3 Ways to Write a Cover Letter That Actually Works

There are a lot of contenders for "worst part of the job search process," but writing cover letters has to be right up there at the top of the list. Trying to hook hiring managers' attention without sounding like a caricature of a used car salesman or just regurgitating your resume is a challenge worthy of early-Mad Men Don Draper. So how can you get their attention, without feeling cheesy or wasting everyone's time?

tell a story 

(Photo Credit: Magenta Rose/Flickr)

The answer: make sure your cover letter adds something that your CV doesn't convey.

1. Tell a story.

"Ever since the first cavemen huddled around a fire and tried to explain the stars, human beings have been storytelling creatures," writes Rachel Kaufman at Brazen Careerist. "You can use your cover letter to tell the story of why you want to work at company X, how you became interested in field Y or why there’s a big gap on your resume."

2. Solve their problem.

A few years ago, Alison Green of Ask a Manager posted a cover letter she called "one of the best cover letters [she'd] ever seen." Identifying details have been changed; the full letter is here. (Note: Green reminds us not to copy other people's work, as it's only compelling if it's your story. Also, copying is cheating.)

Here's the hook:

Dear ____:

As soon as I saw your posting for a ____, I knew it was the perfect position for me – and that I was the perfect solution for you. Let me explain further...

The first paragraph is short and to the point, but best of all, it offers to solve a problem for the hiring manager and his or her company -- which is the whole reason companies hire to begin with.

3. Write for recruiting software as well as people (and people, as well as recruiting software).

Odds are, your resume and cover letter will get scanned by software before they ever see human eyes. Using keywords effectively will help make sure your materials make it to a person, and impress that person when they get there.

There are essentially two types of keywords to incorporate into a cover letter (and resume):

  • Keywords that describe the job, including the job title, and the skills, credentials or education level required.
  • Action keywords, which describe what you did. Alison Doyle of About.com Job Searching offers a great list here, which gives suggestions for both your resume and cover letter.

Look at the job listings you're applying to, and profiles on LinkedIn for people who currently hold similar titles. After a while, you'll see a few key terms jump out at you, and it will be easier to figure out what hiring managers (and their software) are looking for.

Tell Us What You Think

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3 Comments

  1. 3 DZdmDesign 30 Jul
    Get help with your cover letter here! http://ae01199lj8ek6obyq0d2x6kf8j.hop.clickbank.net/?tid=COVER LETTERS
  2. 2 lily p 15 Jul

    Thats why my jobs have all been of poor quality because of my inability to write a great cover letter :)

  3. 1 Joe Perez 13 May

    I love this article on cover letters and have linked to it from my blog.

    Your advice regarding "telling the story" is key. Perhaps you might also have addressed the topic of whether or not to bring up shortcomings that the employer would have found out anyway.

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