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6 Cover Letter Writing Tips from People Who Read a Lot of Them

When it comes to cover letter writing you have two options:

Sit down and write several dozens. Discard the first batch, edit and keep the second one that sounds mildly decent. Send them to employers and see what happens next.

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Or, instead of going the ‘trial and error’ route, you can tap into the collective wisdom of people whose job is to read and assess cover letters. In other words, the HR folks who’ve seen a good variety of good, bad and great cover letters.

That’s what I decided to do. What follows is a list of actionable cover letter tips I’ve collected from a bunch of current and former recruiters, career advisors and coaches.

1. Don’t Be Over-Grateful

During her tenure as a program manager, Sara McCord had to skim through 300+ cover letters submitted for a variety of roles and industries. She says that the tone of your letter can majorly eschew how you get perceived by the HR.

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In particular, the over cheerful letters, thanking the reader exhaustively for “graciously taking the time to consider me” and thanking the manager profusely for merely reading the letter rub her the wrong way. In most cases, such phrases make people think that you are desperate as a job candidate (and not just trying to be formal or polite).

Sara’s key advice is to demonstrate interest, instead of appreciation, within your letter and use it to “connects the dots between your experience and the requirements of the position”.

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2. Muster at Least Basic Research

Mary Ford, an executive career coach and contributing expert to Cover Letter Ninjas, says that doing preliminary groundwork can majorly impact the quality of your cover letter. She advises to head to the company website and spend at least 3 minutes browsing the main pages.

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Specifically, you should pay attention to:

  • Company’s communication style and tone of voice (you’d want to mimic it in your letter).
  • Company’s culture and mission statements as both indicate what types of people they want on the team.
  • Any major announcements or corporate achievements. Briefly mentioning these in your letter can earn you some ++ scores.
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From Mary’s extensive experience:

“Showing that you are the best fit for the job culture-wise, can be more critical than prior experience”.

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So be sure to do just that.

3. Communicate “What’s In It” for Them

Katherine Goldstein who was responsible for hiring entry-level job candidates to Slate wrote that the best job candidates could effectively communicate what type of problem they will solve for her. Preferably in 200 words or less.

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Persuasive cover letters cut straight to the chase and convince your skill set will benefit the organization. In short, it should say that you already know the ropes and “picked up the tools” to get the job done.

4. Mention One Great Thing You’ll Do During Your First Week on the Job

Emily Liou, a career happiness coach at CultiVitae, says that the best cover letters get into the mind of the reader. To forge that connection, she advises to carefully re-read the job description and attempt to picture yourself within the role. As you do so, ask yourself how you will be able to contribute to the team.

Specifically, you’ll want to showcase how your skills and past experience organically fit into the company and how these can be put to action once they decide to hire you. Doing so also sets you apart from other candidates.

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5. Avoid Cliches, But Don’t Be a Thesaurus Either

An experienced HR manager sees dozens of cookie-cutter cover letters per day, reiterating the same cliche phrases over and over again. Everyone says they are hard-working, detail-oriented and creative. While that may be true in your case, using the same words will just make you sound like everyone else.

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Angela Aylward, a resume expert, and private tutor, thus urges candidates to cut the standard words and infuse more personality.

“Be creative with your language but don’t make it look like you walked through a thesaurus.”

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Don’t just replace cliche words with more elaborate synonyms. Instead, try:

  • Illustrating your qualities with examples (e.g. I’ve created 10 new seasonal marketing campaigns for brand x = creative).
  • Use metaphors (When the projector doesn’t work, I’m not someone who will wait for the IT guy. I’m the person who’ll dive under the table and play with the cords).
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6. Make Your Opening Line Count

If your cover letter opening is weak, it immediately undermines whatever other great things you are about to share next.

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Richard Moy from Stack Overflow who spend several years in recruiting and talent management highlighted the most cringe-worthy cover letter openings that are an instant deal-breaker for him.

The first one is: “I am very excited to be applying for the opening at [Company X]”.

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This is the worst punchline because it is vague, does not indicate what position you are after and hardly makes anyone believe that you are truly “excited”.

What Richard suggests doing is to customize every opening line using a simple formula:

I was so excited to apply for [position] that I [an activity related to the job and the cover letter].

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And afterward, do a bit of research and come up with a convincing activity you did. For example:

“I was so excited to apply for this UX designer position that I went on and watched all 15 videos from featuring your Head of Design at your YouTube channel to get a better idea of your design culture”.

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The second worst opening line sin is grabbing an obvious fact from the company’s About Page or Main service pages. It really shows that you are a bit lazy with your research. Here’s a bad example:

“I’m applying to Airbnb because I can really relate to your “Belong Anywhere” philosophy”.

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Here’s a far better and more believable option:

“I’m writing this job application letter from a cute studio in Marais, I’ve rented via Airbnb. My host even gave me some job tips and wished good luck”.

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Richard also has another handy formula you can swipe:

[Something you love about the company] has [positive impact it’s had on you], and [reason it made you excited to apply].

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Finally, if you are feeling a bit bold, you can try the next formula:

I’m sure you’ve read a lot of these today, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make it clear that I’m the right person for [job title here] [without putting you to sleep/making you yawn/before you feel tempted to X out].

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It may not be appropriate in every case or with every organization, but companies with laid back culture will likely take notice.

To Wrap Up

If you ask anyone how was ever involved in hiring, they’ll immediately say that cover letters can make or break any good resume. Because while resumes do tend to get glammed up, cover letters are often treated as an afterthought. And it’s problematic because most decision-makers will often review your letter before getting to other documents in the pack.

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Hopefully, the tips above will help you craft a letter that complements, rather than sabotages your resume.

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