I’ve read a lot of cover letters throughout my career. When I was a fellowship program manager, I reviewed them in consideration for more than 60 open positions each year. So I saw it all–the good, the bad, and the standout examples that I can still remember.
As a result, I’ve become the go-to friend when people need feedback on their job applications. Based on my own experience putting people in the “yes” (and “no”) pile, I’m able to give these cover letters a quick scan and immediately identify what’ll turn a hiring manager off.
While I can’t give you insight into every person’s head who’ll be reading your materials, I can share with you the feedback that I give my own loved ones.
1. The Basics
First things first, I skim the document for anything that could be disqualifying. That includes typos, a “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, or a vibe so non-specific that it reeks of find-replace. I know it seems harsh, but when a hiring manager sees any one of these things, she reads it as, “I didn’t take my time with this, and I don’t really care about working here.” So she’s likely to pass.
Another thing I look for in this initial read-through is tone. Even if you’re applying to your dream company, you don’t want to come off like you think someone entertaining your candidacy is the same as him offering you water at the end of a lengthy hike. You don’t need to thank the hiring manager so incredibly much for reading your application–that’s his job. If you align considering your application with the biggest favor ever, you’ll make the other person think it’s because you’re desperate.
So, skip effusive thanks and demonstrate genuine interest by writing a cover letter that connects the dots between your experience and the requirements of the position. Telling the reader what you’ve accomplished and how it directly translates to meeting the company’s needs is always a better use of space than gushing.
2. The Opening Sentence
If your first line reads: “I am writing to apply for [job] at [company],” I will delete it and suggest a swap every time. (Yes, every single time.) When a hiring manager sees that, she won’t think, “How thoughtful of the applicant to remind me what I’m reading!” Her reaction will be much closer to, “boring,” “meh,” or even “next!”
Compare it to one of these statements:
I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorchester, helped me discover a love of reading.
My approach to management is simple: I strive to be the kind of leader I’d want to work for.
In my three years at [prior company], I increased our average quarterly sales by [percentage].
See how these examples make you want to keep reading? That’s half the battle right there. Additionally, it makes you memorable, which’ll help when you’re competing against a sea of applicants.
To try it out for yourself, pick a jumping-off point. It could be something about you or an aspect of the job description that you’re really drawn to. Then, open a blank document and just free-write (translation: write whatever comes to mind) for 10 minutes. Some of the sentences you come up with will sound embarrassing or lame: That’s fine–no one has to see those! Look for the sentence that’s most engaging and see how it reads as the opening line for your cover letter.
3. The Examples
Most often, people send me just their cover letter and resume, so I don’t have the benefit of reviewing the position description. And yet, whenever a letter follows the format of “I am skilled at [skill], [skill], [skill], as evidenced by my time at [place].” Or “You’re looking for [skill], and I am a talented [skill], ” I could pretty much re-create it. Surprise: that’s actually not a good thing.
Again, the goal isn’t just to show you’re qualified: It’s to make the case that you’re more qualified than all the other applicants. You want to make clear what distinguishes you, so the hiring manager can see why you’re worth following up with to learn more. And–again–you want to be memorable.
If you write a laundry list, it’ll blend into every other submission formatted the same way. So, just like you went with a unique opener, do the same with your examples. Sure, you might still include lists of skills, but break those up with anecdotes or splashes of personality.
Here’s a real, two-line excerpt from a cover letter I’ve written before:
If I’m in a conference room and the video isn’t working, I’m not the sort to simply call IT and wait. I’ll also (gracefully) crawl under the table, and check that everything is properly plugged in.
A couple lines like this will not only lighten up your letter, but also highlight your soft skills. I got the point across that I’m a take-charge problem solver, without saying, “I’m a take-charge problem solver.” Plus the “(gracefully)” shows that I don’t take myself too seriously–even in a job application. If your submission follows the same list-type format all the way through, see if you can’t pepper in an example or anecdote that’ll add some personality.
You want your cover letter to stand out for all the right reasons. So, before you click submit, take a few minutes to make sure you’re putting your best (and most memorable) foot forward.
Related Video: This Is What People Really Think Of Your Resumé
This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.
The first time I finished a hiring process, having settled on a stellar candidate, my boss patted me on the shoulder and said, "You know, your first time really shouldn't be this easy." I took it as a straightforward compliment to me and the person I'd found. The position had attracted a solid pool of talented people, but the candidate I'd recruited and ultimately chosen had clearly stood out above all the rest. We knew we'd made an impeccable hire.
It wasn't until years later that I realized my boss' words had a double meaning -- they were a compliment, yes, but also a piece of advice. Hiring -- often the most important decision a manager has to make -- should be hard. You want to have to make an excruciating choice from an impossibly talented pool of applicants.
So, I'm in the midst of hiring for this wonderful job you've applied for. It's an extraordinary opportunity, and it's drawn an equally extraordinary response. With the help of my colleagues on the hiring team, I've been poring over applications and talking to your fellow candidates for months. When I get a spare minute, I pull a few more resumes and cover letters off the pile to review, adding the most interesting candidates to a spreadsheet with notes and links to their work and social media profiles.
During most of my interviews, I realize two things: 1) Even though I feel like I'm moving at breakneck speed, to you this process feels mind-bendingly slow. 2) You have no idea how much I want you to rock -- how excited I get when I read a terrific cover letter, encounter a superlative clip, or find myself engrossed in an interview. Or what a heartbreak it is when you seem great on paper, but present lackluster work or a dismal demeanor.
So to make this process harder on me (in the best possible way), here are 10 things I'm wishing for from you -- and for anyone applying for a job in journalism.
Read between the lines of my job description. Yes, I know the prose is hardly gripping -- wordsmithed, as it almost always is, by committee. But there are secrets buried in our bureaucra-speak. If you see an adjective twice, pay attention, we're probably trying to tell you something. Even the boilerplate can sometimes speak volumes.
I know it's hard to discern which of the approximately 300 "essential" skills and characteristics we're most concerned with, but read them all twice. Highlight the ones that apply most strongly to you, and underline the ones that pose a bit of a problem. In your cover letter and interview, I'm going to want you to emphasize the former and give me reasons not to be concerned about the latter.
When there are multiple positions posted for the same team, look for which elements they share, and which are distinct to each. The former will tell you the qualities we're focusing on most carefully, and the latter will give you a good hint about how we think of this particular opening.
Get your vanity search in order. You know I'm Googling you, right? Of course. Before I get there, take a look at what I might see and try to make sure your best material is easily findable. (Tip: Because Google and other search engines personalize their results, it might be helpful to do the search in your browser's private or incognito mode. This should give you a good approximation of a generic search.)
If that vanity search still yields that ill-advised, gratuitously provocative screed you wrote for your college paper freshman year, it's not a disqualifier. You don't need to call up your alumni office and threaten legal action if they don't take it down. Just make sure that your own site shows up at the top of the results and showcases your best work.
Speaking of which, please have a personal site. If your cover letter and resume are solid, this is what I'm looking for next. Make it clean and easy to read, with links to your best work, and a nice, readable copy of your resume. A crisply written bio couldn't hurt either. Unless you're a stellar designer (or you're applying for a design job), no need to develop anything crazily distinctive; an about.me page or a nice, simple Wordpress.com site is perfectly fine.
My strong recommendation is that you make it easy to find your best clips. If you use a blogging engine like Wordpress, you can literally write a post titled, "My best clips on [topic you'd be covering]" and link to it somewhere prominent. (Heck, feel free to make a short URL out of it and stick that in your application materials.)
Your cover letter should tell me two stories, and both should be fascinating. First, as concisely as you can, tell me the story of how your experiences have shaped you for this position. Then, with similar economy, tell me the story of what you'll do with this position if you land it.
Remember, these are stories and you are their protagonist. Hook me with them. Don't just narrativize your resume, although the first story should probably include some of its relevant bits. You can rattle off as many superlatives about yourself as you'd like -- "I'm a first-rate storyteller with an eye for detail and a passion for telling the untold story" -- but do you really think that's how great characters are crafted? (I loved that part in the Harry Potter books where J.K. Rowling was all, "Hermione Granger is a dedicated wizard with a passion and an instinct for all kinds of magic, as well as a loyal and compassionate friend to elfkind." Oh, wait.)
And this should go without saying, but please -- please -- proofread.
There's more than one way to skin a resume. I know what a pain it would be to customize your resume for each job, so I have no complaints with a reasonably generic resume format. But do make sure to emphasize the aspects of your experience most suited to the jobs you're applying for. Hierarchy in a resume is all-important; the stuff you want me to notice most should go at the top.
If you're fresh out of school and your academic accomplishments are your calling card, lead with them. If you've been a longtime freelancer for a variety of high-quality news outlets, the names of the organizations may be most important to emphasize. If you've steadily moved up in seniority from job to job and held some impressive positions, then foreground your titles and make that progression stand out.
Remember: the more of your background you include, the less I'm likely to remember. A comprehensive C.V. is unnecessary. Foreground your five most impressive credentials, and tuck the rest into aftermatter, or excise it altogether.
By the way, the Web software we use for job applications and hiring tends to render resumes unrecognizable. So unless you know for certain that the system is going to deliver the resume to me with formatting intact, make sure that it looks wonderful in a plain text editor (like Notepad on Windows or TextWrangler on Mac). If you have the option of both uploading a PDF and submitting a separate plain text file, do both.
Even if I'm not following you on social media, assume I am. You probably don't work for my organization yet, so you're not covered by our social media guidelines. But I'll be trying to assess from your feed whether you could accommodate them. So try not to go too far out of bounds.
Also, if you signed up for a Twitter account a few days before applying because our job description asked for social media skills, I can probably tell. Newbie Twitter feeds are almost unmistakeable. Here's a secret: As much as I'd love to see your witty, informative stream of 140-character bursts of insight, I can also very much respect folks who listen more than they talk on Twitter. If you don't say much yourself, but are following an interesting bunch of people (and do interact when appropriate), that's perfectly fine in my book. If you're new to a social media community, there is no shame in signing up and listening. I'll be thrilled if you demonstrate to me that you understand the dynamics of the community, even if you haven't shared much yet yourself.
Don't hesitate to get one of our mutual colleagues to recommend you to me. I value a good recommendation; it's one more piece of information I can draw on in my evaluation of your work. But the mere fact that you and I know someone in common doesn't really help me out at all.
The best recommendations have a few qualities in common: 1) They come from someone with a genuine, first-person sense of how you work. 2) They come from someone with a decent understanding of our aims for the position. 3) They don't just tell me that you're great, they tell me why and how.
A little follow-up at any point in this process doesn't hurt. A lot might. If you haven't heard from us a month after you've applied, there's no harm in sending an email to check up on where we are in the process. And after an interview or test, a gracious follow-up note is always appreciated, especially if you note some ideas that struck you afterward. If we close the position and you still haven't heard from us, again, feel free to write.
Beyond those few occasions, be gentle. There's probably an optimum level of persistence that can slightly help your prospects or speed the process along, but it's unlikely to make a significant difference in our decision.
The very best interviews feel like great conversations. This may be one of my quirks as an interviewer, but I've found this to be true both as an interviewer and as an interviewee. Interviews often start out as interrogations -- a back-and-forth series of questions and answers. But great interviews don't tend to end that way. With the interview, I'm not merely trying to unlock the bits of knowledge in your head, and I'm certainly not trying to see how well you anticipate the answers locked in my head. I am trying to assess how you think, what you're passionate about, how we gel as colleagues.
If I veer away from asking questions and start riffing off your ideas or telling stories of my own, don't wait for the interrogation to resume -- join in. Your questions, reactions, asides, brow-furrowed musings and rejoinders are all just as interesting to me as your answers, and if I'm trying to elicit them, it's a good sign.
Every hiring manager is different. At the risk of negating everything I just wrote, I'll be honest: Nothing in this post is universal. You're probably going to encounter hiring managers who don't Google anyone, couldn't care less about your personal site or Twitter stream, disregard recommendations, hate follow up and don't truck with idle chit-chat in interviews. (I'd love to see perspectives from other hiring managers in the comments section of this post.)
The other members of my hiring team probably have different approaches and interests. If you have an interview with someone else on my team, feel free to ask what I can share with you about them; I want you to impress them too.
Again, when I wish you the very best of luck, I mean it sincerely.