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

featured-on-usnIf you’re like most job seekers, you’re not taking advantage of one of the best ways to get a hiring manager’s attention: writing a great cover letter.

Cover letters can be what gets you pulled out of a stack of applications and called for an interview. They can make the difference between hearing nothing from an employer and eventually getting offered a job. At U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about how to write a great one. You can read it here.

(And coming later today: a real-life example of a cover letter makeover.)

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Emily

    This is all excellent advice. I once applied for a job at a quirky communications firm using the format they use on their website to introduce their staff as my cover letter. For “Why I love working at [Company X],” I used “Why I want to work at [Company X]”. Although the position did not end up being the right fit, I ended up getting an interview with the founder!

  2. Laura

    Once I started doing cover letters like described in this list
    , I started getting way more interviews! No jobs from these interviews, but at least i’ve got the cover letter part down

    1. Ash

      Ditto — cover letter has made a huge difference in at least getting interviews. It also has helped me narrow what I want to do. If I can’t write something about why I’m genuinely interested in a position, it’s probably not a position I’d actually want (don’t want to jump into something I’ll be miserable in again)

      1. Anon Accountant

        Another career to dating analogy. I read a dating book that suggested when a friend wants to introduce you to someone (for dating) ask them “What is it about this person that tells you s/he would be good for me”.

        In my job search, I’m going to start asking myself this question before accepting another offer “what is it about this job that tells me it’d be a good fit”. I’d also like to avoid another position that I won’t be happy in.

  3. Ollie

    7. “In case it’s not obvious from the above, don’t use a form letter.”

    Is it okay to send a form letter for jobs that are essentially the same? I’ve been applying to a ton of administrative type positions, and my cover letter for these positions has evolved to the point where I only make minor tweaks if the job description lists something unusual. It’s hard for me to show interest and write a unique letter for a job that’s only doing things like filing or answering phones, but maybe I need to try harder?

    1. Fiona

      I bet you’re not applying for EVERY phones-and-filing position you come across, so there must be something that draws you to the ones you are applying for and pushes you away from the ones you skip. Industry, department you’d be supporting, company culture?

      If it’s a receptionist position, does the ad (or the company website) infer that it’s a 20-line switchboard vs a large volume of in person visitors? The skills you need to manage those two roles are pretty different, and you want to emphasis that you have that particular skillset.

      If every job ad has started to blur into one gray sameness of text, then it could be you’re burning yourself out and you need to be more selective about where you’re applying. I think Alison has said it before that a few highly customized, targeted applications will get you farther than 20 generic ones.

        1. Ollie

          I just realized that a lot of the admin job listings I’ve applied to are posted by recruiting agencies that don’t list the company names, just the position title and the duties and maybe a vague reference to the field. This might be why I can’t come up with anything unique.

          1. CC

            Ugh. That’s one of the things I hate about recruiter job posts. I know they’re trying to make sure the applicant doesn’t bypass them, but I as the applicant can’t put together a great application!

      1. Ollie

        Yeah, I’m definitely not applying to *every* admin job I come across. My only criteria for applying to admin jobs right now though is can I get there and are the tasks things that I’ve done or can reasonably expect to be good at/comfortable with (so I’m skipping receptionist positions because that’s a lot of phone time, while I’m applying to file clerk positions because those usually only require some phone time, etc.). There’ve been a few where I had a specific reason for being interested in the company/department and mentioned it, but most of them do “blur into one gray sameness of text.” Financial companies, insurance companies, sales companies, etc. are kind of boring to me. I’m actually good at making stuff up, but would faking interest likely backfire, or does interest not matter as much once you get to the interview stage?

        Afraid of being selective. I was selective for the first few months of job hunting, but it’s been several months now and I really just need a job. I’ve only been applying to jobs every other day or every third day now to avoid burn out, which helps a lot.

    2. Audiophile

      I think I can accurately answer this question. I’ve done the form letter thing, and while it’s worked a majority of the time, it’s also bit me in the butt big time. There’s been more than one instance, I’m ashamed to say, where I’ve forgotten to change details. I’ll likely be overhauling my CL pretty soon, as some of the positions I’m planning to apply to don’t fit neatly inside a box and will likely be served well by a customized cover letter.

      1. Ollie

        I’ve sent a few where I remembered to change the name of the position/company, but forgot to change a minor grammar detail (like changing “an” to “a”). In the cover letter I give examples of how I’m detail-oriented, so I’m sure this screwed me over too. I can sympathize.

  4. Alex

    I’m an attorney trying to move into other fields where my strongest skills would be an asset and I’m debating where to mention this in a cover letter. My instinct is to address this earlier on by saying something like, “My experience as an attorney has given me experience with x,y,z skills. (The expanding on each of those skills). My concern with doing that is that someone will see the word attorney and stop reading. I’m in NYC and attorneys are a dime a dozen.

    1. CalicoK

      I’m in your same boat. I avoid the attorney/lawyer terms at all costs in cover letters. I would say, “My prior work at [insert company/ies] has given me experience with x,y,z skills. “

      1. Legalgladiator

        Ditto. I leave “paralegal” out of the letter. They will see it on my resume. Just mention things that will make them see the value you will add to their company. The company’s objective is to make money. You want to be the person who will make them money, whatever form that takes in the position you are applying for.

  5. Joey

    Someone might beat me up for this, but I don’t even look at cover letters until I’ve reviewed the résumés. To me they feel like sort of the sales pitch while the résumé is more of the actual hard data. It would be interesting to see if anyone reads cover letters before (as they seem to be intended) the résumé and if so why do you think it appears to yield better results?

    And this may be semantics, but for me cover letters aren’t more what gets you an interview they usually end up being what keeps you from getting an interview. That is, a poorly written one can weed you out while a good one just keeps you in the “good” stack.

    1. Cat

      I usually looked at resumes first too. Recently I tried looking at cover letters first for a batch and I found myself continually flipping to the resume to put the cover letter in context. (E.g., “oh, this person was a fire fighter? That’s cool! Wait, no they weren’t, that must be a metaphor . . . .”). I suspect that I wouldn’t have felt the need to do that with really well-written cover letters, but most aren’t.

    2. Cat

      I usually look at resumes first too. Recently I tried looking at cover letters first for a batch and I found myself continually flipping to the resume to put the cover letter in context. (E.g., “oh, this person was a fire fighter? That’s cool! Wait, no they weren’t, that must be a metaphor . . . .”). I suspect that I wouldn’t have felt the need to do that with really well-written cover letters, but most aren’t.

    3. Alex

      I worked in a small organization and received about 400 resumes for a woefully underpaid job. Resumes were helpful to weed out people who lacked the certifications required but cover letters showed that people actually:
      1) knew what the organization does*,
      2) might have a good personality fit, and
      3) had those intangibles that are hard to fit on a resume especially in a field whose work is hard to quantify.

      Out of those 400 resumes, only about 5 people were interviewed and the resume-based weeding only got rid of about 50 applicants.

      *You would think that this was basic, but no. The job description was pretty clear and there was a “what we do” section on the website that spelled it out.

      1. Joey

        See and I don’t even get into those topics until I start speaking to candidates. For me résumé reviewing is more for finding what looks like a good ksa’s and qualifications match.

    4. Fiona

      Here’s an interesting addendum to the “cover letter as a separate attachment vs in the body of the email” question – if they are both sent as attachments, I’ll almost always skim the resume first. If the cover letter is in the body of the email, I’ll most often skim it before I open the resume.

    5. Ash

      See, I want to see the cover letters. I’ve been screening applications for a project assistant and some have just sent resumes. I won’t even look at them since the resume tells me nothing about if you’re actually interested in the work we’re doing. Also, coverletters that clearly don’t talk about the position — I work in a very specific niche of our org which doesn’t do what the rest of the org does (part of the reason I want to leave!) but when the cover letters say “I’m so interested in chocolate tea pots” and yet I work on floral teacups, I throw the cover letter away.

    6. Marcy

      I do the same thing. I look at the resumes first, then the cover letters of the resumes that made the cut. I am always surprised, though, at how few people actually submit a cover letter at all, or even fill out the whole application.

    7. BCW

      When I did hiring, which has been a few years, I was the same. If their experiences looked like they would fit, I’d read the cover letter to see what more they had to say. I mean, if they didn’t have certain skills or experience that I wanted, I don’t care how nice their cover letter was.

  6. Allie

    There’s a part of me that wants to try my hand at this for the career fair tomorrow, but I’ve heard that’s silly when you’re meeting somebody in person.

  7. HR lady

    I’ll add something to the recommendations:

    If your address is not local, and you’re interested in or willing to move for the job, put that on the cover letter. Any details you can add are helpful, too, such as “my spouse is relocating to [new city] for his/her job so I’m looking for jobs there, too.” Or “I have friends and family in [new city] and I’m interested in moving there.”

    1. Ash

      This reminds me of an article my husband sent me in the midst of my job search on how you shouldn’t include your address at all as employers might use the address to determine your commute and eliminate you if its a long commute. I think it doesn’t necessarily apply where I live (DC Metro) since EVERYONE commutes, but I wonder how much employers actually do look at this or if its all more stuff to develop anxiety over.

  8. Tami

    I excel at letter writing…. unless I’m writing about myself. When writing about myself I suddenly understand the 15 year old boy’s fear of approaching the girl of his dreams. I want to NOT suck at this but, alas, I do.

    1. Ollie

      I found it painful to write about myself when I first started job hunting, but it did get easier after I got a few basic cover letters down. These got better and better as I needed to edit them again and again to fit various jobs.

  9. LV

    Speaking of cover letters, this week I am applying for two similar jobs (both librarian positions, but for different subject areas) at the same university. I feel weird writing a letter that conveys “I’m so excited about the opportunity to be your next XYZ librarian!” and another that says “I’m so excited about the opportunity to be your next ABC librarian!” Especially since both applications have to be sent to the same person. (I mean, I *am* enthusiastic about both positions, but I’m also just desperate to find a job since my current contract ends in April.)

    How much customization would be ideal/required here? FWIW, I have recent relevant experience for one of the subject areas and none for the other. However, for the subject area I have no experience for, I would be replacing someone who I know had no experience in that area either when he was hired.

    1. Ollie

      Would it be reasonable to write one cover letter for both jobs since they’re both going to the same person? (You’d cover why you were an awesome librarian, but address that you’re interested in both positions and why.)

    2. fposte

      Are you talking about experience relevant to the subject specialization in the letter as well? That matters more than the “I’m so excited!”

    3. Letter Writer

      I think both letters would need to lead off similarly, explaining that you’re applying for both because _____. Then customize the details of each letter to the specific job.

  10. E

    I want to add that I have in the past written fairly formal cover letters because I thought that was supposed to sound – and my writing style is a little bit more formal. After reading some of the examples on this site, I was kind of skeptical at the informality. But when I began job searching last fall, I made an effort to make the cover letter a bit less formal and get more personality into it, of as an experiment. I got an interview for every job I applied for except for one where I applied too late. I was one of two finalists in one job and just finished my second week at the position I accepted, and had to end another interview process since I had accepted a job. Four applications and that’s what I got. So my skepticism was apparently unfounded, and I’m thrilled about that!

  11. CStars

    It’s common advice to NOT address a cover letter to a “hiring manager” or “to whom it may concern,” but if you go searching for the name of the actual person you’re *supposed* to address it to, what if you get it wrong? For example, if a business I’m looking at applying to has an Executive Director of HR, Manager of Recruitment, Manager of Employee Relations, and various other Human Resources Specialist-type job titles, how can I be sure I’m choosing the correct person to address my cover letter to? What happens if I choose the wrong one — are my hopes of getting an interview dashed because I tried to follow directions and make it more personable?

    It would be so much easier if every posting had “please direct applications to Ms. Suchandsuch.” :/

  12. Margie

    I understand your concern about addressing the letter to the right person. The best tactic may be to call the organization and ask. You won’t loose points for effort & attention to details. If the company is so impersonal that you can’t get the information you have learned something valuable.

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