Cover letters for job applications is a hotly contested topic. Many people argue that they are outdated and useless, that few employers even bother reading them anymore. It’s easy to get the impression from a Twitter pileup that cover letters are useless—but remember that social media bubbles may not represent all industries’ practices and traditions, much less those of the company you’re applying to.
The truth remains that, for most fields, cover letters are still expected and often requested. And since you can almost never know who will be reading your application materials—maybe they skip all cover letters or maybe they don’t—it’s usually a safer bet to include one than not.°
And think about this: at least part of the reason cover letters are losing their status is that they are, on the whole, badly written. If employers are trusting them less and less, it’s probably in part because they are more and more poorly constructed, offering little useful information to help the employer filter candidates. But that’s just further evidence that a good cover letter—tailored specifically to the employer’s needs, loaded with evidence—can more easily rise above the morass and get you noticed.
What a Cover Letter Is For
We covered this back in the “Master Resumes, Tailored Resumes, Cover Letters” article, but it bears repeating. Whereas the resume is like a map of who you are overall, the cover letter is like a park ranger giving specific advice about what trails are best for one specific reader, your potential employer. Where the resume is heavy on data but light on detail, the cover letter has space to elaborate, to tell anecdotes that act as strong evidence, showing you have the key skills the employer is looking for. It can guide the reader to notice specific things on the resume, and it can explain any gaps in your work history or qualifications.
Remember, the point of the cover letter (and the resume) is not to get hired; it’s to get an interview. Thus, you need to focus on only those most important things, cutting out any irrelevant or redundant info.
A Simple Formula
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel every time you write a cover letter, so in the following sections I'll present a simple formula that will work well in almost any case. This formula will help you cut the fluff from your writing and focus on exactly what the employer will best respond to.
Before we jump in, however, check out this sample cover letter from a real-world job application (the identifying information has been changed). Mary used this cover letter, along with her resume, to apply for a job as an office assistant in a museum:
Any document of professional communication serves its reader best when it states its purpose right up front—that way the reader doesn’t have to skim the entire thing to figure out if they want to skim the entire thing. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that your letter might not get more than a cursory glance; the reader’s eyes may only alight on the opening sentence or two before he or she makes a decision about whether to keep reading. So we have to have a tight thesis, a single statement that encapsulates the whole of what you’re trying to say.
To that end, I recommend a short opening paragraph of just two sentences:
- Purpose: I’m writing to apply for this job.
- Thesis: I’m what you’re looking for because I have the must-haves and nice-to-haves you’re looking for.
Check out Mary's opening paragraph:
I’m writing to apply for the Office Assistant/Receptionist position (Job ID 12650264) that was posted on faketownjobs.com. As my attached resume shows, I am well qualified for this position due to my extended experience with serving customers, completing office duties, and performing historical research.
The first sentence makes it perfectly clear why she is writing, going so far as to clearly give the job title and any Job ID or Reference number that might’ve been included in the job ad (since you can’t know how many different jobs the reader may be trying to fill simultaneously, this is a courtesy that saves them time routing your materials to the right file).
The second sentence represents Mary's thesis, her best guess at what the top 3–4 must-haves and nice-to-haves are for that job.° The idea is that, if the reader reads no farther than this, they at least know whether she fits what they are looking for.
Photo by Everyday basics on Unsplash
It’s important to narrow your thesis down to just 3 or 4 things if possible lest you risk painting too vague a picture. Think about it: the job ad is describing a particular lock that the employer is in search of a key for. Most job ads are messes, offering only a partial or scattered picture of that lock. If you’ve analyzed the job ad well and identified the employer’s top priorities—that is, if you’ve figured out the true shape of that lock—and then you present yourself clearly as the key that fits it exactly right, you’ll greatly increase the odds that you’ll get an interview. And remember this:
- Most other applicants won’t be presenting a clear and focused picture. Their cover letters and resumes will have all sorts of bits that aren’t really related to the job in question, so they’ll be harder to recognize as viable keys.
- The employer might not even have a clear idea of what a good key looks like (otherwise they might have written a better job ad), but when they read your thesis, they’ll suddenly recognize that you are what they are looking for.
Here are some other examples of thesis sentences:
As my application materials show, I am a well qualified candidate because of my experience in creating interactive and instructional content as well as my extensive understanding of 3D animation, its various production pipelines, and the need for strong teamwork throughout the process.
I am a licensed nurse with a BS in nursing and several years' of experience. Additionally, I excel in working with colleagues to create and implement treatment plans, and I have deep empathy for all my patients.
The opening paragraph is also a good place to drop names or refer to any connections you may have with the employer:
Dear Ms. Hogaboom,
Please accept this email and the attached resume as my application for the high school recruiter/inside admissions representative position. I heard about the job through an LaNotre alumni email. As my resume shows, I have a strong history of superior customer relations, working well with peers and teenagers, and using computer software.
Whatever you’ve put in your thesis, the body of the letter should elaborate on those things. For simplicity’s sake, I recommend giving one short paragraph each to the 3 or 4 things you mentioned.
You can begin each paragraph with a simple topic sentence that namechecks the item in question, and then follow it up with evidence of how you’ve demonstrated your mastery of that skill in the past. Anecdotes, descriptions of projects completed and outcomes achieved, or recollections of praise received are all great things to include, which you should be able to find on your master resume.
Mary’s cover letter shows one way of approaching this:
One more piece of advice: In these paragraphs, it’s a good idea to use as much eye-catching text as possible. I’m talking about proper nouns with their capital letters, numerals, etc., stuff that stops a skimming eye and says to the reader, “This sentence is interesting.” Mary's letter doesn't have much of this type of thing. In fact, the sentences are almost all a bit run-of-the-mill and vague. Look at this one:
Particularly, as a bank teller, I was entrusted with the deposit, withdrawal, and transfer of thousands of dollars daily, and I always performed my job to the satisfaction of my employers.
It's easy to imagine this sentence appearing word-for-word in 100 different cover letters from 100 different applicants and it being true of each of them. Other than the mention of "Faketown Public Library" by name in paragraph two and "Sam Houston" in paragraph four, there isn't much to catch the eye or excite the reader.
The final paragraph is the least important and least likely to be read at all. All you need to do is thank the reader and mention your willingness to answer questions, yadda yadda yadda. For real, don’t stay up all night crafting this—you can pretty much use the same paragraph on every cover letter you ever write.
How Long Should It Be?
This is a complex question for which there is no simple answer because it depends on the job you’re applying for. But a good rule of thumb is that, for entry-level, post-college jobs, something between two-thirds of a page and a page and a half is probably not too short nor too long.
If you go shorter than about a half a page, the reader won’t expect anything of substance and is more likely to skip the letter altogether. If you go longer that a page and a half, you might be seen as abusing the reader’s time.
But take these suggestions lightly. A highly technical job or one at a prestigious company might justify a longer letter. So will jobs above the entry level. And if you have an in with the employer—for example, the person who will review your application is a friend of a friend of your old boss or whatever—you can probably write a bit more knowing it’ll get more than a quick glance.
Complicating the Formula
What I've presented above as a simple formula is nothing more than the classic five-paragraph essay repurposed. It'll work for most situations, and its strength is in its simplicity—both for you, since it will streamline the writing process, and for your reader, since it will help you present yourself as a clear key to the employer's lock.
However, you should not feel beholden to this formula. When the needs of a particular job application situation demand, you should feel free to expand, alter, or otherwise mangle the formula to best work for that situation. Do more or fewer paragraphs. Group multiple paragraphs into sections, each with a bolded heading announcing its topic. Take a purely narrative approach, telling a single story in great detail for the whole letter. Introduce a bulleted list or a diagram.
Do anything you want, so long as what you create puts the reader's needs first.