Cover Letter -- Top 5 Tips

Your cover letter can't simply announce "I am a good match" -- you have to provide specific details to support that claim. A detailed resume is only part of the game plan. Your cover letter should emphasize why your experiences and attributes make you a good match for the job.

1. Research the Job

  • If the job advertisement includes a web address, visit it (duh!). 
  • Don't simply write "Dear Sir or Madam".  Call the main office, and ask the receptionist for the name of the person in charge of hiring for this position.  Spell the name back to the receptionist to make sure you got it right. 
  • Find out who has held this job in the past; ask that person for advice.

2. Employ the "You" Attitude

Your employer doesn't want to read "I need this job because I want to make money" or "It has always been my dream to work in your field."  Don't focus you your own needs (the "me" attitude). Your employer wants to read "If you hire me, you will gain a hard-working employee with 2 years experience doing a very similar job."

  • Focus on what the reader wants to know -- "Is this applicant the best match for this job?"
  • Don't say "see my resume for my qualifications."  Don't make your reader go hunting. You want to make it easy for your reader to find that information, so you should actually provide it in the cover letter.
  • Some employers may make their first cuts based only on the information contained in the cover letter (which is on top -- your reader hasn't read your resume yet, and is in fact reading your cover letter in order to decide whether it will be worth it to go on to the resume!).

3. Support Your Claims (But Don't Oversell Yourself)

Anyone can write "I am clearly the best person for the job" or "I will slave tirelessly for you."  But these are empty claims. You can't possibly know that you really are the best applicant -- you haven't read anybody else's application, have you? Provide evidence to back up your claims, or you will lose credibility. Instead of demonstrating that you have access to a thesaurus, and can therefore apply snappy adjectives to yourself, you should instead emphasize your achievements.

For example, instead of saying "I am really great with people," list specific, relevant accomplishments ("recruited 14 new members and won 'volunteer of the month' award at local Red Cross agency; delivered 12 safety speeches at area middle schools, to a total of 600 fourth graders; counseled preteens whose parents have recently divorced").  If you don't have any such activities to list, then you should consider what volunteer or extra-curricular activities might give you the kinds of experience you need. 

Instead of simply listing every piece of computer software you have ever worked with, describe what you accomplished with those software packages.   "Used PowerPoint to present weekly staff reports" or "Used MS-Front Page to create a tribute to the TV series 'Full House' (available at www.get-a-life.com)."  After you have described your accomplishments, you can add a line that says you are "familiar with" a longer list of software.   (Your employer will correctly deduce that you have only fiddled around with those software packages in your spare time.)

4. Personalize the Letter

Tell an anecdote directly related to the job for which you are applying. For example, when I applied for my current job, I described a memorable classroom experience, which not only told the readers what kinds of things I value, but also showed me in action. (See: Show, Don't (Just) Tell)

5. Proofread Carefully

If you let mistakes slip into your cover letter, you are telling the reader that you just don't care.  Spell checkers are no substitute for a dictionary, close inspection, and time.  (See: Hit Parade of Errors in Style, Grammar, and Punctuation)


See also:

Resumes and Cover Letters: How to Write Them


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