The Secret to the Good-Enough Cover Letter

The other day, I posted something on Facebook in frustration about clueless cover letters, and got a lot of follow-up questions from people, so I decided to give a little glimpse inside my recruiter’s mind so you can see what I’m thinking when I review resumes to select candidates. I hope it will help. It isn’t hard to have your cover letter stand out, because honestly, a lot of them just pretty much suck.

The problem is that most people misunderstand what a cover letter’s job really is. They think it’s the place to recount their work history, or a chance to blow their own horn at length, or to blow some smoke about their work history, or to just let out their inner blah-blah.

In actuality, a cover note has only one primary job: to get me to read your resume with the mindset that you just might be the person I’m looking for. Everything else is extra, because if your note doesn’t engage me, or gives me the wrong impression, your resume isn’t going to get much of a chance.

But if you can get me excited about reading your resume, and you’re off to a good start.

Here are different kinds of no-no’s and what I think I can tell about the candidate from them :

1. No cover letter at all. It amazes me how many resumes are submitted with no note at all, or that just say “see resume” with an attached document sent through a job site or direct to my email. When I see that, I’m thinking they are either lazy, unimaginative, or unsophisticated about the hiring process. Or maybe they’re blasting out resumes all over the place because they’re desperate. Or they’re trying to infect me with the latest computer virus. Definitely not a good start. And for a customer-facing job like marketing or sales, no note may be the kiss of death. If a job is worth applying for, it’s worth writing a cover note.

2. One-size-fits-all copy-and-paste notes. Oh, those standardized copy-and-paste boilerplate cover notes. I know someone probably spent a whole lot of time putting it together, trying to make it perfect, talking about all their best qualities and with details about each of their jobs. But it’s still a form letter, and it’s annoying. I told them what I was looking for in my posting, but instead of focusing on why they fit my checklist, they just send me a form letter. Bad form.

3. Too much information. Some cover notes are truly epic, long paragraphs of life stories, lists of former customers, itemization of computer programs or personal qualities. TMI people show me they aren’t very good at editing information into usable nuggets, that they aren’t good at refining their thoughts to choose what’s important, and that they don’t have a lot of respect for my time if they expect me to read all that. It’s a turn-off. Just the basics, please.

4. The cover letter attached cover letter. Yeah, that’s redundant. This is where, instead of just putting the cover note in the body of the email, you create a whole separate document and attach it, which tells me you actually trust that I’m going to open two separate documents to learn about your background. But really, you shouldn’t, because it’s likely I won’t. I’m going to jump right to your resume, which is what I really care about anyway, and I’ll miss whatever it was you hoped I’d read, so it was all a waste of time.

5. The “it’s not on my resume but…” cover note. There’s a little gray area here, but a lot of people try to add important information to their cover note when it really belongs in their resume. if it’s important for the job, then it should be on your resume. If you need to modify or add to your resume to show that you’re right for the job, then modify your resume because that’s where important information needs to be. Don’t try to make your cover note do your resume’s work. In fact, don’t ever even count on having your cover letter shared or forwarded along with your resume. Resumes are stand-alone documents, so if it should be there, put it there.

6. The Dear Sir cover letter. Way to start off a new relationship, by calling me sir. Versions of this include “Gentlemen,” “To whom it may concern,” and “Dear Mr. Ayres.” Come on, it’s the 21st century, people; do you really assume that only men are going to read your note? Or that we’ll feel all warm and fuzzy about you when you call us “to whom it may concern”? This seems like a no-brainer, but it happens all the time.

7. Too much hype and overconfidence. Please, don’t tell me you’re the perfect person for the job. Maybe you are, but it’s my job is to decide who the best candidates are, and all you know so far is what was put in the posting. Plus, almost without exception, the ones who say they’re perfect are the furthest thing from it. These hyped notes often have a lot of exclamation points scattered about, too, which makes the writer look a little crazy or overenthusiastic. Don’t do that. Have a little humility and realism. Present your background so it speaks for itself.

8. Bad spelling and punctuation. Email isn’t required to be as perfect as more formal documents, so maybe a typo will get by, but more than that makes you look unprofessional. If you don’t spell or punctuate well, get some help. It will pay off in the long run.

Most of the cover letters I get suffer from one or more of these problems. It’s sad because I know how people agonize about their cover note, feeling intimidated about what to say. And it’s really easy to write a note that works for you instead of against you.

How to Write The Good-Enough Cover Letter

Here are a few easy tips for a simple cover letter that will get you started off on the right foot:

Be conversational. There’s no need to be stuffy. You’re a real person, so go ahead and sound like one. Write your note as if you are talking to the recipient on the phone. Imagine that you have just called them, and you are introducing yourself and telling them why you would be a good candidate for the job.

Use an informal greeting. Forget the Dear Ladies and Gentlemen or Dear Human Resources Manager silliness. Just say hello, or maybe good morning or good afternoon. If you know their name, use it, in the format that’s appropriate for your field and industry. In California in the tech world, we use first names for everyone, so calling someone Mr. or Ms. sounds stuffy; other places still use Mr. or Ms. in business correspondence. When in doubt, just play it safe and skip the name.

Tell me where you heard about the job. Job postings and networking are a big expense, and companies and recruiters like to know where you heard about the opening, so we know which of our recruiting sources are producing results.

Tell me exactly why you fit the job. You read the job posting, so you know what we’re looking for. Tell me what it is in your background that fits the description. If the posting asks for five years of web development experience with consumer-facing sites, then point out that you have five years of web development experience with consumer-facing sites. Add some detail like company names, products or projects, but don’t add a lot of stuff that isn’t related to the job posting.

An Example

Let’s imagine that I’ve posted this online: “We’re looking for a very seasoned widget sales executive who has worked in the international arena and taken a company from start-up to going public. You must have a MBA and have contacts in the widget industry. The company will relocate you to Siberia.” There may be more listed about the job and requirements, but these are the essential points.

Keeping in mind that the job of the cover note is to make me feel optimistic that you may be the person I’m looking for, here’s a good simple cover note for that job:

Good morning,

I was excited to see your posting for a Widget Sales Executive on Craigslist today. I have been leading sales and management for widget companies for the past twelve years, most recently as Head Widget Executive at Widgetmania, which has recently been acquired by Big Corporation.

Over the years, I’ve built and maintained extensive contacts with people in the industry at every level. I’ve worked in France, Italy, Singapore and Japan, and speak three languages fluently. My MBA is from Favorite University, and I have been part of two startups, overseeing their growth from zero to $100 million in sales.

I currently live in California, but have family in Siberia and would be very open to relocation.

This role sounds like it could be a good fit. My resume is attached. I’m definitely looking forward to the chance to talk to you more about this job.

Thanks very much,

See? Easy, it’s short and sweet, conversational, friendly, and it hits the most important points of the posting, and gives me a little insight about why they’re looking for a job, but with no added fluff or hype. A little dry, perhaps, and certainly not the most amazing cover letter ever, but it’s completely functional with nothing that’s a turnoff. And it’s better than 90% of the notes I get. Most definitely good enough.

When I open an email and read a cover note like this, I get a little rush, because I know this is someone who knows what I’m looking for, and who appears to have each of my most important items, including acknowledging that they’ll have to move to Siberia, so they just might be a diamond among the contenders. Am I excited to open that resume? You betcha.

Now, the truth is that most often, I’ll open the resume and find that all is not perfect at all. But that’s not the fault of the cover letter, which has done its job by getting me excited to read the resume. I’ll even spend more time reading a resume with a cover letter that gave me a great first impression. Whether the resume meets my expectations is another story, of course, but if I’m reading your resume with interest, then your cover letter did its job.

Comments are closed.