Ten Tips for an Effective Cover Letter

Recently I’ve been reading through dozens of letters from people who are interested in working together, and I want to share some insights regarding what makes for an effective cover letter and what doesn’t.

If you consider these tips from the employer’s perspective, I think you’ll agree that most of them can be considered common sense. However, my experience thus far suggests they aren’t commonly applied. Because most people make these avoidable mistakes, I reject about 80% of applicants based on their cover letters alone.

Most of the time, the mistakes people make in their cover letters actively disqualify them. I don’t even need to look at their resume or CV.

While these tips are based on my recent personal experiences, I believe they’re general enough to be of value to others.

1. Avoid spelling and grammar mistakes.

Nothing says ‘loser’ like a cover letter filled with spelling and/or grammatical errors.

What do such mistakes convey to a potential employer? They suggest that you do sloppy work, that you don’t pay much attention to detail, that you don’t care enough to do a good job, that you’re uneducated or that you’re not very bright.

One minor typo that sneaks through even after proofreading probably isn’t a big deal. Some may see it as a negative strike, but employers understand that mistakes happen and that perfection isn’t a realistic standard. However, if you have several spelling mistakes in your letter, or if your grammar makes you sound as though you haven’t passed the third grade, that’s likely to hurt your chances.

Think of it this way: If an employer has to decide between you and another equally qualified applicant, and the other person has an error-free letter while yours contains many mistakes, who has the advantage?

This is an easy mistake to avoid, so don’t be foolish or lazy here. If you simply provide an error-free cover letter and resume, that alone is probably enough to place you in the top 50% of applicants. Not doing so puts you in the bottom 50%; that’s the half that won’t get a call back.

2. Express long-term interest.

Businesses are built by people who stick around. From an employer’s perspective, there isn’t much value in working with someone who wants to work only for a few weeks or even a few months.

Hiring someone new is expensive. It takes time to filter applicants, interview them and find suitable people. It takes more time to train and mentor them. Initially many employees produce negative value – they drain more value out of the company than they can provide.

High turnover is a problem for many companies. If you have a turnkey business that relies on unskilled workers who get paid minimum wage, then high turnover may simply be par for the course. But for many small businesses or for businesses in creative fields, having stable, long-term workers is much better.

Suppose you’re an employer. One applicant says they’re looking for a summer job before they go back to school. Another indicates that they’re looking for long-term employment in your field. Who are you going to favour, all else being equal?

No one expects you to commit up front to years of employment with a new company. You’ll have to feel each other out first to see if you’re a good match for each other. But at least suggest the possibility that if things go well, you may stick around. This makes you seem like a better investment. It can’t hurt your chances. This, of course, assumes that you truly want to build a serious career, not just find a job.

3. Apply locally.

If you’re applying for work far from where you live, you’d better explain why in your cover letter. And your explanation should sound plausible. Otherwise the employer may wonder: Why is this person looking for work so far from home? Are they unable to find work locally? 

Hiring someone from out of the country is riskier and more complicated than hiring a local. It doesn’t make much sense to look so far away unless I’ve already exhausted local possibilities, first within my own city and then within my own country.

The only reason to go outside my city or country for new employees is if I’m looking for people to work virtually (over the Internet) or if I need people with talents that the local workforce cannot provide. All else being equal, I’ll hire someone local to me before I give serious consideration to working with people in other cities or countries. It doesn’t make sense to go beyond my local area if I can find good people locally.

4. Paint a clear picture of your intended position.

Some people send me employment-related letters that are so vague, I honestly can’t tell what sort of work they’re interested in doing. These letters include phrases like “I can do pretty much anything you need done.” Their resumes show a work history that has little or nothing to do with my field.

Since these people fail to specify what they want, they put the onus on me to use my imagination. Unfortunately for them, I simply imagine myself dropping their letters into the recycle bin. That’s fairly easy to visualize.

If you don’t know what you want, you should develop a clearer picture of that first before you go around applying for work. Don’t expect potential employers to figure it out for you.

If you’re too vague in specifying what you want to do, you’ll be passed over. Employers are too busy figuring out how to hire, train and integrate people who actually do know what they want. They don’t have as much time to help you figure out what you want. Figuring it out is your job, not theirs.

5. Build your case to win.

Think like a lawyer building a case as to why you should be hired. Make sure your case is a strong one.

When you’re seeking a rewarding long-term career, understand and accept that lots of other people are looking for the same thing. It’s a competitive situation, so you need to play to win. Being good isn’t enough. You need to be the best among the other applicants for your position.

In a trial, the mantra is “Innocent until proven guilty”. This means that you’re assumed to be innocent unless the prosecutor can prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Some people apply for work as if “Employable until proven incompetent” is the mantra that applies. They provide pretty good cover letters and resumes, figuring that as long as they satisfy expectations and don’t screw something up, they have a reasonable chance of getting hired. They’re careful to avoid the obvious mistakes, and yet quite often they still lose. They lose to people who are willing to be unreasonable – unreasonably good, that is.

That’s because the mantra that applies in the world of work is closer to the standard in civil cases as opposed to criminal cases. In a civil case, whichever side builds the best case wins, and the other side loses. One side may build a great case and still lose if the other side builds a slightly better case. This may not sound fair, but such are the vicissitudes of life.

If you hold yourself to an unreasonable standard of going well beyond what most people do, then even if you don’t come out on top, you’re more likely to get a follow-up. The employer might even add an extra position to accommodate you.

People with higher-than-normal standards are very valuable in the world of work. What employer would want to hire someone very good if they could hire someone outstanding?

If someone else could easily beat you by spending an extra half-hour on their cover letter, you’re probably going to be beaten.

If you claim certain skills, back them up with solid evidence. Explain how you developed skills that aren’t conveyed by your education and work history. Don’t claim general skills, such as being a hard worker or being well-organized, unless you can back them up. Share a quick story to explain how you’ve applied these skills. Otherwise you’re doing what so many other people do, and someone else that includes actual evidence will make you look like a second-rate applicant.

You don’t have to like the competitive aspect, but don’t ignore it either. If you’re going to compete, then compete to win; otherwise don’t bother.

6. Be professional.

Present yourself as a competent pro – or at least an amateur on the rise. Employers want to hire competent professionals with strong skills. It’s too risky to hire people who position themselves as emotionally immature and unprofessional.

I have received several letters from people who:

-    Complained about their previous employers
-    Complained about their history, upbringing, current life situation, etc.
-    Shared what types of work they’re sick and tired of doing
-    Explained how underappreciated and misunderstood they felt
-    Told me how fed up they are with their unfulfilling lives

This sort of thing may seem honest and open, but it’s really unprofessional. If you do anything like the above, you’re positioning yourself as an emotionally immature man-child or woman-child, not a serious professional. In my view any such applicant is an easy no, instantly disqualified.

I sympathize that you may be looking to improve your life situation, and you may have had real problems with previous employers. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and say those problems were beyond your control. Even so, it’s unwise to position yourself as someone who needs rescuing. This doesn’t make you look like a quality hire. It makes you look irresponsible. A new employer can’t verify that your ex-boss was an idiot.

When an employer sees the complaints above, they’re likely to assume:

-    If this person had conflicts with previous employers, they’ll probably have similar conflicts here.
-    If this person is willing to complain about their previous employers, they’ll eventually complain about me.
-    This person is unappreciative, ungrateful and disloyal.
-    This person has an unreasonable sense of entitlement.
-    This person has a negative attitude.
-    This isn’t someone I’d want on my team.

Again, I sympathize if you really are in a rough spot, but if you’re looking for serious work, it isn’t appropriate to vent your past resentments in a professional cover letter.

Put yourself in the employer’s shoes. When one applicant sends a letter complaining about their “poor me” situation, while another equally qualified applicant writes positively of how much they learned from previous employers and why they moved on without burning bridges, which person would you invite to join your team?

A potential employer isn’t your therapist. Put your best foot forward if you want to be hired. Do you want sympathy, or do you want to work?

7. Inject your personality.

Cover letters and resumes are typically very bland. It’s likely that your potential employer will be looking at several other applications at the same time. I’ve been going through them in stacks of 10-15 at a time.

If your communication style is just as bland as everyone else’s, it won’t help you stand out. But if you inject some originality and personality in your cover letter and resume, this can help you. For one, it makes you more memorable. If your letter is more memorable, you have a better shot of getting a follow-up.

Some of the letters I’ve received expressed a lot of personality, such as a quirky sense of humour. I can’t speak for all employers, but I appreciate it when people do this, as long as they’re expressing positive aspects of their personality.

You take a bit more risk when you do this, but I think it’s a reasonable risk. I respect people who do this. It gives me a more realistic sense of what it would be like to work with you. If you express your geeky side, your humorous side, or your creative side, then I can more easily visualize you as a real member of the team as opposed to a faceless applicant.

A friendly tone is generally good, but don’t be so casual that you seem unprofessionally goofy. Make sure that each paragraph of your letter contains substance and value; cut the fluff.

8. Don’t play the destiny card.

If an angel came to you in a dream and said you’re going to work for this company, or if you receive several synchronicities about applying for a certain position, please don’t put that in your cover letter. It may be exciting for you, but it can come off as immature and manipulative if you convey this to a potential employer.

One problem is that when you do this, it’s not unique. It won’t impress any but the most gullible employers. Most of the people who play the destiny card aren’t going to get hired. So when you claim that your application was divinely mandated, you’re actually triggering a “don’t hire me” pattern by grouping yourself with others who weren’t hired. This is more likely to hurt you than help you.

Another problem is that from an employer’s perspective, this sort of thing can come across as manipulative and borderline desperate. I’d like to believe that I have the free will to hire or not hire you according to your skills and qualifications.

9. Express your greatness.

Don’t position yourself as weak, timid, desperate or needy. Do position yourself as an excellent choice in a competitive field.

What do you excel at? Why should an employer hire you instead of someone else?

Identify one or two qualities you possess that you’ve developed to a much greater degree than most people. Emphasize those qualities. Present them as strengths, and centre your application around these strengths.

Share that which makes you stand out from the crowd. If you’ve won some awards, share that. If you’ve published some articles in your field, share that too.

If you can’t share anything that makes you seem different and better, someone else will. They’ll get hired. You’ll get ignored.

10. Apply for work that matches your skills and experience.

Don’t apply for work for which you aren’t qualified with a “What have I got to lose?” attitude. You’re just wasting people’s time.

Apply when there’s a strong match between the position and your skills, experience and goals. Otherwise don’t apply at all.

One thing that’s actually impressive is when you share where else you’re applying to. If you send an employer a letter that you’re applying to them as well as five of their top competitors, they’re more likely to take notice of you. Some employers may want to hire you partly to keep you from joining their competitors, especially if you’re well qualified. 

Even if you manage to get a job for which you’re a mismatch, it’s unlikely to work out in the long run. And while you’re stuck in that mismatched job, better opportunities will pass you by because you’ll be too busy to notice them. Meanwhile, you probably won’t be very productive in a job you don’t really want to be doing.

You’re responsible for your own career development. Don’t put the onus on potential employers to figure out who you are. No one else can give you a life purpose; you must figure that out for yourself.

If someone applies to work with me, but their education and work history shows a mismatch with what I can provide, I can’t really take them seriously. I’ll hold out for a more qualified applicant. I’d rather keep a position vacant than fill it with someone who’s a mismatch.

If you know that your CV won’t seem to be a good match for a new position for which you’re applying, you’d better explain that, and your explanation had better make sense. Otherwise it seems as though you’re branching out in desperation because you couldn’t find work in your intended field. It also suggests that you don’t really know what you want and you probably won’t be sticking around for long.

Decide what kind of work you’d like to do. Build your education and skills in that direction, whether through formal university education or self-education (both are equally valid, in my view). Then apply for positions which match your current skills and will help you continue your career development.

You have the ability to create an amazing career for yourself, but only if you step up and do what it takes to make it a reality. Most people are unwilling to pay that price, and so they wallow in unsatisfying work. The price of fulfilling work may seem high, but it’s still affordable for those who accept that fulfilling work deserves a premium price.

This article assumes that you seek meaningful and fulfilling work – a consciously chosen career that challenges you as opposed to a cog-like job to pay the bills. You aren’t likely to find such career positions advertised anywhere; it’s up to you to define and create them. 

Steve Pavlina