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What Makes a Good Cover Letter? Hiring Managers and HR Pros Explain

What’s your least favorite part of the job application process? If you said, “writing cover letters,” you may or may not be relieved to hear that few hiring managers seem to care about them. In one survey, only 18 percent said cover letters were an important part of the hiring process.
good cover letter
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“I have worked in recruiting and staffing since 2001, as well as corporate recruiting for my own companies, and most people I’ve worked with over the years (recruiters, HR and hiring managers) don’t pay any attention to cover letters,” says Andrea Clement, former healthcare recruiter and current communications director for The Medicus Firm.

On the other hand, not writing them can get you nixed from consideration.

“I’ve used cover letters as a first filter when hiring in the past — asking for a simple answer to a question and mentioning in the ad something like ‘send your CV and cover letter with your answer to…’ — those who can’t follow the directions are out,” says Toby Bochan, Head of Video at Storyful.

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So, best practice is to write a cover letter, whether or not hiring managers read it. And since you’re going to put in the time and effort, you might as well make it as effective as possible. Here’s how:

1. Focus on What the Employer Wants, Not What You Want

“I wrote professional resumes and cover letters for 10 years for one of the leading companies in the business,” says Kari Diehl, a professional career services writer. “Great cover letters are marketing documents that ‘sell’ the job candidate by making them stand out from their competition.”

Diehl says that cover letters need to demonstrate that the writer has taken the time to research the employer. She continues: “The best cover letters are employer-centric — they are all about ‘here’s what I can do for YOU’ — NOT ‘here is what I am looking for.’”

To that end, it’s best not to use the word “I” too much in a cover letter. Diehl says that one of the best practices at her former employer was to use “I” no more than three times in the letter.

Whatever you do, try to rise above this admittedly very low bar:

“As of recently, I have a low bar of actually just hoping people will let me know the job they’re applying for, and attach a resume,” says one content development manager. “I just got an application for a contract position that within the first sentence asked what the pay was, but didn’t tell me who the person applying was.”

The best cover letters are employer-centric — they are all about 'here's what I can do for YOU' — NOT 'here is what I am looking for.' - Kari Diehl, professional career services writerClick To Tweet

2. Research the Organization

“I won’t even look at a resume until it comes with a cover letter,” says Christine Frietchen, a marketing director. “I want a cover letter that at least shows me they read the job description and looked at our website — an indication they understand at least the basics about my business.”

That means doing your research on the company to learn about what’s most important to the organization. Whatever you do, don’t send a generic cover letter to every job opening. Look for opportunities to show that you know what the company is about and what they need.

3. Match Your Experience to the Job Description

Much of what you need to know in order to impress the hiring manager is hidden in plain sight in the job posting. Read the description of the role and its duties, and think about how their requirements match your skills.

Alison Doyle, job search expert at The Balance Careers, recommends making a list of the qualifications as mentioned in the ad (or if the ad is short, on the company’s website). Then match those keywords to your skills.

“Prioritize the sentences about your qualifications and incorporate the hardest hitting statements into your cover letter,” she writes. “Compose a thesis statement for the beginning of your cover letter which references 2-4 assets which make you an excellent fit for the job.”

4. Got a Referral? Mention Them ASAP

“I was on a hiring committee, and I had a stack to get through quickly and cared more about the resume,” says a senior technologist. “However, they worked if they were name-dropping references who already worked there since the pile we got to sort through just had the cover letter/resume and not the other application info.”

So, if you have a referral — especially from a current employee — it’s best to mention that right up from in the first paragraph, where even someone who’s skimming will catch it.

5. Make Sure Your Resume and Cover Letter Match

Finally, it should go without saying that honesty is the best policy in your job search. To avoid even the appearance of dishonesty, make sure your resume and cover letter match.

“I’ve seen cover letters that mention years of relevant experience that is nowhere to be found on the resume,” says one HR analyst. “Like applying for a computer engineer position with a resume with NO computing experience yet a cover letter talking about the programs they engineered. WTF?”

Tell Us What You Think

What’s your trick for writing a cover letter that really works? We want to hear from you. Share your tips in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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