The Do’s and Dont’s of Cover Letters

I’ve seen some truly horrendous cover letters. Awful ones. Ones that make me want to lather it with ketchup and feed it to a stray dog.

Here are some tips from my experiences as a hiring manager on writing an effective cover letter.

  • DO: Be polite and respectful
  • DON’T: Be arrogant and demanding

    Some hiring managers see hundreds of cover letters a week. If you start off with, “Give me a job, I’m the best in the industry,” you’re going to be the best crumpled-up cover letter in the trash can.

  • DO: Highlight notable achievements in previous roles
  • DON’T: Repeat what’s on your resume

    The cover letter is a place to go into a little more detail about a previous job. If there was an especially relevant accomplishment, write about it and provide some extra details.

  • DO: Personalize the letter to the company
  • DON’T: Use a generic template

    Some hiring managers are impressed with candidates who’ve done their research about their company. Generic cover letter templates usually sound dry and, well, generic too.

  • DO: Explain why you’re qualified for the role
  • DON’T: Explain why you want to work for the company

    This might be contrary to what you might think, but it’s already obvious that you want to work for the company. So don’t waste the hiring manager’s time explaining that. Instead, explain why you’re a good match for the role without being overly arrogant.

  • DO: Be accurate
  • DON’T: Lie

    Hiring managers often ask questions about the information you put in your cover letter (or resume). If you lie, you’re going to get caught. Some background checks are more thorough than you think.

  • DO: Keep it concise
  • DON’T: Write a novel

    Since hiring managers see so many cover letters, a long one is a sure way of getting tossed aside. Don’t write a one-liner, but don’t write a ten-pager either.

In short, a cover letter is a way to explain why you’re qualified by providing some details about specific accomplishments you’ve made, without repeating what is already in your resume.

How to Assess a Resume

You get hundreds of resumes a day. Your eyes tear up at having to shuffle through those endless piles. Yet you need to hire a rockstar. NOW. What do you do?

If you’ve ever been in this position, you’ve inevitably developed shortcuts to cut through the “crap.” That’s good because it optimizes your time. That’s bad because you may throw away some rockstars.

Here are some tips that can help you minimize the crap and lost rockstars. (And for job seekers, this can be a helpful peek into the mind of a hiring manager.)

In order of importance:

  1. Check personal website & portfolio (for web/design/writing industries)
    • This can give a fairly good view of the candidate’s personality, skill set, and/or style. It’s not always current, but is the best indicator of demonstrated skill you have so far. (For the web industry, a personal site also shows an interest in web design and/or development.)
    • What kind of demonstrated technologies, skills, & style does the candidate have?
    • What is the candidate trying to communicate with site? Is it a personal site? A hobby site? A professional/freelance site?
    • Any demonstrations of innovation or originality?

  2. Check job progression
    • This can give an overall view of the candidate’s actual experience. It’s more accurate than other items on resume.
    • What kinds of roles has this person held?
    • Is this candidate on a management track or individual contributor track?
    • How long was the candidate at each job?
    • Did the candidate ever relocate?
    • Are the past duties relevant to the open position?

  3. Check education
    • This can give a very general idea of the candidate’s abilities, though it’s not always an accurate measure.
    • What kind of degree(s) does the candidate have?
    • What university did the candidate attend?
    • When did the candidate graduate?

  4. Check skills
    • This only gives a very general view and is hardly ever accurate. Most candidates inflate their list of skills.
    • Does candidate list the basic skills we’re looking for?
    • How many years has the candidate been using this skill?

  5. Check interests/hobbies/extracurricular activities
    • This only gives a very general view and most don’t even list it. It can provides additional info on candidate’s personality.
    • Are there any matching interests to the open role?
    • Are there any artistic/creative or problem-solving/puzzle interests?
    • Are there a wide range of interests & activities?

  6. Check current location
    • This can tell you whether or not it will take longer to interview and hire this candidate, especially if candidate is out-of-state. It’s is mostly useful as additional administrative info.
    • Does this candidate require relocation?
    • Do phone screens have to be made with consideration to time zones?

While this may seem like quite a few steps, after a few resumes, you’ll hopefully get into a regular rhythm. Sometimes, I’ll add a small low-med-high rating next to each item. For candidates that score low on the first two items, I’ll immediately move on to the next resume.

For job seekers, this may sound harsh, but that’s the reality of a hiring manager’s job. The better you’re able to structure your resume, the easier you’ll make it on a hiring manager – which will also increase your chances if you truly are a fit for the role.