Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Five Essential Rules To Follow In Creating Effective Cover Letters

Every day I receive cover letters for résumés.  Few are compelling.  Most are merely okay, but many are a turn-off.  I often wonder how some people graduated from decent colleges and are still unable to write a coherent sentence.

Here are several rules that will improve the power of your communications.

Don’t over-write
Writing about one’s self is difficult.  People have a tendency to over-sell and over-write, especially in cover letters.  If a cover letter is well written, brevity is more powerful than a long, rambling description. So many letters I receive go on and on and on, spewing out everything the writer has ever done.  It isn’t necessary.  A good cover letter requires its writer to be introspective and able to sum up what they do or did and can contribute to a new employer in just a short paragraph or two.  It needs to make a compelling reason why the writer should be interviewed.  However, a two page cover letter is at least one page too long.

Emails have to be brief.  Giving fifteen reasons why a candidate should be interviewed or hired is probably thirteen reasons too long.  My observation has been that most of the reasons are not important or even relevant and, if so, should be saved for an interview.

Write for your audience
A good cover letter takes into account the audience for which it is intended. If not, it can sometimes be inadvertently amusing and actually work against the writer.  I received a letter from a business development person who worked in a smaller market and wanted to come to New York.  In her cover letter she wrote about achieving $600,000 in incremental revenue for her current company.  That may be great for the market she is currently in and it may be a proud achievement for the writer, but it represents only a small increment for any of the big city agencies.  It was intended to impress me but did just the opposite.

Provide real insights into yourself
If there is something you do or a talent you have that would be appropriate for the reader to know, that is what should be in your cover letter. Writing what is or should be the obvious is a no-no.  Account managers (of any level and type) who write that they liaise with their clients is a waste and unnecessary.  Everyone knows what an account person does or should do. 

What everyone has to realize is that résumé screeners, including myself, more than likely will go right to the résumé and only briefly scan the cover letter.  However, cover letters need to be different than the résumé; most simply reiterate what is already in the CV.  An effective cover letter, particularly one that is targeted to its reader, should expand on what is not contained in the résumé or it should provide insight(s) which go beyond what is on the attachment.  If your strength is client relations, say so and give a brief explanation of problems you have solved – but keep it short.

Those insights need to be relevant, important and compelling.
Keep it simple
Explaining complicated accomplishments and providing details on the background of what you do should be saved for an interview.  I have seen cover letters which go into several paragraphs of explanation; when this happens, I skip those paragraphs, as does every other screener.  Give the results and save the explanation for an interview.

Make sure you are communicating
Don’t assume your readers know your brands or companies.  While everyone may know Tide or IBM, not everyone knows that Ariel is Tide in Europe or what IBM MaaS360 is or does. This happens frequently with people who have worked in smaller, foreign markets or B2B companies as well as lesser known brands or companies.  

Don’t expect your readers to know unfamiliar trade terms or items. I call this "company speak". I wrote a whole post about this some time ago.


  1. Here’s a cover letter tip you won’t hear from anyone but me … Before you write, go to Facebook (or wherever) and try to learn something personal about your audience. Then, open your cover letter with something about that (irresistible). For example, “Hey Jim … I see that you are a fellow dog lover”; or “Hey Jim … As a fellow Hofstra alumnus; …”; maybe “Hey Jim … As a kindred golf lover …”; or, “Hey Jim … Being a maxed-out Dad like us isn’t easy.” Or even, “Hey Paul (I mean Jim) … See that you love to collect glass and cook.” Whatever your business purpose is, no way he doesn’t keep reading. But after that, the very first sentence of your next short paragraph had get better get right to the point, and with only a very few specific and convincing “reasons why” to keep reading. Hope this helps. Took me 40 years to learn this.

    1. Anon: We are talking apples and oranges here. Your comment is absolutely correct if you are writing a sales letter and can find out who your audience is. I was talking about cover letters for blind online ads where one has no idea who will be reviewing the letter. Two different occasions.

    2. Anyone who is stupid enough to answer a "blind" recruitment ad deserves what they get (or don't).

    3. You are really tough and mis-informed. Most companies, including ad agencies, post their jobs blind. For the huge percentage of out of work people, that is the only way to reply.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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