Skip the “Dear Sir or Madam” in your cover letter and zero in on exactly how you’re going to solve whatever problems the hiring company has.
Do hiring professionals even read cover letters for senior candidates anymore? Some say yes; some say no, they don’t bother unless the resume in question has grabbed their attention.
The simple answer is that you should assume your resume will merit a look at your cover letter ; always include one (either as a separate document or an e-mail that acts as one); and make it exceptional, so you stand out from the crowd. Ladders talked to hiring and career management professionals to find out exactly how a good cover letter is laid out and what it contains.
The salutation is your first chance to make contact with a hiring professional, but it’s one spot where laziness often wins out over due diligence. We’re talking about the “Dear Sir or Madam” approach. What this generic salutation says isn’t positive: Namely, that the author couldn’t be bothered to find out the hiring manager’s name.
Abby Kohut, president and staffing consultant at Staffing Symphony, suggests job seekers can easily locate the right person online: “To find the name of the hiring manager, try searching on Google or LinkedIn,” she said. “Even a good guess scores you points because it indicates that you tried harder than everyone else.”
Why do you want to work here?
Kohut recommends that job applicants make sure to mention the name of the company in the letter, followed by an explanation of why they’re interested in working there. “Make sure that you really mean what you say,” she said. “Recruiters have a way of sensing when you are being less than truthful. Our goal is to hire people who sincerely want to work at our company — it’s the job of your cover letter to convince us.”
Bombastic claims are just as bad as insincerity. Brooke Allen, a hiring manager at Maple Securities, said he hates it when job seekers claim in their cover letters that they’re his “best candidate.” “How can they know without evaluating all my candidates?” he asked.
You also need to make a sales pitch as to why the employer should want to work with you, Kohut said.
“Your letter should explain what you can do for your ‛customer,’ not what you are selling,” she said. “The key is to give the reader a small glimpse into your background, which encourages them to want to learn more by reading your resume.”
Length and format
Job coach and author Susan Kennedy, of Career Treking, provided this outline for a good, succinct cover letter:
Introduce yourself and state why you’re writing; you are enthusiastically presenting yourself for a job, and your background makes you the best candidate. List a referral source if possible.
List your value to the company. Describe how you will contribute to the company from Day One. This should be based on research of the company and job. Share knowledge of the company’s goals, accomplishments and opportunities.
Call to action. Ask for the interview and state when (exactly) you will follow up.
If you are responding a job posting, Kennedy recommends a column approach. Below is a sample of how that might look, with bulleted lists of requirements and descriptions of how your background matches them:
Job Requirements: 1-2 years of general accounting experience.
Your experience: Tracked expenses and all financial reporting for a government subcommittee.
Job Requirements: Attention to detail.
Your experience: Edited manuscripts to ensure American English vs. British English.
Kennedy notes that cover letters “can also be used to bridge your background and the job.” She offered up an excerpt from the cover letter of a client with a degree in political science who wants to get a job in the video-gaming business:
“As you can see, my resume is attached. But what you won’t see on my resume is my passion for video gaming: it is how I see the world. My analytical skills and attention to detail will enable me to help solve the caller’s problems and ensure a high-quality product.”
Perfect spelling and grammar are mandatory
A cover letter is “a writing-skills evaluation in disguise,” Kohut said. “When recruiters are faced with large stacks of resumes for new positions, you’ll never make the first cut if they notice even one spelling or grammar mistake on your resume or cover letter.” Make sure that even an e-mail is scrupulously proofread.
Tactics hiring professionals love
Sometimes a gesture can impress a hiring professional. Kohut was once beguiled by a candidate who read her LinkedIn profile and saw that she had won a ping-pong tournament. “He sent me a ping-pong paddle in the mail and wrote a cover letter with ping pong-themed language in it,” she said, including sentences like these:
- “I’d like to get in the game.”
- “I bring energy, intelligence and motivation to the table.”
- “I now feel compelled to drive home positive business results.”
For Allen, the most effective cover letters are those that do one of the following two things in one sentence or two: They make a compelling statement that begs a response, or they ask a question that must be answered.
A good approach is to ask for clarification of a point that makes it clear they have done their homework, as in: ‘Your ad said X while your Web site said Y … Could you help me understand Z?’ ” he said. “I believe the goal of the job seeker is to start a conversation rather than just throw a resume into a pile.”
Tactics that hiring professionals hate
Allen said that cover letters or cover e-mails should not only be “well written with proper spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization,” but they should also leave out abbreviations or emoticons.
Phrases like “i dunno,” lolh,” “i dnt cf,” “!!!,” “dgms,” “WTF” and using all capital letters have no place in professional correspondence, he said.
“I am not against people who are into texting, if they use it when they text,” he said. “But I like the full expressiveness of our language and the keyboard.”
Abbreviations are also inappropriate. They’re not expressive, Allen said, and using them risks confusing your reader, who might not know what their spelled-out versions are.
More from Ladders
Over the last five years, I’ve read something like 500 applications for entry-level media jobs. Over time, I’ve spotted many talented people, including a number of recent college graduates who are now valued Slate employees. Slate is a small company, so when it’s time to make a hire, a list of three great HR-approved candidates does not magically appear on my desk. I write the ads (like this one) and read all of the responses myself—and after scaling mountains of cover letters I’ve developed some opinions I can no longer hold back.
The most important one is this: Many young people seem to have no idea how to apply for a job. What I see time after time from young media hopefuls are not the classic no-nos, like misspellings and typos, but what appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding of how to sell oneself to a prospective employer. While I certainly don’t speak for all media folk or even all of the editors at Slate, allow me to offer some guidance to current college students and recent grads. Some of my advice may sound familiar, but based on the applications I’m seeing, there are plenty of green job-seekers out there who could use these pointers.
Focus on the cover letter. It is not uncommon for me to get 100 applications for one spot, so I’m constantly looking for reasons not to advance a candidate to the interview round. Writing a good cover letter is your best shot at getting noticed. If I hate a cover letter, I won’t even look at the résumé.
Keep it short. I started putting word limits on cover letters because I couldn’t stand, nor did I have the time to read, the epically long letters I’d receive. I’m going to give your letter maybe 30 seconds of my time. If you are interested in a job in journalism, you should be able to tell me about yourself and why I should hire you in less than 200 words. I’ve never hired someone with a longwinded cover letter. Same goes for résumés. No one with fewer than four years of full time work experience needs more than a page. Your summer lifeguarding job does not need five bullet points.
Avoid awkward phrasing and attempts to be overly formal. Introductions like “With this statement, I declare my interest in the position you have advertised on your website” are clumsy and should be avoided. Start with a strong but simple opener, like “I'm excited to be writing to you to apply for the blogging position at Slate.” Conversational is much better than stilted.
You are your best advocate. It’s not uncommon for me to get a cover letter that opens with, “I am sure you are getting many qualified applicants for this job, many of whom are more qualified than I.” If you don’t believe you are the best candidate, why should I? This letter is your chance to sell yourself. Don’t plant the seed in my mind that you aren’t the best candidate for the job. You don’t want to be overly cocky, but I’ll take confident over meek any day.
Show me that you read my site. It’s common for cover letter writers to say, “I love Slate,” but that doesn’t stand out to me. Be more specific. Who are your favorite writers? What are some recent articles you enjoyed? Detailed flattery will get you further, because it shows you’ve done your homework. Ninety percent of the cover letters I read for our news blog, the Slatest, mention nothing specific about that particular blog. Here’s what one applicant for a recent position wrote (spoiler: I hired him): “I'm particularly drawn to a dynamic news outlet like the Slatest. I appreciate its blend of politics and current affairs, as well as its ability to consistently sniff out the most compelling news pieces and narratives. I dig its sense of humor, too—I can't resist a news blog that picks up on the latest North Korean, pigeon–eating propaganda pieces.”
Explain how selecting you will benefit me. This is where candidates often get it totally backward. I frequently read lines like: “I am applying for this paid internship because I think working at Slate would be highly beneficial for me, and would do a lot to help my future job prospects for a career in media for after I graduate from college.” I know how working at Slate would strengthen your résumé. But I am looking to you, candidate X, to solve a problem for me. My problem is that I need good interns. Explain to me how choosing you will solve my problem. Here’s how one candidate convinced me that his skills were pertinent to the role I was hiring for: “From my editorial experience as managing editor of 34th Street Magazine here at Penn, to my experience in news and culture blogging at LAist.com last summer, I've picked up the tools I need to perform as a Slatest intern with excellence.”
I’m not interested in anything you did before college. Leave anecdotes like this out: “I am a born storyteller, and I’ve loved writing ever since I won an award for playwriting in the third grade for my series of puppet fairytales.” If you are early in your college career, then hopefully you still have relevant experiences and interests to write about. If you don’t, know that you’ll be competing with upperclassmen, college grads, and graduate students who do.
I’m not interested in your life journeys. This includes your experiences studying abroad, even if you had an amazing time. I get too many letters with paragraphs like: “I’ve wondered to myself, how can I translate my natural talent for the written word into a life path that is interesting and meaningful? I asked myself this question many times during my study abroad in Morocco. I loved working with the Moroccan farmers in helping feed their families, but I also longed for a way to feed my own passions for books, literature, and writing. As I enter my senior year, I think more and more that my true calling could be to be a journalist.” Save these musings for late night dorm room chats with your best friend.
When I read “senior thesis” my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact your academic advisers have convinced you these are really important, most people don’t care about them in the real world. Be wary of dwelling on what your topic is and PLEASE do not attach a chapter with your application. Writing a senior thesis has nothing to do with journalism. I’ll never open it, and I’ll resent you for sending it.
I don’t really care what classes you’ve taken, either. I’m much more interested in what you’ve done that relates to the skills needed for the position than I am in what you’ve studied. An interesting Tumblr account, a vibrant Twitter presence, or a personal blog on a topic you are passionate about is 10 times more compelling to me than your course load.
Your college and GPA aren’t as important as you think. This may be the biggest blow to you, grasshopper. In general, I don’t care about your GPA or whether you went to an Ivy League school, so definitely don’t expect this alone to swing open any doors for you. Of all the entry-level people I’ve hired, the one that went on to have the most successful career in media never finished college. If you are still in college, you should mention where you go and what you study. But the further out of college you are, the less I want to hear about where you went or how you did there.
Follow the application instructions to a T. I often give really specific instructions in the job posting, listing a word limit on cover letters, requesting exactly two writing samples, and noting a firm deadline for when applications are due. This is my first test in how good you are at taking direction. If you send four writing samples rather than two, that doesn’t make me think you are overqualified, it makes me think you can’t edit yourself or aren’t good at doing what is asked of you. Small mistakes like this help me figure out whom to eliminate, so tread carefully.
If you follow these instructions, you should have a good shot at making it to the top of the pile. It might not be long before you’re on the other side of the desk, reading cover letters yourself. Good luck.