How to write an awesome cover letter (or not)

I take a lot of pride in writing awesome cover letters. And you should too! If you have to struggle to write a compelling cover letter, I’m going to bet that you’re not super excited about the position that you’re applying for. At my first computer science co-op, my manager told me straight up that one of the main reasons I got the interview was my strong cover letter.
A good cover letter accomplishes several things. It:

    • Illustrates your achievements and qualifications.
    • Shows evidence of your abilities as they relate to the job.
    • Demonstrates your enthusiasm and passion for the company and the field.
Photo Credit: gabriel amadeus via flickr

Photo Credit: gabriel amadeus via flickr

Recently, Brian was hiring for a few new positions at his workplace and I was helping him review resumes and cover letters. Perhaps predictably, great hilarity ensued. A few of the stand-out moments really epitomized the things you should NOT do in a cover letter.

  • In her opening paragraph, one woman attempted to describe why she wanted the role by stating, “I’m really interested in science, medication and research.” I’m not sure what kind of medication interests her best, but I’d be very concerned about hiring a communications assistant who does not differentiate between the usages of closely related words.
  • Another candidate started her cover letter by stating that she, “… saw the companies’ ad online…” Yikes! This person clearly does not know how to pluralize OR use apostrophes!

I rejected both of these candidates immediately after reading those sentences. The common point between these examples? It wasn’t their lack of skills or experience that turned me off. Actually, both of the candidates above had an acceptable level of work experience and education. It was their inability to communicate clearly that sent them straight to the reject pile.

For a professional role in a company, I would never hire anyone who could not communicate clearly – especially when it is via a cover letter. There is absolutely no excuse for sending in a cover letter that hasn’t been double checked for grammar and spelling. In my opinion, if a candidate cannot communicate when there is no rush or stress, how can I be sure that they will be able to communicate well under pressure in the workplace? Quite frankly, those types of mistakes would be embarrassing for the business.

So what makes a good cover letter? I’ve found that when it comes to writing cover letters, often the simple statements are the most effective.

  • Avoid long, flowery sentences and instead, identify those qualities and accomplishments that you want to highlight and state them in plain words.
  • Never use a word that you don’t understand and always check for spelling and grammar.
  • Identify key words from the job advertisement and address how you meet those requirements.
  • Be personal and passionate.

For many people, I think that that last point can be the most difficult. However, a cover letter that shows passion will not only show off your writing skills, but also demonstrate to the recruiter that you’re not just interested in a job, you’re interested in this job. It pays to take a sentence or two and make it personal.

A quick example:

“I’ve always been an avid reader. While in college, I divided my time between the stacks of literature in the library and the stacks of projects I had to finish for my commerce degree. Now as a new graduate, I’m very excited to combine my education with my love of books and apply for the position of Regional Accounts Manager for Acme Books.”

Imagine that your cover letter is the summary of a story – the story of you! Make your opening paragraph engaging and personal, and you will convince the reader to give the rest of your application a closer look. Don’t just tell them that you are applying for the job – that is evident and unnecessary to restate. Tell them why you want the job. At the least, try to make it something more unique than, “I am very excited to apply for the job of widget pusher. I think you will find that my qualifications are excellent.”

So far, Brian and I haven’t found any applications that caught our eye. We’re still looking! (So if you’re in Vancouver and looking for an admin job… )

Does anyone have any other cover letter tips or cover letter horror stories?

Posted in: Career and Work

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