No one seems to agree on cover letters. How much time do you need to spend perfecting them? Do hiring managers even read them? Is it better to just send in your resume and call it a day?
Now, I'm not in HR, but I've been approached by applicants who wondered whether their cover letter would actually be read. My answer is one not many of them wanted to hear: "Sometimes." Sometimes it will be read. Other times, you can get away with just sending in your resume -- like when you network your way into applying for a position.
The truth is, you can't really predict on a case-by-case basis -- and you're better safe than sorry. For the most part, having a cover letter will give you an upper hand in ways your resume doesn't. It allows you to show off your writing skills, provide details that you couldn't fit on your resume, demonstrate your passion, and show your willingness to put in as much time and effort as possible.
But if your cover letter is sloppy, you might as well have not applied at all. Grammatical errors could mean your application is thrown in the trash. Using a generic "one-size-fits-all" cover letter -- especially if you forgot to change the name of the company -- will definitely hurt your chances. So if you take the time to write a cover letter, take special care that it reflects you in the best possible light.
Let's take a look at an example.
Sample Cover Letter
Here's an example of a great cover letter. The numbered sections are explained in more detail below.
The level of formality your header has will depend on the company you apply to. If you're applying to a formal business, it's important to use a formal header to open your cover letter, like in the sample above. Put your address, the date, and the company's address. But if you're applying to a company that isn't as formal, you don't need to include yours and the company's addresses. You can still include the date, though.
Using "To Whom It May Concern" is okay, but you may want to take the time to research the name of the recruiter or hiring manager online. If you do your research and aren't confident you found the right name, then you should definitely use the generic greeting -- but if you are sure, then it shows you put in the effort to find their name and it will catch the recruiter's eye.
If you have the recruiter's name, do you greet them by their full name, or by their courtesy title (i.e. Mr., Ms., or Mrs.)? Similar to the header, it depends on the company's level of formality. If you're applying to a corporate business, you may want to consider using "Mr. Snaper" instead of "Jon Snaper." If you're applying to a start-up or a business with a more casual culture, you can use "Jon Snaper," as shown in the example.
3) Paragraph 1: Introduction
Your opening paragraph should, in 1-3 sentences, state why you're excited to apply and what makes you the perfect candidate. Get right to the point, and don't worry about explaining where you found the posting or who you know at the company. This isn't a place to go into detail about why you're a great candidate -- that's for the second paragraph. Here, simply list a few key reasons in one sentence to set up the rest of your letter. Keep in mind that the recruiter may cross-reference your cover letter with your resume, so make sure the two sync up.
4) Paragraph 2: Why You're a Great Fit for the Job
Next, sell yourself and your experience by choosing one or two concrete examples that show why you're a great fit for the position. What did you do at a previous company that gave you relevant experience? Which projects have you worked on that would benefit the new company? How will your prior experience help this company grow? Stay humble in your explanation of credentials while still showing that you would be an asset to the team. Use this paragraph to show you're genuinely excited and interested in the position.
5) Paragraph 3: Why the Company is a Great Fit for You
While it's certainly important you're a good fit for the job, it's also important that the company is a good fit for you. "A cover letter typically describes why you're great for a company -- but how will you benefit from getting hired?" asks Emily MacIntyre, Senior Marketing Recruiter at HubSpot. "We want to know why our company appeals to you, and how it will be a mutually beneficial working relationship."
In the third paragraph, show you're serious about growing and developing your career at this new company. What impresses and excites you about the company? Is there something that you feel strongly about that aligns with the company's goals? For example, the candidate in the sample letter used this space to show his personal commitment to environmental causes aligns with the company's green initiatives.
6) Strong Closing Paragraph
Don't write off the final few sentences of your cover letter -- it's important to finish strong. Be straightforward about your interest and enthusiasm about the new position without coming off too strong. Tell them you're available to talk about the opportunity at any time and include your phone number and email address. At this point, the ball is (rightly) in the recruiter's court to decide how to follow up.
Last but certainly not least, thank them for their time and consideration.
7) Formal Sign-Off
Use a formal sign-off like "Best," "All the best," or "Sincerely," and finish by typing out your full name. You don't need to sign it with a pen.
5 Cover Letter Tips From the Experts
While the sample from the previous section provides a basic framework for writing your cover letter, there are also several tips you can follow to help get your cover letter to stand out from the crowd.
1) Do your research.
In order to craft a truly compelling cover letter, you need to show that you understand what the company does and what their pain points are. And that usually entails doing more than simply reading a job description.
Start by soaking up all the information you can find on the company's website and blog, and then consider drilling down into the LinkedIn and Twitter accounts of executives and employees you could end up working with. That research will help you fine-tune the messaging of your cover letter.
As author and entrepreneur Jodi Glickman told the Harvard Business Review:
Think about the culture of the organization you’re applying to. If it’s a creative agency, like a design shop, you might take more risks but if it’s a more conservative organization, like a bank, you may hold back."
2) Keep it short.
You might have heard that keeping your cover letter to one page is ideal. But according to Forbes tech journalist Seth Porges, you may want to consider keeping it even shorter than a single page.
As Porges once noted (in appropriately concise fashion):
"Less. Is. More. Three paragraphs, tops. Half a page, tops. Skip lengthy exposition and jump right into something juicy."
3) Don't state the obvious.
One trick for helping you keep your cover letter concise: Avoid wasting real estate on information that the hiring manager already knows -- like the position you are applying for.
As Porges wrote for Forbes:
Never ever, ever use the following phrase: 'My name is ___, and I am applying for the position as ____.' They already know this, and you’ll sound inexperienced."
4) Add some personal branding.
Career coach Evelyn Salvador recommends using personal branding elements -- specifically a slogan, a testimonial, and/or a mission statement -- to help make your cover letter more attention-grabbing. As Salvador told Monster.com:
Each of these elements is optional, but it might just be the thing that makes your cover letter stand out from those of other candidates."
Here's a quick run down on what those three elements are, and examples of what they might look like.
- Slogan: A short summary of the value you'd bring to a company/role (e.g., "Using data to solve the problems of tomorrow.")
- Testimonial: An excerpt from a letter of recommendation, thank-you message from a customer, or other short quote that highlights your past performance (e.g., "[Your name] was prompt, professional, and responsive throughout the entire process. I can't wait to work with her again the future!")
- Mission Statement: Similar to a slogan, but focused more on the philosophy behind why you do what you do, and why you want to accomplish what you want to accomplish (e.g., "The key to customer happiness is creating products that people love. My mission is to produce the most lovable products on the planet.")
5) Don't force humor.
Cover letter tips for technology professionals
A hastily written letter or no letter at all could be stalling your IT job search. Follow these nine tips to compose a winning cover letter.
How much time do you spend on your cover letter? If the answer is “not much,” you could be missing out on quality interviews. Technology career experts say that a hastily written letter -- or worse -- no letter at all, could stall your IT job search. Follow these tips to write a winning letter.
1. Always send a letter
The ease of applying online has led many IT professionals to skip sending a cover letter, but that’s a mistake. Mehdi Hanbali, technical recruiter for TEKsystems in San Jose, says he rarely receives cover letters, but always reads the ones he gets. “I can tell if the candidate is just shooting over templates to postings,” Hanbali says.
To make your letter stand out, show how you meet or exceed the job requirements. “Always cater your letter to the job description that you are targeting,” says Abigail Eddy McMillan, IT recruiter for Reston, Virginia-based Open Systems Technologies. “When job seekers address the job ad rather than send a generic letter, they are more likely to be interviewed.”
3. Show passion
Kinga Wilson, president of Lincoln, Nebraska-based recruitment firm Leaders IT Recruitment, is likely to notice a cover letter that relays a sense of passion. “You can talk about your factual experience, but that’s only part of the equation,” Wilson says. “I’m looking for candidates who want to contribute to the growth of an organization.”
Include a line that relays your passion and speaks to the employer’s needs, such as: “Your opening will allow me to combine my interests in wireless networking and embedded security, and I am confident that I can facilitate major upgrades while maintaining the highest levels of security of your WiTrack product.”
4. Emphasize accomplishments
Since past success is a good predictor of future performance, Thomas Wolff, a certified professional resume writer based in Kansas City, Missouri, suggests adding significant career accomplishments to show employers that you have been a top performer.
“Potential employers will see how your technical and business accomplishments have made you a valuable employee and that you are likely to do the same for them,” he says.
Here’s an example of how a network engineer could describe the benefits of his past work: “Most recently, I have designed and delivered technology solutions that have elevated productivity, customer satisfaction and profitability to record levels.
Bottom-line impacts (realized through both cost savings and revenue gains) for my present employer total nearly $1.4 million to date.”
5. Incorporate relevant terms
Hiring managers look for job-related skills, so incorporate relevant technical terms in your letter. McMillan suggests prominently featuring technical skills vital to the job. “If the position calls for technical expertise such as Java or object-oriented design, state your proficiency in these areas towards the beginning of the letter,” she says.
6. Be honest
Technical professionals often list skills in their cover letters, including those in which they aren’t exactly proficient. Exaggerating technical or other skills may be tempting, but it’s not a good idea.
For example, if your knowledge of HTML is limited to helping a friend set up a personal Web page, don’t tout HTML as one of your key skills. “You will feel good about what you’re talking about since you know it well,” Hanbali says.
7. Be concise
Busy hiring managers don’t have time to read your life story in your cover letter. “Respect the reader by keeping your letter concise and focused on the key points,” Wilson says.
Hanbali suggests combining paragraphs with bullets to emphasize important credentials and enhance readability. An effective strategy is to lead with a paragraph that summarizes your strongest technical credentials, followed by a line such as, “Highlights of my credentials include:” Then present a bulleted list of your technical skills, training, certifications and significant accomplishments.
8. End confidently
Include a strong and confident closing. “Instead of ending your letter with a passive line such as, ‘I look forward to hearing from you,’ tell the reader what you want, which is to arrange a meeting,” Wilson says.
For example, a systems administrator may close with a line such as, “I would welcome the chance to discuss how my systems administration skills would benefit your IT department, and I will follow up with you in a few days to see if we can arrange a meeting.”
Your letter is representing you in your absence, so it should be perfect. McMillan says errors in the cover letter will cause her to think twice about interviewing the applicant.
Hanbali agrees, saying, “Make sure that 100 percent of your spelling and grammar is correct.” The extra time and attention you give your cover letter could help you land your next job.
Learn more about technology careers.