I recently reviewed about 60 job applications, and I thought it would be helpful to share some quick, mostly conceptual tips on how to write a better cover letter that will stand out. I review between 50 and several hundred applications every year, and maybe, maybe 5% of the letters I see are written in a way that makes me say, yes, we definitely want to invite this person in for an interview.
I’ll describe the kind of letter I typically see, and how it can be changed so it makes your entire application shine.
The typical letter I see is structured more or less like this:
Paragraph 1: I’m so-and-so, and I’m applying for such-and-such position at your company.
Paragraphs 2-3: Here’s what I did in my previous work, school, or extracurricular experience that makes me great, and here are the skills that I learned.
Paragraph 4: I’m happy to discuss further at your convenience, my resume is attached, I’ll be on campus during interviews, etc.
A Better Mousetrap (Moosetrap)
I see two problems with the typical letter:
- Does not adequately show interest of the applicant in the company, and
- Does not adequately sell how the applicant’s skills will be useful to the company.
Part of the explanation for these inadequacies is that many applicants throw the same cover letter and resume at every job opportunity they apply for, without tailoring their applications to specific opportunities.
Let’s address these two issues in turn so that your letter can include the points needed to wow your interviewers.
- Research the company you’re applying to and make sure that your letter includes at least a couple of points, and preferably several, that show you did your research. This will not only help persuade the interviewers that you have a genuine interest in the company, but it will also help you determine whether you actually are interested in the job or not (your actual interest may be more or less relevant for different jobs at different times in your career, as at times you just need an income). So how do you do this? Go on the company’s website and find some past projects or deals, or ongoing initiatives that you can write a couple of sentences about. You like this sort of deal because some aspect of it interests you. You like this kind of initiative because you believe in the cause. And so forth. This will resonate with the hiring staff in a profound manner, because it is extremely rare!
- Next, rather than just discussing your skills and past experience, explain how you will bring value to the company. This may just be a difference in framing and in introductory sentences. For example, rather than saying you worked as a manager somewhere and learned leadership skills in a certain situation, say you can bring leadership skills to the position you’re applying for, and explain where you got them. It may seem like a trivial difference, but don’t expect the reader of your application to make the leap from “you acquired certain skills” to “you know how to apply them” or even “you will try to apply them.” Be direct in explaining what about you will benefit the company, and how your strengths will enable you to excel in the position you’re seeking.
If you were in the pool of professional applications I regularly see, which are vetted by career services and recruiting offices, and if you were to take the above advice and adjust your cover letter accordingly, you would be in the top 5% of applications I see, so rare is it that anyone goes this extra distance.
Make sure you proofread your cover letter and resume several times, including reading it out loud, and also make sure that you have a couple of friends do the same. You often won’t be able to catch mistakes in your own writing, because we have a tendency to take shortcuts when we’re familiar with the material we’re reviewing, and when we’re the ones who’ve written it, we have ultimate familiarity.
Being typo-free, though not the only criteria, is important when applying for positions in which attention to detail is important, and generally adds polish to any application.
And here’s a semi-stylistic recommendation regarding your introductory sentence if you’re using this formula: I’m so-and-so, and I’m applying for such-and-such position at your company.
I like this:
I’m so-and-so, and I’m applying for such-and-such position at your company.
I’m so-and-so, applying for such-and-such position at your company.
But not this, which I find jarring:
I’m so-and-so, and applying for such-and-such position at your company.
Subtle differences, I know, but these add up.
I hope you find this helpful, and good luck with your application!
Check out the origin of the “better mousetrap” phrase here.