Resumes & Cover Letters

Follow these rules to write a better cover letter

Written by Kate Lopaze

If you ask several people about whether you need to write a cover letter these days, you’re likely to get a variety of responses, ranging from “don’t bother, they’re too old fashioned” to “of course you should still write one.” So what’s the right answer, in this world of automated online applications and AI bots reading your resume before a human does?

The honest answer is that…there is no right answer. A cover letter might not always be needed. However, a cover letter can absolutely help you, and you have nothing to lose by writing one to go with any application package. The trick is to write an effective cover letter: one that isn’t too long, and one that catches the attention of a hiring manager who may be spending mere seconds skimming an application package.

Think about the reader

Think short, think sweet. People are busy and may have a very short time to review your cover letter and resume. Gone are the days when someone would open your snail-mailed resume, and read the letter printed on thick stock in your nicest font, with the most formal of greetings. Let’s face it: you’ve probably submitted your application online, and anyone reading your cover letter is using a computer screen or smaller. That means you should write something that is relatively short and is broken up into readable blocks of text to minimize strain.

Assume that the person will be reading it essentially as they would read an email, so prioritize the layout and length accordingly. Avoid strange text formatting, and don’t include long paragraphs if you can help it.

Create a solid hook

Your cover letter is the opportunity to set the tone for your resume, and frame it—especially if you’re trying to explain any gaps or other issues that wouldn’t be clear in the standalone resume. This is a chance to do your elevator pitch, so to speak. You want to highlight your best qualification for the job, and why you are uniquely suited to get the offer.

If you have a personal connection to the job, or a brief anecdote, open with that. Just make sure you don’t go into too much detail, or write a novel about your experience. Your resume should convey any supporting information, but the cover letter can help frame that information positively.

Don’t just rehash your resume

Your resume, which you’re also spending lots of time writing and refining, should be able to stand on its own. If you spend your cover letter reviewing what the person is going to read in your resume, it’s kind of a waste of your time and theirs. Take the time and space to highlight the skills and achievements that are most important to you (and potentially the job). This is not the place for bullet points about responsibilities.

Think of it as a best-of highlights reel, and choose accordingly. The person reading the letter should know about your biggest wins and best stats, not everything you’ve ever done.

Use powerful, non-cliched language

Cover letters have become so formal and templated over the years, and that may be partly why they’ve started to feel unnecessary. “To whom it may concern, I am honored to apply for this job at X Corp…” Instead, use the cover letter to show off your communication skills, including strong word choices. Use active verbs whenever possible to show your achievements, instead of passive phrases like “I believe I am _____” and clichés like “I am a hard worker.”

Employers see those all the time—and again, the goal here is to avoid having the reader glazing over because they’ve seen the same thing over and over. You want yours to be clear and compelling. Make brief points that show the readers, rather than tell them.

The cover letter is also a chance to work in some keywords from the job description. This shows attention to detail, and may also help with any automated ingest system that the company is using to do a preliminary evaluation of your application package. There’s no need to overuse phrases from the job description—again, the real estate is limited, and if you’re using it to summarize a job description that the reader already knows that’s a waste of time. However, you can choose keywords to tie your experience to the job you’re seeking.

You should always check a job description to see if it calls for a cover letter; but even if it doesn’t explicitly ask for one, you should still consider writing one. Even a short, straight-to-the-point cover letter can help you give essential context and narrative for your resume, and the fact that you went out of your way to write one can be a point in your favor. The care you put into crafting a smart, targeted cover letter just might make the difference between you and other applicants.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.