Cover Letters — Top 5 Tips for Job Seekers

Jerz > Writing > Professional > Résumés

Your cover letter can’t simply announce “I really want this job” or “I am the best person to hire” or “see my resume for my qualifications.”

You have a few paragraphs to attract the interest of someone in a position to advance you to the next stage of the hiring process.  A detailed résumé is only part of the game plan. Your cover letter should emphasize why your experiences and attributes make you a good match for this particular job.

1. Research This Particular Job

  • If the job advertisement includes a web address, visit it (duh!).
  • Don’t simply write “Dear Sir or Madam”.  Call the main office during working hours, 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.
  • You might use the same resume to dozens or hundreds of job applications, but if you really want this particular job, then instead of sending a generic cover letter, demonstrate that you know enough about the tasks you’ll be doing that you can write a few coherent paragraphs that convince your employer that hiring you will help them.
  • Your goal is to present yourself as an employee who will get the job done.
  • The job advertisement will probably have instructions. You’ll be judged on how well you follow those instructions.

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 two years experience doing a very similar job.”

  • Focus on what the reader wants to know — “Is this applicant the best match for this job?” 
    • You might want a job where you cuddle baby pandas, but if the zoo is hiring ticket booth attendants, or education program assistants, or social media managers, your cover letter should help your reader decide you have the skills that will help you be successful in the particular job you’re applying for.
    • Your employer didn’t wake up this morning wanting to give someone a break, or wanting to help someone else achieve their dreams. Your cover letter is not about you. Your employer is probably stressed because important work isn’t getting done — that’s why they want to hire someone to do that work.
  • Some employers will read your resume first, and only check your cover letter if they want to know more about you. (Don’t list in paragraph form all the details that are already in your resume. Just mention the one detail from your resume that you think is most likely to get an employer to call you in for an interview.)
  • Some employers will start with your cover letter, so don’t say “see my resume for my qualifications.” (Employers know how a resume is supposed to work.) 
  • 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!).
  • Other employers will start with the resume, and won’t read your cover letter at all unless they’ve already decided you resume is 

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”  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:

Cover Letters: How to Write Them

Contact Your Local Career Center

Most colleges or high schools have a career center, where employees typically offer such services as resume workshops, mock interviews, and other career guidance. Often those schools have programs designed to serve alumni. 

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