Writing a cover letter is stressful and intimidating. Here are some thoughts from a recruiter on what makes a cover letter sink or swim.
We know applying for jobs can be an incredibly time-consuming and stressful process that requires continually “putting yourself out there”—even after many dead ends. From the recent college graduate to the mid-level professional looking to get ahead, sending an application into the ether is uninspiring and even dehumanizing—and nevertheless important, because on the other side of your cover letter is a person reading something about you.
“The medium is the message,” and applicants often fall prey to prioritizing quantity over quality. I’m not going to tell you how to write well or how to format your letter (12-point, serif font, single spaced with breaks between paragraphs)—but I will tell you this: fluffing up your cover letter with big words and flowery writing does not behoove you. Your cover letter will fall flat if your voice is not easily perceived.
Tell your story clearly and quickly
Your cover letter is introducing you—not aggrandizing you. Your reader wants—indeed, needs—to hear your voice and to hear about you. Instead of braggadocious self-celebration, simply share something about yourself, in your own words, to let your values and personality come across. And while you are doing that, be coherent, cohesive, and honest.
The best cover letters demonstrate that you know the organization’s values and vision, and that you make the connection for how you are a good fit in those areas. The worst thing you can do is to brag about yourself by using an outdated letter to oversell yourself—especially if it has nothing to do with the job and organization you desire to join.
It is helpful for your cover letter to include some clear figures or professional highlights indicating your experience. But those details are secondary to how the information is communicated. More is not better—and do not rehash your resume in your cover letter. In fact, your cover letter should contextualize and color the skeletal story contained in your resume. The cover letter connects the dots in your resume and then connects those dots to the organization you are applying to.
Movin’ on up
Is there a clear gap between your resume and the job description or expectations? Don’t hide from it; acknowledge it and make it explicit. If your past experience or organizational fit seems off at first blush, you will strengthen your application by acknowledging this. You will communicate that you are aware of the position expectations and that you can anticipate concerns. This indicates self-awareness and promise in your ability to overcome obstacles.
Leaders look for emotional intelligence because awareness of self and others is the foundation of every strong relationship. There is no perfect job, just as there is no perfect candidate—and the best bosses and employees both know this. The aim is not perfection but trust and rapport, both of which are first communicated to your potential employer in your cover letter.
Tell us something real about yourself
The most impressive cover letters do not have the best format or fit on one page (but please avoid cartoonish designs). They do not check every box, nor do they communicate every single thing an employer might look for. Instead, they express something about the person that balanced history, professional experience, and success, with values and personality. Sometimes they share something about their family, where they are from, and how they learned what they know. Sometimes they mentioned thinkers who have influenced their values. Other times, they communicated concisely their professional trajectory to show cohesion around their professional decisions. The best ones articulated success with humility in an authentic and confident way. They showed care for self, for experience, for ideas and values, and for the organization.
A strong cover letter says something about you. Sometimes that will get you an interview; sometimes it won’t, but whatever may be the case, it guarantees that you’ve done the work to know who you are, to discern if you actually want this job and this organization, and if you’re a good fit. Preparing a good cover letter is preparing you for the interview—and to get the job.