I’ve seen thousands of cover letters and hundreds of resumes hiring software developers, web designers, copyeditors, salesmen, and admins for my company,
Something about that statistic should jump out at you — I’ve read far fewer resumes than cover letters. That’s because your cover letter is a critical component of getting your resume read.
But there’s another statistic that isn’t as obvious: I don’t read most of the cover letters I receive!
Why not? Because most cover letters are so horrible that they get trashed immediately.
Don’t get auto-trashed. Here’s some tips for writing a killer cover letter that will get your resume into the “Good” pile.
1. Cite external recommendations
Don’t tell me “recommendations are available upon request.” Do you think I have the time or inclination to root our your recommendations before I even know you?
If you have good recommendations, how come you don’t have a 1-3 sentence quote? And if you do, put that front and center in your cover letter!
For example, say I wanted a job writing blog posts. I have a blog myself, and one day I got the following email (true story). Don’t you agree just quoting it would be better than talking about myself?
Just wanted to take a moment of your time to thank you for your outstanding blog. Don’t tell anybody but I get giddy like a schoolgirl when I see one of your posts pop up in my reader.
Your blog is probably much more inspiring to others than you realize. You consistently provide encouragement and actionable advice that fuels people like me as we pursue our own entrepreneurial goals.
I could try to say the same thing in a cover letter: “I write thought-provoking pieces that people respond to.” Yeah right, you and everyone else.
It only sounds genuine when it’s from someone else’s mouth.
2. Don’t use a template
You can find cover letter templates all over the Internet. I’m not linking to them because you shouldn’t use them.
A template makes your letter look like all the rest. When I’m looking through 100 letters per day, I notice the templates. It doesn’t matter what the template is! You get auto-trashed because you’re boring and thoughtless.
If you want to use a template just to get thoughts out on paper, that’s fine. But then change things up, don’t use the same language, and don’t say things in the same order.
The purpose is to stand out from the crowd, right?
3. Research the company you’re applying to
A generic cover letter that is spammed to 100 HR departments is obvious.
What, you didn’t think sending a letter to 100 companies was spam? Just because you sent it to firstname.lastname@example.org doesn’t mean it’s not spam.
I can tell in 5 seconds whether the candidate has any inkling who we are or what we do. And if they haven’t bothered to do that, I know they’re spamming.
Good candidates don’t need to spam. Good candidates care where they work and act like their time is precious.
It doesn’t take much to overcome this hurdle. You don’t have to trial their software or heavily research the market. Just look at the home page, “About Us,” and maybe FAQs and ask yourself things like:
- Why does this company exist?
- Who are their customers?
- Why do people buy this stuff?
- What is the culture like at this company?
Get just a rough idea of the answers, then lead off your letter with it (or just after your lead-off testimonial). Make it look like you want to work there, and prove it.
I came across your website while looking for great places to work in Austin. You stood out because, as a software developer myself, I love the idea of working on a developer tool. Also, although I don’t have a lot of experience with peer code review, I like what you have to say about it and I’m excited about learning more. Finally, reading your job description showed me you have a sense of humor, and that’s important to me.
See how I didn’t have to include anything technical, I didn’t have to know any features, I didn’t have to memorize a data sheet. I just touched on enough points to make it obvious that I actually thought about whether I want to work here before I wrote in saying I want to work here.
4. Be personal, not formal
The common wisdom is to use formal language; you want to make a good impression and prove you can write and act professional.
Well you do need to prove you can write, and it’s important that you can spell and use correct grammar, but if you sound like a robot you won’t stand out.
People want to work with people they like. It’s not just resumes and bullet points and acronyms and mission statements.
In fact, if someone likes you they’re more likely to fight for you even if some of your “requirements” don’t match exactly.
Stodgy, formal prose is a great way to demonstrate you have no personality and you aren’t fun to be with. It’s probably not even true! But all they know about you is your cover letter, so you have to prove it there.
Do you run the risk that some people will be turned off and reject you for your lively style? Yes! But then, do you want to work for that company?
This is like dating. You can pretend to be someone you’re not, and that might even get you the job. But if it’s not the real you, it won’t be fun in the end.
5. Give reasons why you should be hired
Back in high school debate, longer ago than I care to admit, we were taught to end our last speech with “voters.” That meant: “Give the specific reasons why you should win.” When you’re wrapping up, addressing every little point isn’t compelling; what’s compelling — what you want to leave in the judges head as they contemplate the winner — are the reasons they should vote for you.
Your cover letter is the same way. This is not the place to relate all the information you can about yourself. No one cares (yet) about your history. No one wants to read generic statements about how you like challenges and work well on a team.
Rather, your goal is to get to the resume. Your resume can have all that stuff.
So give me your voters. Just tell me why I should look at your resume.
Showing you know about my company and want to work here in particular is a good start. Now tell me something interesting about you that’s relatively unique. Show me something I’m not going to read anywhere else. Something that shows me you’re both fun and interesting and smart.
For example, once a guy sent in a video of himself juggling three bear heads (the company’s name was Smart Bear). Juggling is fun. The video was unexpected.
6. Show something you, yourself, actually did
I used that weird “you, yourself” emphasis because I’m tired of reading about a team you were on and a project you were involved with, even if you were the team lead.
That’s fine, but everyone says that.
Instead, tell me about something that you alone completed. Better, something tangible I can see on the Internet.
- You have a personal website that demonstrates you’re good at Flash or web design.
- You contributed patches to an open source project.
- You run a local juggling group.
- You have a side-project that you admit is very rough but you were using it to learn about Ruby on Rails.
- You wrote a short story that you know needs work but you thought it was a good example of your writing skills.
Put yourself in the shoes of the poor slob who is slogging through hundreds of these letters. Shake that person up. Be different. Use your own words. Demonstrate that you take initiative. Learn about the company and show the company something about you.
Above all, be yourself. If they don’t like you for you, it’s not going to be a good job. And if they do like you for you, it’s going to be a blast.
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