you need to write a better cover letter

For employers, picking the best candidate for the job isn’t just about skills and experience. If it were, they wouldn’t ask for cover letters at all — hell, we might not even need interviews. We could just hire based on resumes alone. But of course, other things matter, too — things like personal traits, work habits, communication skills, people skills, intelligence, drive, and enthusiasm for the job. That’s where your cover letter comes in. It’s supposed to give a window into those things. Unfortunately, though, most cover letters are Not Great.

So I’ve put together a guide to writing a compelling cover letter that will help you get an interview.

1. First, understand the point of a cover letter.

For employers, picking the best candidate for the job isn’t just about skills and experience. If it were, we wouldn’t ask for cover letters at all — hell, we might not even need interviews. We could just hire based on résumés alone. But of course, other things matter, too — things like personal traits, work habits, communication skills, people skills, intelligence, drive, and enthusiasm for the job. Your cover letter is supposed to give a window into those things.

Because of that …

2. Whatever you do, don’t just summarize your résumé.

The No. 1 rule of writing a good cover letter is that you can’t just summarize your résumé. Most cover letters break that rule — seriously, about 98 percent of them — and it’s such a huge waste of an opportunity! Your initial application is going to be a few pages at best (in most cases, a one- or two-page résumé and a one-page cover letter). If you squander one of those pages by just repeating the content of the others, you’re doing yourself an enormous disservice.

Instead, your cover letter should go beyond your basic work history to talk about things that make you especially well-suited for the job. For example, if you’re applying for an assistant job that requires being highly organized and you neurotically track your household finances in a detailed, color-coded spreadsheet, most hiring managers would love to know that because it says something about the kind of attention to detail you’d bring to the job. And that’s not something you could put on your résumé, but it can go in your cover letter.

Or maybe your last boss told you that you were the most accurate data processor she’d ever seen, or came to rely on you as her go-to person whenever a lightning-fast rewrite was needed. Maybe your co-workers called you “the client whisperer” because of your skill in calming upset clients. Maybe you’re regularly sought out by more senior people to help problem-solve, or you find immense satisfaction in bringing order to chaos. Those sorts of details illustrate what you bring to the job in a different way than your résumé does, and they belong in your cover letter.

If you’re still stumped, pretend you’re writing an email to a friend about why you’d be great at the job. You probably wouldn’t do that by stiffly reciting your work history, right? You’d probably talk about what you’re good at and how you’d approach the work. That’s what you want here.

3. No, you don’t need to hunt down the hiring manager’s name.

If you read much job-search advice, at some point you’ll come across the idea that you need to do Woodward and Bernstein–level research to hunt down the hiring manager’s name in order to open your letter with “Dear Matilda Jones.” You don’t need to do this; no reasonable hiring manager will care. If the name is easily available, by all means, feel free to use it, but otherwise “Dear Hiring Manager” is absolutely fine. Take the hour you just freed up and do something more enjoyable with it.

4. You don’t need a creative opening line.

If you think you need to open the letter with something creative or catchy, I am here to tell you that you don’t. Just as simple and straightforward:

• “I’m writing to apply for your X position.”

• “I’d love to be considered for your X position.”

• “I’m interested in your X position because…”

• “I’m excited to apply for your X position.”

That’s it! You don’t need to open like an informercial pitchman. Straightforward is fine.

5. Show, don’t tell.

Stay away from simply asserting that you’d be great at the job, or proclaiming that you’re a great communicator or a skilled manager or so forth. Instead, demonstrate that you are those things by talking about accomplishments and experiences that show it.

Here’s a concrete example taken from one extraordinarily effective cover-letter makeover that I saw. The candidate had originally written, “I offer exceptional attention to detail, highly developed communication skills, and a talent for managing complex projects with a demonstrated ability to prioritize and multitask.” That’s pretty boring and not especially convincing, right? (This is also exactly how most people’s cover letters read.)

In her revised version, she wrote this instead:

“In addition to being flexible and responsive, I’m also a fanatic for details — particularly when it comes to presentation. One of my recent projects involved coordinating a 200-page grant proposal: I proofed and edited the narratives provided by the division head, formatted spreadsheets, and generally made sure that every line was letter-perfect and that the entire finished product conformed to the specific guidelines of the RFP. (The result? A five-year, $1.5 million grant award.) I believe in applying this same level of attention to detail to tasks as visible as prepping the materials for a top-level meeting and as mundane as making sure the copier never runs out of paper.”

That second version is so much more compelling and interesting — and makes me believe that she really is great with details.

6. If there’s anything unusual or confusing about your candidacy, address it in the letter.

Your cover letter is your chance to provide context for things that otherwise might seem confusing or less than ideal to a hiring manager. For example, if you’re overqualified for the position but are excited about it anyway, or if you’re a bit underqualified but still think you could excel at the job, address that up-front. Or if all of your experience is in a different field but you’re actively working to move into this one, explain that and talk about why — and explain how your experience will translate. If you don’t provide that kind of context, it’s too easy for a hiring manager to just think wrong fit and put you in the “no” pile. A cover letter gives you a shot at saying, “No, wait — here’s why this could still be a strong match.”

7. Keep the tone warm and conversational.

While there are some industries that still prize stiff, formal-sounding cover letters — like law — in most fields, your cover letter will be stronger if you write in a warm, conversational tone. Strive for the tone you’d use if you were writing to a colleague who you liked a lot but didn’t know especially well. That means that it’s okay to show some personality or even use humor.

8. Stay away from form letters.

If you’re sending out the same cover letter for every job you apply to, you’re probably doing it wrong. A good cover letter should be personalized to the job.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t reuse pieces of the letter over and over — if you’re applying for a bunch of very similar jobs, you absolutely can — but it does mean that it should feel like you wrote it with the nuances of this particular job in mind. A good litmus test: Could you imagine other applicants for this job sending in the same letter? If so, that’s a sign that you haven’t made it specific enough to you and are probably leaning too heavily on just reciting your work history.

9. Aim for about one page.

If your cover letters are longer than a page, you’re writing too much, and you risk annoying hiring managers who don’t have time to read lengthy tomes. On the other hand, if it’s only one or two paragraphs, it’s unlikely that you’re making a compelling case for yourself as a candidate — not impossible, but unlikely. For most people, a page or something close to a page is about right.

10. Don’t agonize too much over the small details.

What matters most about your cover letter is its content. You, of course, should ensure that it’s well-written and thoroughly proofread, but many job seekers agonize over elements of the letter that really don’t matter. I get tons of questions from job seekers about whether they should attach their cover letter or put it in the body of the email (answer: no one cares, but attaching it makes it easier to share and will preserve your formatting), or what to name the file (answer: again, no one really cares as long as it’s reasonably professional, but when people are dealing with hundreds of files named “resume,” it’s courteous to name it with your full name).

Approaching your cover letter like this can make a huge difference in your job search. It can be the thing that moves your application from the “maybe” pile (or even the “no” pile) to the “yes” pile. Of course, writing cover letters like this will take more time than sending out the same form letter summarizing your résumé — but 10 personalized, compelling cover letters are likely to get you far more interview invitations than 50 generic ones will.

I originally published this at New York Magazine.

{ 119 comments… read them below }

  1. Meteor*

    Hiring managers – Do you prefer the cover letter to be the body of an email, or a file attached to the email? I find it a little awkward to attach a PDF and not say much in the email. And as Alison said, I don’t want to repeat myself. Thanks!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It doesn’t matter. It will make zero difference to whether you advance or not.

      Personally, I prefer it attached, with one sentence in the body of the email (like “I’m attaching my materials to apply for the X position”) but you absolutely do not need to stress about how you do this.

    2. ThankYouRoman*

      I don’t have a preference. As long as you’re submitting the cover letter at all, you’ve got a leg up on all the ones who don’t bother these days.

      If you attach both, the body can say something to show you’re not just a spambot with phishing attachments. A breezy “Attached you’ll find my cover letter and resume for consideration!” note.

      Attaching is overkill IMO but if it’s some how easier or you’re worried about formatting, it really doesn’t register as anything positive or negative to me personally.

      1. BRR*

        This ^. My first preference is to just receive a cover letter. I vote for an attachment though and something short in the body of the email. It’s likely your materials will be forwarded to others and it’s easier to not have to copy and paste an email into another document.

        1. ThankYouRoman*

          I never copy/paste to forward. The forward should include the body information and attachments!

    3. Elizabeth Proctor*

      I like attaching because it’s easier to save. If you don’t attach, then the person has to print the email to PDF to save it.

    4. designbot*

      I like an attachment because in my company things generally get forwarded around to various people, replied to, etc. and they won’t all scroll all the way to the bottom of the email chain where your in-email “cover letter” would be waiting for (read: hiding from) them.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      I defer to my HR department – whatever’s easier for them. I’m going to get it as an attached PDF, regardless or original form, and I’m most interested in content.

    6. Cacwgrl*

      Honestly, we don’t read them. I scan them occasionally, but I find candidates rarely list the information I need in a cover letter. Often I make more notes of cheeses or canned lines (I’m the ideal candidates for your position… Don’t Say This!) and move right to the resume.

    7. Someone Else*

      Hiring managers who have a preference would (should) normally say it explicitly in the listing. If the job ad/application instructions say attach, attach, if they say body, body. If it doesn’t specify, it doesn’t matter, just pick one.

      1. New ED*

        I prefer attachments in terms of ease of printing materials but it doesn’t impact my consideration of candidates either way. Job seekers who don’t include a cover letter are immediately rejected. I always read cover letters unless I happen to look at a resume first and it’s clearly in the bottom quarter of applicants.

  2. Chameleon*

    I used to write the most terrible generic cover letters (my writing style tends to the impersonal). But after reading your advice, I have gotten multiple interviews where the hiring committee specifically referenced how good my cover letter was! (I also have gotten way better at interviews due to this site. Thanks so much Alison!)

  3. Liz*

    I wonder if cover letters are more important in some industries than others? I’ve been a manager/hiring manager in tech for 15 years and I don’t know anyone who reads or uses cover letters in a hiring process. In most recruiting systems I’ve worked in, I wouldn’t even see a cover letter if it were submitted.

    1. A-nony-nony*

      Agreed. We’re hiring and, while we didn’t get terribly many candidates, either none of them submitted a cover letter and/or they never made it through the system. All we got was resumes.

    2. Meteor*

      I’m in advertising, and cover letters are expected (or at least, there’s always an option to submit one). I use it to explain why I would be excited to work on their product, ways that I feel I’m uniquely well-suited for the position, and to use my own natural tone of writing voice, because that can be quite related to the work itself. My husband is in tech and he never needs to submit one, it seems.

    3. ThankYouRoman*

      It’s dying out it seems. We request them in all listings and it’s less than 50% who actually include one.

      I like them because in manufacturing resumes are all the same practically. So it’s one way to stand out among everyone else.

      I’m a nut who also enjoys writing cover letters myself. My resume is great but has none of my personality in it, which is my major selling point in the end.

      But I never work with recruiters or hugely structured companies. Maybe it’s a size thing too!

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There are some industries where they’re not as much of a thing. Tech is the first one that comes to mind.

      There are lots of other industries where you’re not going to get considered without one.

      1. CEMgr*

        I’m an engineering manager in Silicon Valley, hiring “tech workers”, primarily engineers and primarily 6 figure salaried roles, and I absolutely read and value a great cover letter. Those applicants zoom to the top of the list. I’d estimate 15-20% of applicants include a cover letter. Of those, perhaps 10% are well written – i.e. customized, calling out facts supporting the candidacy, well composed, and free from errors in grammar, spelling, or formatting. Applications with great cover letters are inevitably from well-qualified candidates. So if you want to put yourself ahead of 98% of the candidates in my pipeline, include a great cover letter.

        1. CAA*

          This matches my experience as well when hiring for engineers outside of Silicon Valley — very few cover letters, and only a small percentage of the ones we do get demonstrate fluency in written English. However, we are wary of screening out candidates for whom English is not their native language when the position does not require a lot of written communication and thereby inadvertently reducing the diversity in our applicant pool, so we deliberately don’t use cover letters to rank applicants and decide who gets an interview. Diversity may be a bigger concern for us because we’re a government contractor, but it’s been a topic of conversation across the tech industry for a while now and it’s worth thinking about how all our applicant screening methods affect it.

          1. pleaset*

            ” However, we are wary of screening out candidates for whom English is not their native language when the position does not require a lot of written communication and thereby inadvertently reducing the diversity in our applicant pool, so we deliberately don’t use cover letters to rank applicants and decide who gets an interview. ”

            This is good. In both professional and personal lives I’ll add something about non-native speakers – I think it’s worth trying to get a sense of who is good at communicating – that is passing along ideas clearly, while not judging how polished the English is. As an example, I’ve had two interns who were not native English speakers who were so good at communications, but poor in the English in the sense of tone, grammar, usage. So their work could not go out the door to clients, say, because the English frankly wasn’t good enough. But they demonstrated, even in poor English a clarity of thinking that was impressive.

        2. voluptuousfire*

          I work in tech recruitment and I’ll just scan the cover letter quick to see if there’s any pertinent info but 98% of the time, there’s not. Having said that, I do love a great cover letter. Actually mentioning our company and you like what we’re doing? Awesome! Totally agree that applications with great cover letters are inevitably from well-qualified candidates.

      2. the gold digger*

        I had to convince my boss, an engineer (this is an engineering consulting company), that a cover letter mattered for a marketing job.

        But I couldn’t convince him that a badly-written cover letter was reason enough not to interview, much less not to hire, the candidate. Unfortunately.

        I was right and he was wrong. A friend said I should just tell my boss, “I told you so and he is not my problem. You deal with it,” but that friend has never had to work.

    5. Grits McGee*

      I work in federal government, and I’ve been told by hiring managers in my agency that they almost never read a cover letter, if one is even attached. However, we hire almost exclusively internally, so it might be that a cover letter isn’t as important for an applicant who’s already somewhat of a known quantity.

    6. designbot*

      In design, cover letters are used to create a narrative and string anything together that someone reviewing your resume might not know how to interpret. That said, I look at cover letters last. Portfolio first, resume second, cover letter last. So the cover letter only matters if the rest is good enough for a reviewer to take a couple extra minutes on you. If at first glance we hate your portfolio, then the best cover letter in the world won’t help.

    7. AnotherAlison*

      I haven’t gotten a resume with a cover letter in ages. If the candidates send them, HR only passes on the resumes, which makes some sense since they are screening the candidates and hiring managers are busy. However, with some candidates, it would help tie together why they are applying for this job. Personally, I think you should do it because it may help, but you should also make sure your resume can tell its story on its own.

      1. Washi*

        Yeah, I think cover letters can seem superfluous if your resume already matches up really well with the job description, but if you’re changing industries or applying for more of a stretch position, it can really help to be able to make a case for yourself in a cover letter.

        I get that cover letters can be kind of a barrier for people who don’t have strong writing skills, but they can also help nontraditional candidates end up in the interview pile instead of being rejected because their career has followed a different path.

    8. NotAnotherManager!*

      I work in legal, and cover letters are important – they are a quick way to gauge writing style and skill. I’m most interested in it because my jobs require a lot of concise but thorough communications with attorneys and clients, and a strong cover letter goes a long way to pulling a candidate up the hiring priority. If it’s a writing-intensive position, it may also require writing samples.

      I specifically ask for a cover letter, and the HR recruiters know to send them to me.

      My husband works in government technology, and I’m not sure of the last time he wrote a cover letter. It’s really industry dependent.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I’m a tech writer, and you’d better believe I send cover letters along! The letter and my resume are my first two writing samples, and I’ll offer more besides.

    9. 8DaysAWeek*

      Agree. I used to work in IT and now I am in another area with the Pharmaceutical industry and we don’t care if you submit a cover letter. We do get a few, and a lot of times people blow their chances because of the cover letter. We get cover letters that were meant for other jobs, have major spelling or grammar mistakes or sound ridiculous (ex: boasting about a GPA when they graduated 10 years ago).

      Unless it is asked for, I almost feel you should leave it out.

  4. Sleepytime Tea*

    Hiring managers, I’m curious – what do you read first, the resume or the cover letter? Part of me thinks you would read the resume first, because you aren’t going to waste your time reading the cover letter if someone is obviously not qualified.

    But I always hope that it’s the cover letter first, because I can give you some highlights about my work and explain certain things on my resume (yes, my degree is in English, but let me tell you about how that has helped my career as a teapot analyst despite it being considered “unrelated”).

    1. PB*

      Resume. If I see immediately that the person lacks a relevant degree, or has no relevant work experience, I know not to invest too much time in the rest of their application.

      1. Caramel & Cheddar*

        Oh, see, that always prompted me to read the cover letter in case there was an explanation, e.g. changing fields, just graduating from a long school program, etc.

        1. PB*

          I will read the cover letter, regardless, but it gives me a sense of what to expect. Just to clarify, I’m in academia, so all jobs require a master’s degree or higher. In addition, the last three positions I hired were managers, so all candidates needed to have a certain level of expertise (enough to train and supervise junior staff) and management experience. I’d take a different approach with an entry level position.

      2. Sleepytime Tea*

        See this was always a fear of mine earlier in my career, and I suspect that there were a good number of jobs where my resume ended up in the metaphorical trash because of my degree. My degree wasn’t “related,” though I had several years of experience. I actually think my degree IS related, and has helped me immensely in my job, but there’s not really any opportunity to explain that in a resume, and I always put it in my cover letter. But if that’s not read, then there go my chances. Sure, if I were an engineer or something than obviously a relevant degree is extremely important, but there are many jobs where “relevant” is construed so much more narrowly than it should be.

    2. ThankYouRoman*

      Cover letter, it’s the first thing I see if it’s in the body of an email, I’m not ignoring it to skip to a resume. My mind prioritizes things in chronological order most times and I’m not, not going to read a cover letter regardless of the resume anyways. Unless it’s super long or difficult to follow, then I’ll probably give up and toss it in the reject pile.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      I read the cover letter first, but my HR department has also already weeded out people who are not at all qualified, and I find the cover letters tend to tell me more than the resumes I get for entry-level positions. For experienced positions, resume first.

      I have hired on the strength of a cover letter before – I was had an open position that was intended to be low-to-mid experience and brought in someone totally green based on the strength of his letter/interview.

      1. Emily K*

        Same here presently – my HR department prescreens before sending me candidates, so I read the cover letter first so I know how to interpret the resume.

        But at a previous job where I did my own initial screening (no HR dept) I started with resumes so that I could rule out the obvious “no”s right away (which isn’t small discrepancies from the job requirements, but major disqualifications like people applying for senior roles with no experience, or resumes with hideous mixed/sloppy formatting for a role that involves prepping a lot of documents).

    4. sometimeswhy*

      Technically resume but really, for my particular situation: the online application form. It’s easier for me to compare apples to apples with across tens-to-hundreds of applicants since all the information is formatted the same way and in the same order.

      Which is to say, if you have an online application form that duplicates resume and cover letter stuff, don’t skimp on the online thinking that they others will make up for it because it won’t. I won’t even get that far.

  5. Grateful*

    Just wanna use this as an opportunity to say a huge THANK YOU to Allison here. Your advice over the past few years about resumes, cover letters, etc. helped me get a great job after working at a super toxic sad place for a while.

  6. Serica*

    I’m looking to leave my job after only 6 months, because the hiring manager pulled a bait and switch on me about the job role (I thought I was going to be a teapot production specialist, but I’m essentially being used as an admin assistant).

    Is this something I should address in my cover letter? I’ve worked out a succinct professional explanation for interviews, but I’m wondering if it’s something I should address upfront.

    1. Combinatorialist*

      I would leave the job off your resume and not address it. If they ask why you left your last job or what you have been doing, be honest about how you took a job where you thought you were going to be a specialist but your work has been largely admin assistant. But if it isn’t adding anything to your candidacy for the jobs you are applying for, it doesn’t need to be there. 6 months is not a crazy long time

      1. ThankYouRoman*

        This assumes the commenter had no gap between this 6 month gig and last job. It may be closer to a year gap to explain if she was looking for a few months prior. 6 months is a gap that will often be noticed.

        I would keep it listed and explain when asked.

    2. ThankYouRoman*

      No. Let them ask you why you’re leaving, if they care to at the interview stage.

      You’re selling yourself and skills at this stage.

      I’m sorry this happened to you. I’ve seen “specialist” attached to so many assistant positions, it gives me hives. I hope you find something soon.

    3. Emily K*

      You should mention why you’re interested in the job you’re applying for, which might overlap some with why you’re leaving your current role, but I wouldn’t recommend wasting your limited cover letter space talking about why you’re dissatisfied with your current job because it doesn’t add anything that makes you more attractive as a candidate.

      Thus, “My current role has me spending half my time on X, which is truly my passion, so my interest was piqued by the opportunity to do X full-time with Acme Llamas,” would make sense to include, but, “I didn’t expect that my current job would involve so much Y, so I’m looking at other options,” doesn’t.

  7. Washi*

    So when I did hiring and was looking at a lot of cover letters, I found that I only truly had the time/attention span for about 2 solid paragraphs. Everything longer I ended up skimming at least a little bit. But when I’m applying, I worry that sending a 2 paragraph cover letter seems lazy.

    Am I just more inattentive than most? Will hiring managers be skeptical or grateful for a well-written but short cover letter?

    1. Ali G*

      My format was this:
      First paragraph – 2 sentences saying I am excited to apply for the position and why
      Paras 2 & 3 – bulk of letter
      Para 4 – Closing statement, contact info and thanks/look forward to hearing from you.
      Fills up the page, but with still some negative space for visual appeal

    2. Book Badger*

      My cover letter structure is similar to Ali G’s. Mine goes:

      Paragraph 1: Introduction (I’m applying for X position, I’m interested in such-and-such, etc.). If the job listing specifically asks for something (like “please include salary requirements” or “we have offices in cities X, Y, and Z, so specify if you have a preference for one city”), I put that there. It’s no more than a few sentences.

      Paragraphs 2 & 3: Stuff about me. This is usually the same across most letters with some tweaking to personalize it to the job.

      Paragraph 4: Literally like two sentences of conclusion, “Thank you for your consideration,” etc., etc.

    3. GhostWriter*

      My format is:

      Paragraph 1: Two sentences stating why I’m interested in the position and/or company.

      Paragraph 2-4: A short paragraph highlighting/showing a specific skill or experience relevant to the job.

      Paragraph 5: Two closing sentences.

      Typically ends up being about 350 words. Not an entire page, but fills a substantial chunk. I’ve gotten compliments on having a nicely written cover letter before, so this length seems to work for me.

    4. Jennifer Thneed*

      I use some bullet points, which I think would address your time concerns. I prefer to flesh out my writing but cover letters need to be quick/easy to read because hiring managers are busy.

  8. Labradoodle Daddy*

    Alison’s posts on cover letters have taught my way more than my high school, college, and mother COMBINED.

  9. Sabine the Very Mean*

    Applying to a job where the online system asks that I attach a resume. No other document specifically requested. Then when I click to upload, the dialog box says, “upload application documents here” and offers more than one upload spot. I err on the side of caution and attach a cover letter. What say you?

    1. Sleepytime Tea*

      I upload a cover letter, for sure. And I include “Cover Letter” in the title. If they don’t want to read it, they don’t have to, but I always include it.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        This! And I include my name and “resume” in the title of my resume. (Actually, it has a date in the title also.)

    2. sometimeswhy*

      If it’s doesn’t specifically instruct to not attach other documents, then that seems reasonable as long as the various documents are clearly identified by filename as Sleepytime Tea suggests.

    1. Nanc*

      You make a good point! A couple of years ago we reworked our application process and now when we request a cover letter, we list 3-5 points we want to see addressed in the cover letter. The result has been a smaller but much higher quality application pool. We used to have the 3-5 points in a follow up questionnaire to the applications who made the first cut. It works much better having it up front.

      1. Emily K*

        I applied for a job a while back that had 3 short question prompts in lieu of a cover letter and honestly, it was a breath of fresh air. It felt so much easier to answer 3 very concrete questions instead of trying to answer a big nebulous question like, “Why should you consider me further for this role?” in a free-form letter.

        1. Emily K*

          (Two of the questions dealt with describing your work experience with two of the job’s core required skills/experience, and the third one was by far my favorite: “Describe a time you used empathy at work, and what the outcome was.” The job posting had included a description of the company’s core values which included empathy, so it was directly related to traits/skills they hire for and not totally random.)

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I don’t find they’re universally terrible – I like to hire the handful of people who do it right. It’s a great weed-out when you get hundreds of qualified resumes; however, being able to write clearly and concisely on a given topic is important to the job. It’s kind of like a built-in assessment for us.

      I also like cover letter way more than the myriad of other things I’ve heard about on here – personality tests, scribed or recorded interviews with set questions, actual school-like tests. I do okay with a cover letter and scenario-based interview questions.

      I also love Nanc’s process of bulleting out what you want to see in the cover letter. That’s a great idea.

    3. hbc*

      It’s not that they’re terrible, it’s that they don’t take advantage of the opportunity to sell themselves. I think people don’t realize they’re not being asked to just translate their resume bullet points into prose.

      Though I’ll say that even the form letter ones have some limited value. Do you have enough attention to detail to spell the name of the company right? To remember to swap out the name of the last position and company you applied to? Can you format an email or doc properly? Do the generic qualities you’re claiming match what I’m looking for in the role?

  10. Lab Spouse*

    I wish I could get applications with a good cover letter, or any cover letter at all. I don’t understand why, but 75% of the applications I get do not have a cover letter included. It makes me wonder if cover letters are not a thing anymore and maybe I’m just behind the times. The cover letters I do get seem to be riddled with fairly obvious grammatical errors and sentences that don’t make a lot of sense but contain a lot of words that are clearly meant to seem fancy. They actually just make the person sound like a bad communicator!

    1. BRR*

      I’ve experienced the same but I don’t think they’re a thing of the past. They’re maybe not as common in some industries but most hiring managers I’ve spoken with want them still.

    2. ThankYouRoman*

      I imagine they made more sense in a world where you sent your documents by fax and mail. Right up there with linen paper and lovely handwritten thank you cards.

      I don’t want them to die, don’t get me wrong but yes I’m certainly seeing the decrease every opening we have.

      1. Lab Spouse*

        Yes, but it is possible to get your application through our online portal without uploading one. I think we need to make it required, but it’s not my call to make.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          To the extent you can be selective, that’s a weed-out point – if you specifically ask for something and they don’t provide it, you could consider the application incomplete. At minimum, it shows a lack of attention to detail/directions (which is a huge issue in my line of work but less important in others).

        2. Jennifer Thneed*

          If it’s in the job description that they should send one, and then they don’t because the portal doesn’t require it, you’ve done a lot of weeding-out right there.

          Me, I’ve got a combined document for when a portal only allows 1 upload, which is an abbreviated cover letter along with the resume, all one document about 3 pagest long.

    3. Washi*

      I had this problem! The online system we used made cover letters required to submit (and it was noted in the application instructions) and applicants could either upload their letter or copy/paste it into a text box. We had SO MANY people write N/A in the text box.

      I think a lot of people just end up taking the quantity over quality approach out of not understanding that if your materials are sloppy and incomplete, applying to 500 jobs instead of 50 won’t actually increase your chances of getting a job.

  11. CEMgr*

    I’m hiring for 4 roles right now and have noticed eerily similar phrasing in cover letters. One phrase stands out, “After reviewing your job description, it’s clear that you’re looking for a candidate that is extremely familiar with the responsibilities associated with the role, and can perform them confidently. Given these requirements, I am certain that I have the necessary skills to successfully do the job adeptly and perform above expectations. ”

    Sadly, there are websites providing this as a great template for a cover letter when in fact it’s the opposite – it’s vague and conclusory, and makes it clear the letter is generic. I won’t reject automatically for this phrase, but it does serve to alert me that I’m likely reviewing a less-qualified candidate. After all, if someone had 1 or 2 strong, relevant accomplishments to mention, and they were a thoughtful person truly interested in this job, they would lead with those. (I don’t consider this as plagiarism as it’s so formulaic.)

    I think similarly about any cover letter saying the candidate is “highly confident” or “extremely confident” about any aspect of their candidacy if they do not provide evidence to support it.

    The best applications involve well-qualified candidates (meeting 75% or more of JD requirements) with customized cover letters calling out 1 or 2 strong points tied to the JD, and also resolving any orange flags about location, education, work experience gaps, etc. A customized letter makes it clear that this person has really thought about this job and wants this job.

    Next best is an application from a well-qualified candidate without a cover letter.

    3rd: Well-qualified candidate with a poor cover letter full of stock phrases or irrelevant detail. A poor cover letter is a net NEGATIVE.

    4th: Less qualified candidate.

    For context, I am in Silicon Valley hiring for mostly engineering roles that typically pay 6 figures.

    1. Lab Spouse*

      I have gotten several letters with the exact same phrase! I am also noticing that some folks who include a “skills” section on their resume are including five skills that are in the exact same order and same wording as other resumes I have received.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        Literally that same phrase? That’s pretty funny. It’s the cut and paste equivalent of the people who use a template like “I really love the ___ industry and your ___ product in particular!” and don’t actually fill in the blanks. (Or as Lab Spouse mentioned, just cut and paste the example skills because why not, maybe it worked for the fictional John Doe whose application is their shining example)

        Even funnier, the first part is basically saying “It’s clear from the fact that you’re hiring for this position that you want someone who can do this position.” SMH.

  12. Plain Jane*

    Don’t forget to have a friend proofread it, or if that’s not possible, save your cover letter and come back to it because your initial review + grammar/spell check might not catch all of your errors.

    1. Close Bracket*

      Dear God, yes. I’m an editor, and even I have trouble proofreading my own stuff.

      That said, I’ve made some embarrassing mistakes and still gotten a response, so don’t beat yourself up if you find a typo later. :)

  13. Plain Jane*

    As someone who’s worked as an assistant, I can tell you it’s actually kind of annoying to field calls from candidates asking who the hiring manager is and can you spell that?

    1. ThankYouRoman*

      I had a hiring manager flip out on me for mentioning his name in the initial process. (Emailing back and forth to schedule an interview) I had to forward him the chain because the dude ended up wanting to reschedule and he was all “rooooooar just refer to me by Ops Manager not my name!!!”

      He is not interested in being professionally stalked to try to grease the wheels I guess. He’s certainly an outlier but I do get his point.

  14. DarlaMushrooms*

    So I was agonizing over cover letters and even sent Alison a note about it last week. (Basically after I was hired my boss berated me and made fun of my conversational style cover letter, so I’ve been sticking to stiff, formal cover letters and having no luck).

    On Friday I took a leap and changed up my cover letter using the advice I got from this site. I literally just got a call for an interview from a place I applied to on Friday with my new cover letter. YOU GUYS. I’ve been looking for work for months and this is my first interview invite!

    1. Ali G*

      Awesome! It was the same with me – at first when I started looking I didn’t even think how much things would have changed in 14 years. Now I am so embarrassed by those early applications I sent out! So thankful for the tools and advice here.
      If you haven’t already download Alison’s free interview guide. It’s fabulous and once you work through it, you will feel so much more confident in the interview.
      Good luck!

    2. pleaset*

      There’s a saying “The winner is always right”

      In your case, you got hired? That suggests to me your cover letter was good, despite what s/he says.

  15. Nanc*

    That clip art image brings back so many memories of leafing through giant books of clip art for creating parks and recreation class schedules! And pasting them up by hand. On a custom-made light board made by the children’s theater director. How thrilled we were to meet Pagemaker!

  16. Close Bracket*

    Similar to Sabine the Very Mean, sometimes the online system asks that I attach a resume and only has one spot for attaching documents. When this happens, I put the cover letter as the first page of my resume and upload the combined document.
    So, people who work at places that use such a system, is this annoying? Should I be assuming that if you wanted a cover letter, you would ask for one?

    1. Close Bracket*

      Oh, it might be relevant that I am an engineer applying for fairly specialized technical positions, frequently, but not always, at really large companies.
      I don’t know how much that changes the answer for whether HR/hiring managers want a cover letter when none is asked for.

    2. sometimeswhy*

      I’d be annoyed but probably not long enough to remember that it was *that* application in particular come interview time so ultimately it’d probably net neutral but one of the things I’m looking for in my screening [for my very narrow field] is ability to follow directions, even irritating, nitpicky, seemingly pointless ones.

      1. Close Bracket*

        Do your directions explicitly say, “Do not include cover letter?”
        I screen for employers who think I know what they want without giving directions.

        1. sometimeswhy*

          When my directions explicitly say, “Responses must be in the forms provided, do not refer to supplemental materials” (which is every time) or “Do not submit supplemental materials” (which is rare but happens and the system allows attachments anyway with no way for us to block them) then it skips right past annoying to disqualifying.

          If I asked for a resume and got a resume and cover letter, I’d be annoyed but not enough to disqualify a candidate or to even remember who I’d been annoyed at come interview time. But that’s neither here nor there since it sounds like our respective narrow fields are different enough that my reaction as a hiring manager wouldn’t apply to your situation as a candidate. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  17. Pescadero*

    “We could just hire based on resumes alone. But of course, other things matter, too — things like personal traits, work habits, communication skills, people skills, intelligence, drive, and enthusiasm for the job.”

    As someone who tends to do really well at interviewing (in the 20 years since I graduated college I’ve been offered every job I’ve interviewed for) – I wish I could believe there was any criterion validity in the common hiring processes… but I don’t.

    I think most businesses would get equally good (or better) employees if they did just hire on resumes with no interviews – especially if we can obfuscate gender/ethnicity/religion in the resume.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I disagree about cutting out the interview process, particularly for entry-level candidates. The very worst employee I ever had (inherited – I sure didn’t hire them) had a truly fantastic resume – and zero interpersonal skills or desire to work, which was immediately apparent when you met them. I don’t care how good someone looks on paper, if they cannot solve problems (either on their own or by asking for guidance) or work positively and productively with other people, I don’t want them on my team. I can tell more about how someone is going to work in our environment by asking three or four situation-based questions that relate directly to the job requirements than by reviewing their internship history.

  18. Witchery*

    My S.O. has been applying for jobs, he desperately wants to move into an adjacent but separate role. I worked extensively on his resume (hopefully it’s a winner), but I just happened to glance over his shoulder as he was fililng out an application form, and noticed some odd third-person writing. I was trying not to eavesdrop, but he was writing his cover letter in third person, and I’m assuming he had done so for all of his applications to date. Despite me pushing him to read this blog for years, I guess he had never read a cover letter. Then he yelled at me for not having “facts” when I told him that cover letters are written in the first person. He googled it to prove he was right, and didn’t find anything that explicitly said it was wrong. -_-

    1. Chameleon*

      My husband *insists* that if you haven’t heard back in a week you should call the hiring manager.

  19. Like The City*

    Seriously, follow Alison’s advice! I applied for the job I have now (which was actually a leap to a whole different field) and followed Alison’s advice to the letter. Using her tips, I found ways to show how my experience in my old field could translate to this one. Unbeknownst to me, I literally applied at the eleventh hour. They had narrowed it down to someone they were “okay with” but when they saw my cover letter they decided to do one more interview…I got the job! Thank you Alison!

  20. lawyer*

    There are so many times that I find that candidates just waste the cover letter. I work at the largest law firm in a secondary legal market (think Dallas, Miami, or LA rather than NYC/DC). When I’m looking at lateral candidates, it’s so common that they are relocating to my city, but there is no way to tell from the resume why they’re leaving the current job and why they want to be in my city. (Biglaw jobs can be very interchangeable, so that context is important – like, why do you want to leave an M&A practice in Dallas to come to an M&A practice in Miami?) And the cover letter is often completely generic and useless.

    1. Bigglesworth*

      I mentioned this down below, but my law school told me earlier today to make my cover letter generic and just reemphisize the skills in my resume. The cover letter I submitted to them is based on several tips from AAM and talks about my interest in the field (environmental and human rights public interest nonprofits or firms), what I’ve done in school, the skills I bring from my previous work, etc.

      I also have a short section talking about my grades, because I’ve had something come up every semester (spouse hospitalized before 1L fall finals, grandma died before summer finals, and laptop died in the middle of an exam [civ pro]). Despite these personal situations, my GPA is only slightly below the median at my school. This section is only two or three sentences at most.

      My career services people will not provide more feedback until I write a more generic cover letter.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        So maybe your career services people are not so useful? (Actually, if you write it will they insist that you use it? Or send it out for you? If no, just write the damn thing as an exercise, hand it over, and never look back.)

  21. TakingTheFifth*

    I’ve been working for the same government agency in various positions for almost 30 years (and hope to never need to write a cover letter or resume again!). It’s interesting to see what has changed. I remember filling out job applications in pen and worrying about ink blots. Everyone used the thickest paper they could afford for resumes, cover letters & envelopes. Job coaches all stressed the importance of a good objective statement and that cover letters should always be addressed to “Dear Sir/Madam.” I wish we’d had e-mail & online applications back then!

  22. Allie*

    This is super timely – just about to start writing one for the role I’ve been in for four months which is now being advertised permanently.

    Hiring managers, any tips on how to talk about the fact that you’ve already been doing the job (with excellent feedback) for a while?

  23. Bad Day Today*

    I sent out a cover letter on Sunday mainly to make myself feel better on Monday (afraid I was about to be fired). I didn’t fret over it at the time, but today I realize I really do want that job, and I started fretting about it today. I think I did all the things you mentioned, which is a relief.

    FYI: for the people who chimed in on Friday… I’m still alive, still employed, and still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Thank you for the support.

  24. Bigglesworth*

    Do cover letters need to be more impersonal or aloof in different fields? I submitted my cover letter to be reviewed by career services at my law school and they genuinely hated it. They told me to follow a standard, regurgitate-the-resume format before they’ll provide more commentary.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Career services offices are notoriously out of touch. Oops, I already replied to you. Write the damn thing and see what they say. Do they offer practice interviews? If so, that will give you an idea of how actually out of touch they are. Will they actually help you find jobs, or just give you (bad) advice? If the latter, smile and nod and blow them off.

  25. mountainshadows299*

    I’m going to echo what other commenters have said- Alison, thanks for the awesome advice! I’ve just started up my job hunt, and I really do think it is my cover letter that has made the difference. For context, I sent out about 9 resumes within the last month and a half, and I’ve had 5 interviews scheduled within that time, 2 of which were for positions I considered to be long shots. I think I may get one or two more interviews just from that batch as there were a couple of larger employers I applied to at the opening of the positions. So yeah… Definitely a stark contrast from my last job search where it took me months just to get an interview (granted, I was less experienced at the time, but, in retrospect, my cover letters were TERRIBLE).

    Now I just need to work on getting better at interviewing in general…

  26. Dee Calcari*

    Question: what does one do when practically *every* position requires a degree?

    I’m currently job searching after working as a professional, analyst level, at a large insurance company for 25+ years. We have moved to small town USA in northeast Ga and while jobs here (unless in the medical field) aren’t plentiful, I cannot get selected for interviews. I have a professionally written resume (part of our relo package, it should be in line with what employers look for, from what I’ve been told) and extensive experience…but one of the very.first.questions asked when applying online are related to having a degree. I don’t. And while I’m not discounting the importance of an education, why can’t my many years of successful experience be taken into consideration? I want to say, ‘take a chance, you’ll LIKE me!’ because I’ve always been known as someone who can Get Shit Done. (and I’m not applying for high paying specialized positions, btw)

    I’m just sad and feel like a big loser right now. :(

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