Applying for a Job III: The Cover Letter FAQ

by William Grosso

In previous blog entries, I covered writing the
absolute basics
of applying for a job and talked a little bit about

writing a resume
. In this entry, I'm going to talk
about the cover letter. But first: a disclaimer. Please keep in mind that this is an idiosyncratic point
of view, based on my experience in interviewing and hiring
people over the last three years. I'm not claiming deep wisdom
or scientific truth here, just trying to share a few helpful pointers.

My guess is that about half of the resumes that crossed my desk over the past three years had cover letters, and only about 10% would be considered "good" using the criteria below. Which means that if you can write a good cover letter, you've already started pulling ahead of the pack.

And now, the FAQ.

  1. What is a cover letter?

    It's a short (one or two paragraphs, five or six sentences) letter that introduces you to the person who's reading your resume. The goal is to create a positive first impression. If you can convince the person screening resumes that yours is worth a look, you've made progress.

    The key words are "short" and "first impression." Don't go for the Olympic medal in cover-letter length here; the gold medal is fatal and even the bronze will hurt your chances.

  2. When should you include one?

    Always. Even if you suspect the company is just scanning resumes into a keyword database, it doesn't hurt. It never hurts to include a cover letter, and it often helps. Conceptually, think of a cover letter as the job-hunting equivalent of "web site personalization"-- just as web sites tailor their presentation a little bit depending on who's viewing the page, but keep the basic content the same, you should tailor your presentation a little bit (the cover letter) while keeping the basic content (the resume) the same.

    And wouldn't it be cool if those resume sites allowed you to upload an XML / XSL pair of documents, so that you could tailor what your resume looks like based on what the viewer wants to see? Maybe this is the long-awaited killer app for the semantic web-- Resumes are emphatically someplace where markup to distinguish important information really really really makes sense.

  3. What if I'm applying via e-mail?

    You should still include a cover letter. The goal is to make a positive first impression; why would that change if you applied via e-mail? You're either attaching your resume, or including it at the bottom of the e-mail; the top of the e-mail should be a nicely written cover letter.

  4. Should I address the person by their first name in the cover letter?

    Absolutely not. Similarly, don't use slang or smilies or common "internet" abbreviations or vernacular (no RTM or ROTFL or ...).

  5. What should I say in the cover letter?

    You've got five or six sentences. In those sentences, you need to say hello, mention an interesting thing or two about yourself, and close gracefully.

  6. But I don't know what's interesting about me?

    Neither does the person reading your resume. Figure that those three sentences in the middle are going to motivate the person reading resumes to read yours with extra attention and help you stand out from the pack. Sentences like "As you can see from my resume, I have 4 years of EJB experience" are fairly common in cover letters. But they're not very good. First, the "As you can see," clause is verbose and annoying. Second, the question you're really trying to answer is not "what is your experience" (the resume will cover that) but "why is your experience relevant or compelling."

    Among the best things to mention are experience with the companies target market, competition, or customers. Experience with those means that you're already familiar with the corporate subtext and culture; there's less educating that will have to be done and there's a possibility you'll have useful contacts. It also shows that you've done a bit of research on the company, and that you're serious about the opportunity.

    Familiarity with the companies products is also a good thing (if you've used it at a prior company, mention that. You were part of the target market; that counts as familiarity). What makes this sort of information even better is that it's often not obvious from your resume, and it's often not mentioned in the job advertisement.

  7. What's the worst cover letter you've ever received?

    The worst cover letter is no cover letter. I'm always astonished when I get an e-mail whose subject line is "Application for Job" and whose body consists entirely of an attached resume. A close second are the one-sentence cover letters ("Dear Sir, Plese read my resume. Thanks, xxx").

Got any cover letter do's or don'ts to share?


2003-06-18 13:44:02
How many really don't include cover letters?
At the beginning of the article, you state "about half of the resumes that crossed my desk over the past three years had cover letters" and then in point 7 you say "about 10% of job applicants who send in resumes don't include a cover letter." Are you saying that tech industry is hit by the lack-of-cover-letter issue more often than the average?
2003-06-18 15:26:18
Cover letter? In IT?
Most HR programs just scan for key word matches and couldn't give a shit about whether you composed a cover letter well or not. The chances of my resume making it to your desk are about 100 to 1, maybe worse in the hiring climate we are in. I get weeded out before my well-written cover letter would even be read by you.

IT hiring practices suck.

2003-06-18 18:14:46
How many really don't include cover letters?
Oops. Sorry about that. Bullet 7 got mixed up in the editing.
2003-06-18 18:20:31
It varies, even in IT
It really depends on the size of the company, and on the size of the department. Lots of places, especially at smaller companies, don't use scanners.

Past that, it's Pascal's wager (sort of). If it's a human on the other end, and you don't include a cover letter, we're talking --game over--. If it's a scanner and you do include a cover letter, it's not going to hurt you.

2003-07-10 07:36:12
Cover letter? In IT?
I agree 100 percent. Cover letters are ignored for the most part in IT. As a person who hires I never read cover letters there is not enough time to weed through the blah, blah, I am great stuff.
2003-07-10 07:39:49
Cover letter? In IT?
I agree 100 percent. Cover letters are ignored for the most part in IT. As a person who hires I never read cover letters there is not enough time to weed through the blah, blah, I am great stuff.
2003-07-11 08:15:42
cover letters
I have sent atleast some 60 emails and faxes with cover letters and making different approaches as per job and company requirements but the best part is that though I have had most of the requirements along with good experience, I have had no acknowledgement...either positive or negative...except two companies which gave me a chance to attend the interview atleast.
Anyway, I am one of those who believes that "Everything happens for GOOD for those who believe in GOD". So, I will keep trying and click one of these per GOD's plan.
I have nearly 8 years experience in Customer Support fr Windows Support...IBM and Compatible H/w and S/w and networking...and Mac also and work for Kuwait Airlines fm last 5.5 years and Z-80 microprocessor H/w and S/w development.....FYKI. I have also worked as Civil/Mechanical Engineer for nearly one year...entirely different field?.