The ABCs of an Effective Cover Letter

Cover letters are the bane of existence for many job seekers (as the tweets below attest). It’s unclear if anyone reads them or what employers even expect from them, and the rules are always changing.

Used properly, cover letters can be a huge asset to your job search, but they do take time and effort to create. If you’re wondering if it’s worth it to write cover letters, start by asking yourself these questions. Be honest. The answer to some or even all of them might be “no.”

  1. Do the companies I’m applying to explicitly require a cover letter?
  2. Are there things about my work experience, accomplishments or personality that would be helpful to explain to hiring managers?
  3. Are there things I want hiring managers to know that aren’t on my resume or would be awkward to put on my resume?
  4. Am I willing to put in the time and effort to write a good cover letter?

If you’re still reading, it’s likely that you answered “yes,” or at least “maybe,” to one of the questions. Before you dive into writing your cover letter, here are some things to think about.

The Truth About Cover Letters

1. Your cover letter can mean the difference between getting an interview and getting ignored.

For example, imagine that you really want to work as a recruiter, but you only have sales jobs experience on your resume. By using a cover letter you can explain that many of the skills you use as a salesperson (such as cold-calling prospects, understanding client needs, making a case for the benefit of your product) can easily be translated into a recruiting job, which requires calling potential candidates, understanding candidate fit and promoting your company culture to top talent. Without a cover letter, a hiring manager may immediately decide that your skills are not a fit because you don’t explicitly have recruiting experience.

2. Your cover letter can potentially hurt your chances more than it helps them.

A poorly written cover letter that’s filled with grammatical mistakes signals to employers that you lack attention to detail. The rationale is that if you put so little effort into your cover letter, then how much attention are you likely to pay to your job? If you decide to take the time to write a cover letter, make sure it’s a good one.

3. There are no universal opinions about cover letters.

The truth is that there are very few absolutes regarding cover letters. Some hiring managers love them, and some don’t read them. Some recruiters expect them as a formality, and sometimes resumes are passed around internally and get separated from their cover letter entirely. For this reason you should consider two rules of thumb as you think about whether a cover letter is right for you.

  • Rule #1: First, do no harm. If you have nothing to say, and you aren’t willing to take the time to write, proofread and spellcheck a cover letter, then don’t write a cover letter at all.
  • Rule #2: If the application instructions say that a cover letter is required, then include a cover letter no matter what. Make sure to spellcheck it.

Now that you’ve decided that you must incorporate a cover letter into your job search strategy, take a look at these real-life samples. If you were to grade your current cover letter according to these standards, what grade would your letter receive?

Grade D

I had talked a gentleman at the [Name of school] job fair on [Date]. He mentioned that I should apply for this position.                                                                                        

This cover letter is worse than no cover letter. It actively works against the candidate. The “letter” is only two sentences, and it is missing a word. The letter says nothing about why the candidate is interested in the position or what skills might make this person good at the job. What we learned about this candidate based on this letter is that the candidate couldn’t be bothered to proofread the letter and seemed to be applying solely at a stranger’s urging. Unfortunately these are not the key qualities that most employers look for in a new employee.

Grade C

This letter is to express my interest in the job posting listed on your website. Based on my skills and interests, I believe that I would be a valued addition to your team. I believe there is a good fit between my skills set and requirements to this position…                                                         

This letter is an average, obligatory letter. It may not ruin the candidate’s chance of receiving an interview, but it doesn’t enhance the candidate and is likely to be ignored.

Grade B

I was pleased to learn of your need for a [job title]. With solid [Field A] knowledge, extensive [Field B] working experience and excellent interpersonal communication skill, I am writing to apply for this position. Through my studies as a [major] at [University], I have the opportunity to learn A, B, and C and to complement my theoretical research knowledge with hand-on training at [Company M].

This letter is a good start for a recent graduate. It is personalized to the advertised job and tries to tie together school knowledge with the job duties. Some cleanup is needed to fix the typos, but this is a start to a potentially successful letter.

Grade A

I am writing to apply for the [job title] at [Company]. This summer I graduate with a [degree] in [major] and am eager to continue improving my [X] and [Y] skills in a company environment. I believe that my previous experience with [X] and [Y] make me an effective candidate for this internship. I am particularly drawn to this internship because my knowledge, skills and qualifications closely match those described in the job description. Please consider the following:

    • Example 1
    • Example 2
    • Example 3

While it may seem unusual for a graduate student to apply for a position such as this, I want you to know that I am interested in this internship because I want a career where I get to [do activities 1, 2, and 3]. I want to explore how [activity 4] can improve [critical function] for a company. As a result, I am willing, and am able, to relocate to [location] (of my own accord) for this internship. 

This letter is great. It serves the purpose of providing more information about the candidate that a traditional resume can’t. The beginning of the letter clearly tells us the status of the candidate, why the candidate is interested in the job and why she is qualified. This job seeker then provides several examples to support her claim that she is qualified for the position. She closes the letter by answering some potential objections or questions that a hiring manager might have, such as the perception that she might be overqualified or that she would expect relocation assistance.

The required language and tone of a successful cover letter will vary by industry and culture, but the basics of this letter are sound.

As you create your cover letter, use these samples as a guide of what (and what not) to do to vie for a spot on the interview schedule.