March 23, 2015

Ask Away: What Do I Write in My Cover Letter?

BummedWelcome to Ask AwayEvery Monday, we pose an employment-related question to a group of experts and share their answers. Have a question you’d like to ask the expertsLeave it in the comments, and you might just see it in next week’s Ask Away!

This Week’s Question: There’s no way around it: cover letters are a pain. When applying for pretty much any job, you need to include one with your resume. But what’s the point of this crucial, yet vaguely defined document? What information should you put in your cover letters?

“Cover letters are important, as they give you the opportunity to tell the employer in your own words what makes you the best person for them to hire. It’s an opportunity to sell yourself, your skills, and [your] experience in an engaging manner. Be aware that you don’t have long to make an impact. On average, a recruiter will spend 30 seconds looking at a covering letter, so you need to make that time count.

“Make sure you thoroughly research the company you’re applying to before you start writing your cover letter. Understand what they do, the sector they’re in, what the role involves, and the way the organization presents itself. In the letter itself, include your address and a greeting (ideally to a specific person). Explain in the first paragraph why you are contacting them. Use the second paragraph to explain why they should hire you. In the third paragraph, explain what you could bring to the organization.”

– James Rice
Head of Digital Marketing

“Convey your passion for your work. If you are passionate about your work, you’ve likely been successful. Drive the point home as to how your love for the industry directly correlates with the results you’ve achieved.

“Demonstrate your industry knowledge. Adding a historical fact [about] or recent happenings [in] your chosen field shows your interest level and enthusiasm. Not to mention, it’s impressive.

“Address any overqualifications. Often times, candidates are overlooked because they are perceived as overqualified by a degree or too many years of experience. Without sounding desperate, explain the reason you would be ideal for the opportunity.”

– Melanie Denny
Certified Professional Resume Writer

“An ideal cover letter should, in a concise manner, immediately explain to the reader who you are, what job you’re applying for, and why. By ‘why,’ of course, I mean, ‘what is your relevant education and experience.’ I’ve heard countless stories of people mixing up cover letters, or writing things like, ‘I really need a job.’ Your lack of a paycheck doesn’t concern the reader of your cover letter.

“By the end of a concise, succinct, smart cover letter — ideally two paragraphs [long] — the reader should understand, precisely, what job the letter references, who is applying, [and] what your background is, and [they] should now be interested enough to read your attached resume. It is your responsibility to make your reader interested in you; most HR people, after all, will receive hundreds of these letters every single day. They simply won’t have the time or energy to waste on resumes attached to cover letters that contain misspellings or the wrong job [title] or wrong company [name].”

– Carlota Zimmerman
Career Expert
The Creativity Yenta

“If a candidate [writes] a cover letter, my advice is to make it short and impactful. The easiest way for recruiters to read cover letters [is] if they’re in a ‘T format.’ List 3-4 of the requirements from the job description or posting on the left under ‘Your Requirements’ and list 3-4 items on the left under ‘My Qualifications.’

“If you have a special circumstance that you want to [address], a cover letter is the place to do it. This could be: explaining how your transferable skills fit into a new industry, the reason for a gap in [your] work history, etc.”

– Liz D’Aloia
HR Virtuoso

“The cover letter is a marketing document that sells your brand to a prospective employer. This letter should not reiterate your resume, but rather, expand on it. A lot of talent acquisition professionals will read your cover letter before reading your resume. Some recruiters actually will not read your resume but only your cover letter.

“Your cover letter should tell an employer why you are a fit for their company, department, and position. You should also include how you heard about the organization and the [job] opportunity. If you have a friend or family member who works at the company, be sure to note that in the letter! You should have several professionals review your cover letter before submitting it to a company. It needs to be free of errors: no punctuation or spelling mistakes whatsoever.

“Again, the cover letter is another piece of your career search marketing materials that should highlight your value to a company and explain why you are a cultural fit.”

– Eric Melniczek
Career Advisor
Office of Career and Internship Services at High Point University

“As a former recruiter, I think that people regularly fail to see the importance of the cover letter as [not only] an introductory document, but also — and possibly more importantly — a method for selling themselves in addition to their resume or application form.

“Some key tips on what to include [in a cover letter]:

  • Keep it personal wherever possible. Try to avoid ‘Dear Sir/Madam.’
  • Refer to the specifics of the role you are applying for. Job websites and our own laziness lead to generic cover letters. ‘Please find attached my resume in relation to the available position’ does not sell you [or] help you stand out from the crowd and is a waste of a cover letter.
  • Give them the desire to interview you by specifically linking your skills and experience to the job description/specifications.
  • Encourage action by expressing your desire to meet to discuss the opportunity and your suitability further.

“Some key errors that people make:

  • Get the details right. I have received letters addressed to recruiters in other organizations discussing [a candidate’s] suitability for another role in another organization.
  • [Make it] more than a paragraph, but less than a page. Give enough detail to sell yourself without writing a novel.
  • Check the quality. Use clear fonts and a clean page. If you mail it, invest in good quality stationery to give a good impression.”

– Richard Newton
Founder and Consultant Director
Fresh Learning

“Don’t just regurgitate your resume content in your cover letter; instead, figure out what business problems your reader is likely kvetching about, and then tell them — right [t]here in your cover letter — how you would go about addressing them. This shows that you’re thinking and a true problem-solver.

“Hiring managers notice when you put a little elbow grease into your cover letter: since most job seekers don’t, you can make everyone else’s laziness work to your advantage. Read the job description several times. Then read between the lines. What is this job really about? Take a little risk and share something about your background that maps directly to the heart of what they’re looking for in a candidate.”

– Joseph Terach
Resume Deli

Read more in Cover Letter

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of