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I hate cover letters.
They’re long. They’re boring. Unlike résumés, you can’t just blast them out to multiple companies with minimal editing.
I always feel like mine sound super fake, even when I am genuinely excited about the job.
But when I was applying for jobs in my senior year of college, I did my best to shake my bad attitude by researching what makes a bomb cover letter.
A lot of the advice I got – on the internet and from people I know – was dry, vague, and rather contradictory: “Make it half a page, tops; tell a story; don’t get fancy; staying formal is your best bet; contractions are unprofessional; keep it short and sweet!”
As my various application deadlines loomed, I actually dug up an old cover letter that I’d submitted to an internship junior year. I figured that I’d be lazy and plug in some new names and details (yeah, I now know that’s a bad idea) or at least use the bare-bone structure to write some new cover letters.
But … that’s not what happened. My old cover letter was completely unsalvageable. Inexcusable. A three-page, self-focused monstrosity. And I’d sent it out for other humans to read.
So I figured I’d ask an expert to go over my terrible letter and provide concrete reasons on why it’s a train wreck.
Amy Adler, a certified master résumé writer, management coach, and CEO of Five Strengths, went through paragraph by paragraph and gave me some feedback.
Adler also provided the following helpful tips on how I could’ve improved this particular cover letter. (Other than burning it and starting over.):
Don’t wait to tell your story
This cover letter was more like a weird, rambling history of my experience on my college newspaper than like … well, a cover letter.
But Adler says I kind of had the right idea. It’s not a bad idea to set down your “deep history” in writing. Think of it as the prequel to your cover letter.
“You will learn more about what makes you tick, but you don’t have to show it to your hiring manager,” Adler says.
You can save this prequel and pull it out when you need to apply for a job, saving time on brainstorming your accomplishments and experiences.
Just don’t do what I did and send this draft instead of an actual cover letter.
Don’t stumble out of the gate
I got off to a weird start in my cover letter, which I addressed to “Dear To Whom It May Concern.”
Yikes. I think that was a typo? I hope that was a typo.
Plus, I also included a line introducing myself by name, which was already clear from my signature and accompanying résumé.
Things got worse from there.
Don’t forget to include a clear objective
In my case, Adler says that she couldn’t actually figure out what I was even applying for.
I didn’t mention what I role I was going for at the beginning of my letter. Oops.
It’s probably a good idea to start with a clear objective. Hiring managers aren’t mind readers.
Don’t dredge up ancient history
I devoted two entire cringeworthy paragraphs to my experience interning at my college paper as a freshman.
“Your earliest history, whether as a college student or as a professional, is not likely to be relevant to your current goal,” Adler says. “Everyone has that ‘first job’ that got their foot in the door, but usually that role is less related to the career goal than the most recent position.”
“Who cares?” is a helpful question to keep asking yourself when you’re writing a cover letter. And if the answer is “no one” because the information is really old or irrelevant, cut it out.
Don’t drone on and on
This cover letter was a sprawling three pages. I just hope that the poor hiring manager who received it saw the length and dragged it directly into the trash bin.
“One page meets your audience’s expectations for what a cover letter is supposed to do – introduce your résumé and, in most cases, your candidacy for a very specific role,” Adler says. “When most people are reading their emails on their phones, it makes sense to give your audience a digestible document – something simple and easy to read.”
So no autobiographies.
Don’t be vague
My cover letter dragged on the way it did largely due to my decision to examine all of my past titles and roles.
What I didn’t include were specific details of what I could actually do.
Adler notes that it would’ve been better to provide more examples aboutthe skills that I could bring to the role, rather than laying out a whole timeline and throwing around a bunch of confusing jargon.
Don’t show weakness
In my cover letter, I somehow managed to bring up my propensity to fall asleep and my generally anxious disposition.
Why? I don’t even know.
As Adler says, “Why give them rope to hang you?”
Instead of being odd and self-deprecating like me, just focus on the assets you bring to the role.
Don’t forget to ask for the interview
In my conclusion, or lack thereof, I forgot something kind of important.
I didn’t ask for the interview.
“Ask for the interview!” Adler says. “Why are you writing a cover letter? To introduce your résumé. What does your résumé do? Tell your audience how you will succeed in this particular role. How do you get to the point of convincing your audience? In the interview, so ask!”
Don’t mess up the sign off
For some reason, my sign off contained my then current title at the school newspaper. At the time, I’d thought adding this would give me some swagger.
Adler disagrees, and her reasoning makes more sense.
“No organization wants to think that their newest employee could be applying for jobs on their time,” Adler says. “In the past, this translated to using plain paper for your resume and cover letter rather than company letterhead. Today, it means using a private email address specifically opened for your job search or something equally bland but identifying.”
Breaking it all down
After making her edits, Adler included a helpful breakdown of a good cover letter.
Get things off to a solid start by including the name of the hiring manager (rather than an antiquated sounding placeholder like “To Whom It May Concern”). You might have to do some stalking to figure this out, but it’s worth it – you’re making it clear that you’ve done your homework.
The first paragraph should explain what your expertise is and identify the role you’re applying for.
Paragraphs two through four ought to break down specific examples that highlight your relevant experience.
Follow up with a paragraph about why you’re both excited about and right for the role. Also, say something nice, like how you can’t wait to hear back.
Pretty simple stuff. That about covers it when it comes to cover letters.