How to write a cover letter that works

When applying for a job you're usually expected to send in two things: résumé and cover letter. Of these two, the cover letter is often what shifts the scale in your favor. Writing one may seem daunting at first, but it's easier than you think.

In my role as recruiter at NodeOne (a company that grew organically to 70) I've looked at several hundred applications over the years. As someone who does this professionally you quickly develop a preference for how a résumé and cover letter should be structured and written. Both are important but for different reasons, and tend to focus on the wrong things and not place enough emphasis on the experiences or skills relevant for the position.

Today I am going to share my opinion on what makes great cover letters great, and what makes a cover letter suck. I will also describe a way to write a cover letter that increases your chances of getting asked to come to an interviews.

I say opinion because this area is subjective. But to confirm the validity I can say that I've seen the same opinions expressed by other people working with recruitment and sourcing.

I recently helped a friend of mine write a cover letter for a job. He had a clear idea of what kind of position he wanted, but didn't know how his experience was relevant or how it applied to the position.

Generic cover letters do not work

What's important to remember is that generic cover letters do not work. I've seen countless letters in the form of: "I seek a position as a developer at your company…". They stand out because they never refer to the job ad, the company or mention the recruiter by name. These I usually discard.

Likewise, generic applications don't work. By that I refer to applications with the applicant emailing tens (or hundreds) of employers and hasn't even done a decent job of hiding that fact and merely CC'd them all.

Narrow the search

We will not write a generic cover letter. We will write one tailored for one specific position. Your chances of getting hired will raise dramatically if you first define your job search criteria well, find two to five jobs that seem interesting and which match your skillset and experience. This is most easily done using pen and paper and a job site. It's beyond the scope of this article. However by doing so you have qualified the positions and thereby narrowed your search down to those positions where there's a high chance of a match.

What you will do next will take some work but it's work that will show. By not shooting wide and instead focusing on the best candidates and making an effort, your chances of landing a job increase.

Gather the facts

A cover letter connects three things: the position, the candidate and the employer. A cover letter must convince the recruiter that the candidate is a good fit for the position, that the company is the right place for the candidate to thrive. It should be convincing enough that the recruiter puts the application aside and on the "for consideration" pile.

Before we can continue you need to sit down and write down your experiences from your past jobs and try and describe yourself. You can describe the jobs with a few sentences each, describing the position held and your achievements. As for the part on yourself, write a series of paragraphs. A good way to do this is to try and think about how someone else would describe you. Or ask a friend or significant other for help.

The position is what most applicants spend most of the time considering. The job ad should describe the work expected to be done by someone holding the position. It should also list the skill and experience requirements. It's sometimes hard however to match one's own skills and requirements to job ad. So we start by breaking it down.

Job ads generally consist of descriptions of a desired candidate personality and required or desired experiences and skills.

Copy the ad to a new document in Google Docs (or Word, or Open Open Office). Then create three tables, each with three columns each. The tables will be for personality, skills and employer, respectively. You can title each of the tables in that order.

As for the columns, they should be titled too. The left-most column in each table should be titled "ad text", the middle "keywords" and the right-most "applies to me".

Personality

You may find something like this:

"Our ideal candidate is highly motivated, always learning and willing to expand their horizons. Most importantly, they embrace The [employer's] unique culture by sharing their knowledge and experience with our 200+ developer team through collaboration, group work and peer review. Conversely, they would be humbly ready to eagerly absorb The [employer] goodness from the collective brain power of our amazing team."

Broken down we find these traits:

  • "highly motivated"
  • "always learning and willing to expand their horizons"
  • "sharing their knowledge and experience"
  • "collaboration"

Step one, put these in the left-most column, one on each row.

Step two, ask yourself: how would you describe someone who is highly motivated?

Write down the keywords that come to mind in the middle column. Repeat this for each of the entries in the left-most column.

Step three, consider how it applies to you. You already wrote down sentences describing you. Do the adjectives you wrote in the middle column describe you? Can they be made to describe you? Can you describe yourself in a way that matches the adjectives? In the right-most column write down a description of yourself that includes these adjectives. The point here isn't to be dishonest, but to look at your personality from a recruiter's perspective. If you can look back your personal qualities with experience or showing what you've learned, even better. Don't be too hard on yourself but do not embellish too much either. Remember, you need to be able to back this at the interview.

When you're done you may have something like this:

  • "I take pride in producing results, something that has been an asset in my previous work where I've been working independently and with high responsibility."
  • "In my spare time I keep up with new techniques, frameworks and libraries by reading blogs. "A List Apart" is one of my favorite websites."
  • "Whenever I fix a problem or solve a bug, I like writing about it or producing a screencast. They can be found on YouTube on my account, my username is JohnDoe."
  • "One of the things I like most about sharing the things I learn is how it helps others and how it helps people connect. For this reason I often hang out in the IRC channel to offer help to others. Remembering how much help I've received that way myself when I was a newcomer."

Skills

Skills requirements are quite concrete and there's not much to do here except seeing how well they match your skills and experience. Your resumé should describe your skills. If the ad asks for a specific experience then it's something you can go into detail about. If you do not have that exact experience, you can use the method above to explain how your experiences are relevant.

The employer

The final part concerns the employer. Most applicants miss this part entirely. As a recruiter, especially if you're a founder and recruiter, it's extremely important to hire people who get your culture and fit in. Most companies who value their culture have it posted on their website. With a bit of searching you will find their vision and mission and their values.

If you cannot find a page listing them, look at blogs of employees, press releases or letters or statements by the CEO of the company.

Using the values, make a three column table and write down sentences that describe how you hold or communicate the same or very similar values. Alternately, how you've come to see the worth of such values or during your career have been impressed with people who hold those values.

Putting it all together

You should now have a document with a table with personal qualities. A section with skill descriptions. Finally a table with the company's values and sentences that prove how you understand, communicate and share those values.

Next step is to copy and paste and edit it into a letter. One way to wrote the letter is to start with the greeting phrase. Then describe yourself in a sentence. Describe how you found the job and why the job is relevant to you. List your personality from the personality table. Edit this text to feel and seem fluent and not like something you copied and pasted. Mix with skills in a way that feels and seems natural.

Close the letter with explaining how well you'd fit in at the company by using your sentences that show how you share the company's values and culture.

Closing remarks

Keep it as brief as possible. Recruiters like succinct information so don't go extravagant. Keep it simple and effective.

Check spelling and grammar. I am very reluctant to call someone to interview if they cannot take the time to make sure their application is in order. How will they possibly do their job diligently and with care if they don't even care about their application?

This method takes time, but offers a structure that allows you to look at your existing skills in a way a recruiter would and, most importantly, sell them.

Good luck finding your next job!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 18:39

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Welcome to my blog. My name is Jakob Persson and I'm a founder and entrepreneur driven to create beautiful solutions that address problems in new and satisfying ways. I write on topics that interest me such as business, technology and design. I am a co-founder of Leancept and help businesses apply lean startup methods by validating ideas through prototypes, testing and research, enabling faster innovation and sustainable revenue sooner.

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Jakob