How to write a great cover letter

A great cover letter is highly customized and personalized. Which is hard to create, but worth it. This is the first test you must pass in many job applications. If you don’t cross this hurdle successfully, not much else matters. So why not roll up your sleeves and get to work?

Whether you’re just entering the market or already employed and looking for your next opportunity, cover letters matter. Cover letters matter even if (and perhaps especially if) you’re senior in experience, too. A weak cover letter shows limited enthusiasm and creativity. A great one shows that you’re paying attention, fully engaged, articulate, and worthy of further consideration.

Here are some keys to a great cover letter.

1. Say what you want to say. Often, cover letters sound very different than the person writing them. Crafting the letter to sound formal and professional can really water down the message. The result is bland and generic. Avoid this trap by simply saying what you want to say. What would you say to this hiring manager if you had two minutes of their time, face to face? If you had just that one shot to be heard, to speak directly and frankly? That’s your core message. Start there, with simple and clear language. Then polish it up a bit, not the other way around (don’t take your “standard pitch” and customize it for this opportunity – that’s the lazy and ineffective approach).

2. Use your own voice. Write like you talk and the letter will sound like you. There won’t be a mismatch between how you present yourself in writing and in person. In person you sound polished and professional, but not overly stiff and formal. In person, your personality is part of your image, not something separate to be tucked away and hidden. In person, you show your excitement and enthusiasm without always directly saying “I am excited” or “I am enthusiastic.” Try to sound more like yourself in your letter. Yourself, after all, is probably someone great that the hiring manager would like to have on the team. The hiring manager is likely not looking for a de-personalized robot.

3. Realize it’s not about you. Your cover letter, somewhat ironically, is not about you. It’s about the company that’s hiring, their team, their customers, the hiring manager, and all sorts of other things – about them. What you have to offer only matters in that context right now. What you want, your dreams and aspirations and wants and desires, less so. Sure, there’s a little overlap with your plan and how this may be a mutually beneficial relationship. But that’s about it, and it’s a small issue right now.

4. Don’t let it be about your resume. The cover letter is not a place to recite what’s on your resume. Don’t be redundant and boring. If you have a great cover letter, they’ll look at your resume next, so you don’t need to repeat it here. If you’re feeling like your resume needs to be explained in the cover letter, that just means that you’ve got some work to do on your resume. Don’t try to fix it here, fix your resume instead.

5. Break format. If saying what you want to say and showing what you want to show in a concise and well-crafted letter requires bullet lists, a photo, or a chart, then by all means do it. Don’t worry about what a cover letter is “supposed to” look like. The change will not only be effective, it’ll be refreshing to the reader. The overarching goal is to get your message across, clearly and directly. (So by the same token, don’t be gimmicky with the format. You want to earn attention and respect with your message, not the way it’s delivered.)

6. Write, review, edit. Like any worthwhile writing project, editing will make it better. Draft it, put it down, re-read it later, and revise it. Be sure to eliminate all typos and spellcheck snafus. Have someone else look it over too. Someone with good sensibilities, who is supportive, but who will also give you honest feedback to help make it better.

Photo credit: Jason Dean