does a cover letter have to sound like an infomercial?

This post was originally published on October 25, 2010.

A reader writes:

I really appreciate your blog and your candor, and I have used your advice many times during my job search. In fact, the interview chapter from your e-book made a huge difference on my last interview and I really felt like I was on equal footing with my interviewer. It resulted in winning a contract for a project that went well and will hopefully lead to more work in the future.

My question is about cover letters. I have poured over your “example of a good cover letter” post, as well as the section on cover letters in the e-book, and it has again made such a difference in the way I see the issue from the reader’s side. However, the opening line of a cover letter is so challenging for me to write because I want to make an impact and say something more than the position title and the place I found it posted, but I don’t want to sound like an infomercial.

I’ve read some advice that suggests asking a question that the reader would answer “Yes” to, but examples of these sound like a used car salesman to me, and that is just not my personality. I’m applying for creative positions in a marketing and advertising, so I want to write an opener that would be interesting and make them actually want to continue on to my resume. What kind of cover letter openers appeal to you?

Ugh, I know exactly the sort of cover letter openers that you’re talking about — “Are you looking for a detail-oriented self-starter with a background in engineering?” and so forth — and I hate them!

They sound overly salesy, and no hiring manager wants to feel she’s being aggressively sold to.

Frankly, I think standard openers are perfectly fine. You don’t need to have a gimmick, after all; just make sure the rest of the letter is compelling. “I’m writing to apply for your field organizer job” is straightforward and gets the job done.

Or “I’m really excited to apply your field organizer job” would be a little more interesting (although be prepared to show that you really are excited and why).

Or even re-writing that salesy opener to something like this: “Reading over your ad, I suspect you’re looking for someone detail-oriented and organized, and that’s why I’m responding.” For this one, make sure the ad didn’t specifically list the qualities you cite here, or this won’t work — it’s a good opener if it shows you read the ad and deduced some things on your own, but not if you’re just regurgitating what they wrote. Although if you want to do the latter, you could change it to, “Your field organizer ad called for someone detail-oriented and organized, and I’m continually lauded for those qualities.” (Again, be smart and genuine about this. If you write, “Your ad called for someone with an English degree and I’m continually lauded for mine,” that won’t pass a straight-face test. People are rarely lauded for their degrees by anyone other than their parents.)

But really, straightforward and basic is completely fine. The real action of the cover letter is going to be in what follows the opener.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Shelley*

    Maybe I’m spending too much time studying for my technical writing exam tomorrow, but even the read-between-the-lines response makes me wince. It’s a cumbersome (long, complex) sentence opener and it proposes to…read their minds, sort of? I can see getting into the detail-oriented part a few sentences in because the job listing requires it/because you know this position works with a ton of spreadsheets/whatever, but I don’t want to open with that declaration. It sounds clunky to my ear.

    I’m in the camp of a simple “I’m excited to apply for Job X”. Sure it’s plain, but the rest of your cover letter should convey your qualifications and excitement well enough. That first sentence won’t break your application, even if it starts simple and plain.

  2. Confused*

    This is very helpful, AAM. Thanks for reposting.
    I always worry about sounding like an infomercial, “But wait! There’s more! My salary doesn’t have to be $10 million, not $9 million, not $8 million, not even $7 million. All I require is a biweekly salary of $269230.73!”

    1. Just a Thought*

      “Just pay extra for shipping and handling.” From the very serious sounding voice after the pumped up pitch.

  3. Frances*

    Last time I needed to read cover letters (a few months ago), there was a definite trend towards “You say you are looking for x. I have experience in x because y .” I didn’t penalize candidates for it, but it really annoyed me- I know what we’re looking for, just write the second sentence and I’ll get it.

  4. Zahra*

    I have used the “I’m really excited to apply for…” or “… so, I just had to apply for…” gambit a few times. However, that was for companies that I genuinely admired and for positions I could see myself into. Otherwise, I used the more standard “I’m writing to apply for…”

  5. MousyNon*

    Ok, so I was going to post some of my opening cover letter lines that have led to job offers in the hopes that some folks might find them helpful for brainstorming purposes, and realized as I read through them that all of them would really identify me as a person (as opposed to a nonny-mouse).

    So, I guess what that says is that (in my limited experience, of course) opening lines should really be substantive. I agree that the OP’s example is offputting-ly salesy, but I feel like there’s a way to make openers unique and attention-grabbing without going that or the “I’m excited to apply for X” route.

    I’ve used (very brief) anecdotes, for example in one I briefly discussed an exchange I had at an industry conference and spun that to my particular skills and utility as a potential employee, and I always keep the opening to three sentences or less before leading into my three-bullet-points (which I always, always use; bullet-point cover letters are a winner, in my book).

    I also think that less formal is better. I’ve gotten interviews (and even job offers) from big tech, established non-profits, political entities, and big media–so I feel like it’s safe to say that informal (but of course still professional) works regardless of how formal/casual the industry may seem. I always try to make my cover letters sound conversational (in language only–the format and information you deliver should still be tight, which I constantly have to remind myself since a conversational style can lead to rambling…), and I really think that’s helped me get as many interviews as I’ve gotten.

    That being said, with the advent of HR-robot-software keyword-screening first round applications, my advice may well be obselete, so there is that :(

    1. tango*

      I’m going to try the 3 bullet point thing next time I need to write a cover letter.
      I find cover letters the most difficult part of the job process. Sometimes even harder than the actual interview.

      1. MousyNon*

        I agree! I haaaate cover letters. I find bullet point formats are not only easier to write because there’s a guide already in place, but far far easier to read because it clearly indicates the most important information in an identifiable way. Once I started using bullet-point cover letters, my interview call-back rate expanded at an exponential rate (literally).

        Some more tips: Make your bullets short and info-dense. Start headings with active verbs (have, excel, manage). Use numbers whenever you can (I don’t work in a quantitative field, but I’ve learned to log and document everything I do–you’d be surprised the metrics you can derive when you keep track of your work this way). You don’t have to use headings, though I often do. If you use them, make your headings punchy and relevant to the job description, bold or italicize them, then add a few lines after that discussing your skills/qualifications/deliverables related to the heading. Here are a couple of examples I’ve used successfully:

        • Excel in high-pressure, high-profile political arenas: [bold or italicized]:
        As a ____ for Senator _____ in their Capitol Hill office, I…

        • Work together. Work better. [This was for a marketing-related position, so I used my headings as pseudo-slogans]
        I facilitate cross-functional communication between multiple departments and industry partners, resulting in improved problem resolution….

        Writing cover letters sucks almost as much as first dates (and omg I hate first dates so very, very much), but using these techniques I’ve found I write them much, much faster and have really improved my response rate overall.

        1. Anonymous*

          Of course you’re assuming those cover letters were in fact read and deemed positive towards your landing those positions.

          1. Ruffingit*

            It’s possible no one read them, but changing the cover letter format and then receiving a ton more call backs does lead one to think it’s the cover letter change that made it happen. But, even if that is not the case, this is still a good idea because if the cover letter is getting read then this is a better way of formatting so it stands out.

        2. Ruffingit*

          This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing, I love it. I’m definitely going to do this in the future with cover letters. Breaks up the “wall ‘o text” that so many of them turn into. I can see how this would make it so much easier to read. And, since not many people do the bullet format, it will stand out in a good way. Thanks again!

        3. JJ*

          I know AAM mentioned before that you shouldn’t repeat your resume in your cover letter, so do you have any advice about how you didn’t cross this line and kept the info fresh? Assuming the resume is filled more with your accomplishments, would this part be about duties that are relevant to the position’s requirements?

        4. Manda*

          I find cover letters the most difficult part of the job process.

          I agree! I haaaate cover letters.

          This. I tear my hair out writing them. I get why they’re important, but I’ll hate them if I damn well please. I’m just too humble to brag about myself. I have no confidence. I drive myself nuts trying to think of something good to say, but it rarely works out that way. I just end up writing something boring and then sending it in expecting not to hear to back.

  6. CollegeAdmin*

    I aim in the first two sentences to say why I’m applying for *this* job as opposed to any other. For example, this was the start of my cover letter when I applied to my current job (specifics changed):

    “When I saw your posting for a Chocolate Teapot Designer, I jumped at the chance to work for College A. As an alumna of another women’s college, College B, I can honestly know firsthand how unique the education and experience at a women’s college can be, and I would love to be a part of the administration that makes it possible.”

    1. Ruffingit*

      Just a small suggestion. I would say “I know firsthand how unique the education and experience at a women’s college can be” because it is a bit clunky to my eye to read “I can honestly know.” One would assume the concept of honestly knowing there and I think it flows better to just say “I know.”

      1. CollegeAdmin*

        Oh, I noticed that too – right after I sent in my application for the job. (Oops!) I got the job (and am still loving it 7 months in), but I never changed the original cover letter that I just copy-pasted from.

  7. Sadsack*

    I hope this will be considered as related…I have taken a lot of time to craft what I think are good cover letters, only to go to career center websites that do not request or allow the submittal of a cover letter! What’s up with that? There’s just no way around it for many of the corporate application websites, they just don’t seem to want cover letters. I try to put the gist of my letter in fields where they ask for more information if it seems appropriate, but I am never sure if I should just copy and paste my entire letter in that space or not. Any ideas on why, if cover letters are so important, that many corporations don’t seem to want them?

    1. the gold digger*

      Sadsack, when I run into that, I put my cover letter and resume into the same document. Usually, the site requires you to upload a resume, so that’s a way to get a cover letter to them.

      1. Briggs*

        I’ve done that when I apply for design positions, and they actually don’t have a place to upload or point to a portfolio. Really? You’re not asking for a portfolio, but you are asking for a resume containing virtually the same info I just spent 30 minutes imputing into your application form? I’m attaching it to the resume.

      2. Sadsack*

        Clever, I will do that from now on. Except in the circumstances where there is no uploading of anything — some sites only have a text field where I have had to copy and paste my resume into it. I am not sure if I should cram my cover letter in there, too. I suppose I should…

        1. Manda*

          It’s a little insulting when all they want is for you to copy and paste your resume into a text box so their stupid computer can scan it instead of a real person. Really? I spent all that time formatting it and making it look nice and all you want is an f-ing plain text version?

  8. Anonymous*

    I’ve had to read cover letters, and I prefer when candidates get to the point. What is the purpose of this message? I believe a cover letter is an example of communication skills and how the applicant will communicate on the job. If I ask someone to research XYZ and e-mail me the results, I don’t want to receive an e-mail that opens with, “are you looking for high-quality research on XYZ?” Or, “at my last industry conference I gave a presentation on XYZ.”

    So why would I want to receive cover letters that opens that way?

    1. fposte*

      I’m okay with more writerly cover letters (I’m not actually a huge fan of the bullet-point thing, though I wouldn’t hold it against somebody), but totally with you on the rhetorical question schtick. It’s not like I’m going to squeal in delighted surprise and say “How did you know??!!”

      1. Jamie*

        Totally agree – and in my regular correspondence I’m a huge fan of bullet points and use them myself all the time. I like to see someone’s writing style in a cover letter, though.

        But like fposte, I won’t hold bullets against someone. Just a preference.

        And schtick is exactly what the rhetorical question thing is. Hate it, feels salesy, absolutely starts off on wrong foot.

        1. Windchime*

          Yes, this. It’s the written equivalent of someone winking while shooting little fake finger-guns.

  9. HAnon*

    Ugh! I know this so well. I’ve applied for so many creative positions over the past few months, and they make you answer questions like “What is your favorite snack food?” or “If you were a tree, what would you be and why?” like that’s supposed to tell them something informative about you as a candidate. How about asking me to describe a creative project I worked on, challenges I encountered, and what my solution was? Instead of “what is your spirit animal?”

    1. fposte*

      Wait, they’re asking you to do this in your cover letter? I’ve never heard of that level of prescription for cover letters–sounds like a college essay!

      1. Just a Thought*

        No I think they are questions for an online job application. I’ve seen them before and quickly moved on to the next job ad.

      2. HAnon*

        A TON of creative agencies ask questions like this, and have stuff on their website/online application encouraging you to write this kind of crap when you apply.

    2. Jamie*

      How would one determine one’s spirit animal? Does everyone have one?

      I’d like to think I’m something adorable, but smart money is on something temperamental with horns.

      1. fposte*

        I was asked something roughly equivalent in a group situation I should never have been in. I went with a little jenny donkey–I’m surefooted and reliable and if you bug me I get cranky, I stop working, and I might kick you.

  10. Manda*

    Ugh, I know exactly the sort of cover letter openers that you’re talking about – ”Are you looking for a detail-oriented self-starter with a background in engineering?” and so forth – and I hate them!

    I’ve actually seen quite a few job postings that start like that too, usually from staffing agencies. It makes me wanna barf. And often enough, they do this for jobs that people wouldn’t get too excited about. “Are you detail oriented and outgoing, with 3 years of administrative experience? Is your passion for customer service second only to your exceptional organizational skills? Are you looking for a 3 month contract doing reception/data entry? Then we’d like to hear from you!” Um, yeah, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. Your description fits me to a tee. *facepalm*

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