs, but spending more time on each application has equated to more interviews.

    I also disagree with your statement that you “shouldn’t research the company” at this stage. I have found that informing the employers of my knowledge of their company/organization and framing my interests according to theirs is the only thing that has grabbed their attention.

    Your advice is watered down and not suited to the current, very competitive marketplace. I’m sorry to say, but you seem out of touch with what today’s hiring manager is actually looking for. They can afford to be as picky as they want because there are far more applicants than openings.

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