Writing Effective Cover Letters

I recently made the classic error of venting on twitter about a cover letter I received, without considering the fact that I was failing to provide any appropriate context.

Fortunately, a bunch of good humans helped put in perspective why my tweet did more harm than good so I’m going to try and fix that by clarifying my perspective and outlining what I feel an effective cover letter looks like.

What’s the point?

People ask me all the time if cover letters are even necessary these days and the short answer is no. They certainly aren’t necessary but a personalised, relevant cover letter can absolutely help with your job application.

I receive dozens of job applications every day. Approximately half of those applications have some form of cover letter and, unfortunately, most of those cover letters are completely ineffectual. People that spend a lot of time hiring can very quickly identify if a cover letter has been specifically crafted for a particular role or company. When it’s clear that the cover letter is a copy & pasted, generic block of text that could apply to any company or position, then not only is the cover letter dismissed, it can often ignite a negative response from the employer as their first impression is that you haven’t given a lot of thought to your application.

Dearest HR Manager

It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to know the name of the person who will be reviewing your job application so a relatively broad greeting is often necessary. There are a few assumptions every applicant should avoid making:

  • Don’t assume the persons gender
  • Don’t assume their role in the company
  • Don’t assume they will be receptive to a casual tone

Some simple but appropriate alternatives:

  • Dear <Company Name>,
  • To whom it may concern,
  • Hello,

Get to the point

Your opening paragraph is instrumental in ensuring your application is taken seriously. If you establish the role you’re applying for (use the exact job title from the job ad), where you found the job advertised, and what it was that convinced you to apply, not only will you have captured my attention, you will also have given me valuable context on where my job advert is actually getting noticed.

Hello, I came across your Senior Software Engineer role on Honest Work and I was fascinated by how you’re applying machine learning to the burger industry. Having spent the past 15 years consuming burgers whilst earning a living writing python, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to marry my skills with my passion and join a disruptive BurgerTech organisation.

As an employer, this simple paragraph tells me an awful lot about you.

  1. You clearly took the time to write your cover letter specifically for this role at my company.
  2. You clearly like burgers (a legitimate interest in the product, platform, or industry makes a big difference).
  3. I definitely need to pay attention to your CV because you have indicated that you have plenty of relevant experience.

Selling yourself

The once nuance that was severely lacking in my original tweet was the fine line between selling yourself and overselling yourself. A cover letter is a great opportunity to summarise your skills, experience and interests into a more conversational tone. It should absolutely be used an an opportunity to convince the employer that they should give you the opportunity to interview for the position.

The one thing guaranteed to kill every sales pitch is arrogance. Even a hint of arrogance is often enough to dissuade an employer. To clarify this fine line, let’s continue the earlier example and assume we are applying for a Senior Software Engineer job at a BurgerTech company and one of the specified requirements is for applicants to have significant commercial experience using Python and some team leadership experience.

Selling Yourself:
I have spent the past few years working for a company where I was able to significantly improve my python experience, working on large scale applications whilst surrounded by a fantastic team of engineers. Most recently, I was the Lead Engineer on a major project where I had the opportunity to lead a great team of 15 engineers to deliver a critical new feature for the platform which resulted in an X increase in revenue.

I love this approach because it’s confident, hits the relevant areas of experience that the employer is looking for, and specifies numbers like the specific team size that you are leading that the employer would otherwise have to ask you for if they were to interview you. Now, let’s make the same points as above but this time we will oversell ourselves.

Overselling Yourself:
I am a highly experienced and accomplished Senior Python professional with over 15 years of experience in this field. In my current role of Lead Engineer, I am solely responsible for directly managing a 15 person development team. I have only been in this role for a few months but I have already delivered a critical new feature for the platform which resulted in an X increase in revenue and ironed-out many problems within the team.

Whilst you may have established the same metrics as the first example, your points are being completely overshadowed by your perceived arrogance. The first example makes references like “opportunity to lead a great team” whilst the second example focuses on how they were “directly responsible for managing…”.

As unfair and as unreasonable as it may seem, employers are humans and humans are flawed. They will make assumptions about you and your personality based on the tone and approach of your cover letter. In this circumstance, the assumptions I am making is that the person in the first example is a collaborative and effective leader with a hands-on approach to getting shit done. The assumptions I make about the person in the second example is that they are arrogant, self-centred, and will put themselves before the team at all costs. I already know which one of those two people I’d rather work with.

Signing off

The quote included in my controversial tweet was the final sentence in a cover letter from a person that personified the overselling cover letter. Everything up to and including their sign off sentence came across as arrogant. Even if you really do believe that you are the perfect candidate for this job, let the employer come to that conclusion through a clearly written CV and a cover letter that sets an approachable, likeable tone.

The final sentence should be a call to action but that call to action should be circumstantially appropriate.

I look forward to scheduling an interview at your earliest convenience.

Here you’re making an assumption on my behalf. You are assuming that I am going to come to the conclusion that you are the perfect candidate and you are assuming I will want to interview you immediately. That assumptive close might work if you’re selling life insurance but when we’re talking about spending almost every day in each others company, an assumptive close is simply too aggressive.

My mobile number is 07********* and my email is stevie@foo.bar. Thank you for considering my application and hopefully we’ll speak soon.

This is my favourite example of an effective close. Friendly, useful, and appreciative.

Your mileage may vary

I’ve been hiring people for an awful long time and I’ve applied for my fair share of jobs over the years. My perspective is just that, one persons perspective. The reality is that there are employers out there who watch Glengarry Glen Ross on repeat, believe in Tory Power Stances, and are convinced a firm handshake tells them everything they need to know about a person. Those people are likely to post screenshots of this blog post on LinkedIn and write broetry about how I’m some form of snowflake that needs to harden up. These people want to be ‘sold to’. They want you to be over confident and to oversell yourself.

Your mileage may vary but I am a firm believer in being true to yourself. Set a tone in your cover letter that you feel comfortable maintaining throughout your career with that company should they offer you the job.

Good luck.

Honest Work is a new, transparent job board for tech and startup jobs in the UK where every job has an accurate salary range and info on the interview process.

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