Top Five Tips for Writing Killer Cover Letters

A cover letter might seem old-fashioned, but as I’ve said before, in some ways old-fashioned is good. As a recruiter, I often received hundreds of resumes in my e-mail box in response to an online posting.  I was more responsive to those who took the time to write a thoughtful cover letter than to those who sent a one-line filler saying something inane like “my resume is attached for your review.” (Um, I think I can figure that part out for myself.)

Your cover letter is a way for you to express interest in a position, outline key reasons why you are the best person for that job, and show that you can organize your thoughts in a clear, concise, thought-provoking, GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT manner.  Just like your resume, your cover letter should draw the reader in and make him want to find out more about you. 

 Tip #1 — Use Templates, Not Form Letters

Avoid using a form letter for your covers. I’m not insinuating that you have to start from scratch each time you apply for a job.  One of the things you can do is create a variety of cover letter templates that you can pull information from.  You need more than one if you are going to apply for different types of jobs.  If you are thinking about applying for sales and marketing jobs, then you need to create two templates—one for each that highlights the skills most appropriate for these types of positions.  In each template, point out all of your strengths, achievements and contributions that pertain to the particular type of position you are looking for in paragraph format. When it comes time to write a cover letter, pick and choose the elements that are applicable for the job you are applying for and add them to a custom cover letter.  (Make sure that your fonts are all the same before firing it off!) With each sales point you make about yourself, be sure to tie it back to the job description.  Make it crystal clear that you possess all of the qualities listed as prerequisites in the ad.

 #2 — Target the Reader and Address the “Must Haves”

If an ad has “must have” clauses in it, address them. When I received a cover letter that simply ignored the qualifications requested in an ad I posted online, I didn’t feel compelled to read the resume.  A few times I received cover letters that clearly expressed that the candidate had all the qualifications I was looking for…except one.  In this scenario, there are two choices.  Gloss over it because your other qualifications are so stellar and you have been so adept in pointing them out.  Or, be up front and admit that you are missing that one qualification.  If you go the latter route, make sure to follow up with a tremendous positive as to why you should be considered anyhow.

 #3 — Use a Strong Opener

It’s important to open your letter with an unexpected statement, not a cookie-cutter one.  So many cover letters I read started off with a variation of: “I saw your ad in x-newspaper and am submitting my resume for your review.”   Everyone knows that you saw the ad somewhere and are responding by sending in your resume.  This is not news.  Get right into the meat of your positioning.  If the ad is for a marketing manager with 5+ years experience in the legal arena, start off by saying “I am a marketing professional with 5 years of experience working for a top 10 law firm….” 

 #4 — Take the Initiative on the Follow Up

When it comes to closing your cover letters, make it clear that you will take the initiative to follow-up.  Too many of us end our cover letters by saying one of the following:

            • I look forward to hearing from you on this matter

            • I can be reached at 212-000-0000…

            • Please feel free to call me at…

 If you want to get a job, it’s your job to do the follow-up.  The end of your letter should say something to the effect of:

•“I will call you in a few days to discuss the possibility of my candidacy further.  If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me at…”

•“I will call you next week to discuss next steps.  Don’t hesitate to call me at any time at 212…”

• “I will call you in a few days to set up a possible interview.  Please feel free to call me with any questions at 212…

 #5 — Prove your Point

Some of us may feel uncomfortable ending a letter so forcefully.  However, it’s important to show that you are ready to take the initiative when it comes to getting the job you want.  And, you need to exude an air of confidence.  Afterall, you are trying to convince the recruiter or hiring manager that you are the best person for this job.

Carpe diem…


  • nope
    April 29, 2009

    #4 would really creep me out if i received it as a hiring manager. i would think that the person is an arrogant jerk who doesn’t understand the fine art of the job search.

    to show initiative, a phone call a week or so after submitting a resume would be legit. don’t need to be a stalker freak in your letter.

  • Really?
    April 29, 2009

    I pretty much try to do everything I read here, except that follow up phone call. For one, I’d be highly annoyed at anybody who did that if I was the one doing the hiring. And so does that work more often than it irritates the person you’re looking to be employed with?

      • Maggie
        April 30, 2009

        The follow up. Yeah, a call perhaps might construed as pushy, but an email sounds OK to me. In the cover letter, just say “I will follow up with you in a few days”. Leave it open, and then just send an email.

        Jane said “What happens if they never received your resume?” Indeed. That happened to me once. Luckily, they got the application and they emailed me for the resume. But they didn’t have to.

  • Random Poster
    April 30, 2009

    “Your cover letter is a way for you to . . . show that you can organize your thoughts in a clear, concise, thought-provoking, GRAMMATICALLY CORRECT manner.”

    Okay….but perhaps you should better proofread your post. Particularly at least one of the examples that you provide in Item 4 (“I will call you next week to discuss next steps. Don’t hesitate to call me at any time at 212…”), which contains several glaring errors.

  • queendenise36
    April 30, 2009

    Your article on writing cover letters give me insight on ways impress a potential employer by using resume and professional written cover letterI apprecate the tips.

  • Hi Jane,

    These are great tips. I’ve been preaching the advantages of cover letters for years as a business writing professor. It’s a shame we have moved way from them with so many online submissions.

    I, too, was a little surprised by #4, but I like your statement: “If the hiring manager does not want to take your call, he won’t. What exactly do you have to lose?”

  • Hubby
    April 30, 2009

    It seems to me that if the hiring manager is irritated at the follow-up call or doesn’t want to take it, then you probably weren’t in the running for the job anyway. So nothing is truly lost with the effort.

    But if you are one of the handful being considered then it would seem to show real interest in the position. In which case it wouldn’t be irritating at all and could help land the interview.

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    May 1, 2009
  • Mindy
    April 2, 2010

    Regarding #4 – What do you put if there is no hiring manager listed on the job posting? Where would you send a follow-up email if it is a big corporation and you are submitting online?

  • Patricia
    November 16, 2011

    For the first time yesterday I did just that. I followed up my application with a phone call to ascertain my suitability. I did not want to waste my time researching the company, etc before the first round of interview if I was not going to be on their long list. The recruiter took my call and confirmed that I need more sector experience and as a result was unlikely to be shortlisted. It was worth it. I have now connected with the guy on Linkedin. There will be other opportunities.

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