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How To Write a Good Cover Letter for a Job


Neville

Note from Neville:

I wanted to show everyone how to write a kick ass cover letter....so I’m bringing in someone who’s read thousands of resumes, thousands of cover letters, and acts as the gatekeeper between thousands of people and the jobs they're hunting for.  Denise Renee.

Denise Renee

Denise Renee can tell you which cover letters suck, which are amazing, and which are a total waste of your time.  I added lots of poorly-drawn illustrations into this article so blame those on me, not Denise Renee!


 

Denise Renee starts talking typing here:

Thanks Neville!

I have held several positions where I’ve performed HR functions throughout my career, such as on-boarding new employees, training, interviewing and hiring. A few years ago, I worked for an Executive Recruiting firm where I learned the industry inside and out. I also had an all-access backstage pass to the side of CareerBuilder.com job seekers don’t normally see.

I have been a gatekeeper, guarding the door of employment for a few lucky souls. So I know from personal experience that gatekeepers don't have a lot of time. They are trying to wade through the deluge of resumes they receive daily and they want to get to the most relevant applicants as quickly as possible. A heavily reference study conducted by TheLadders.com back in 2012 revealed that recruiters spent an average of 6 seconds reading a resume before deciding if they were interested or not in reading more. If a hiring manager receives an email with a cover letter and resume attached to it, 9 times out of 10, they are going straight for the resume.

In fact, I think that cover letters are a waste of time (with only 3 exceptions).

No one likes you cover letter

When was the last time you were verbally asked to hand in a cover letter?

Back in the day when resumes were physically mailed (or faxed) to companies, a cover letter served a practical purpose. It was seen before the resume and was intended to entice the recipient to take a further look at what was enclosed:

Old Faxed Documents

Today, however, resumes are, more often than not, received electronically. Whether directly submitted via a company’s website, vetted by a recruiting firm, or sourced from an applicant pool such as Careerbuilder.com, resumes are digitally delivered without being married to a cover letter.

You must understand.....

If there is a digital database of resumes, there is an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) in place. When recruiting firms, individual companies and online applicant pools like CareerBuilder receive resumes, they are scanned and the relevant information is put into buckets like:

  • Name.
  • City/State.
  • Job Title.
  • Relevant keywords inside your resume (such as "Manager" or "Executive" or "Microsoft Excel" or "QuickBooks")

So when a recruiter or a hiring manager has a position to fill and wants to search their internal database (or the database of a site like CareerBuilder), they can essentially do a “Google search” of the skill sets they are looking for, and the database shows them a list of resumes.

In all my years in recruiting I've never seen a cover letter given much relevance by an ATS.

It’s all about the resume baby.

And today, your resume must be friendly to two things:

1.) The ATS (Applicant Tracking System)...so when someone types in certain keywords your resume pops up.

2.) The human who will skim through those resumes that decides who gets a pre-screening phone call. This person is The Gatekeeper and can make-or-break your chances of getting an interview.

The human resources director gatekeeper of jobs

For today’s job hunter, a cover letter is sometimes a deer-in-headlights afterthought.  They think after they’ve polished up their resume, “Maybe I should write a cover letter!”  Fresh out of ideas, what usually gets cranked out reads like recycled resume hash that goes something like this:

Bad Cover Letter Example:

Bad Cover Letter Emily Employee

If this letter is supposed to entice the hiring manager to further examine the resume, it’s an epic fail.

Why?

Well, because:

  • It’s highly impersonal. ("Dear Hiring Manager." ...Seriously???)
  • It reads like a generic, plastic wrapped product that came off a cover letter assembly line when Reagan was President.
  • It only focuses on the job seeker and their desire for an interview, not what the employers wants or needs.
  • It’s a snooze fest. (That should probably be listed as #1)!
  • It just summarizes what’s in the resume, so there's no compelling reason to look at the resume...which is supposed to be the point of a cover letter, right?

So in the digital age, there's not much point to writing a cover letter......well, except in these three cases:

 

The Only 3 Times You Must Write A Cover Letter:

I actually think there are three situations where cover letters are important, if not mandatory:

Situation #1.) When you are specifically asked for one by an individual company’s website.

Some companies have their own in-depth online application process via their website. You may have discovered this by being redirected when using a site like Indeed.com or CareerBuilder.com or if you are conducting a proactive job search. If their process requests that you submit a cover letter, then submit a cover letter! You never want to leave out a step in a hiring process because I can promise you, the person on the other end sorting through those applications is just PRAYING you give them a reason to disqualify you; you’ll be one less application to read. Not paying attention to instructions during the application or interview process with any company is a red flag to them; you may not follow instructions if hired. So I wouldn’t play with that if I were you.

General template:

 

Example: when the company asks for specific suggestions

Example: when the company asks for a specific word to be mentioned

Example: when a content manager asks for article ideas in the cover letter

Situation #2.) when a connection has been made for you.

If you are serious about landing your next position, you wouldn’t rely on a passive method such as submitting your resume to CareerBuilder.com and to company websites as your sole strategy. Tapping into your network is an excellent way to be proactive about your job search. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 70% of jobs are found through networking or are unadvertised positions. So when one of your friends, colleague or mentors say, “I have someone you should send your resume too,” follow through on that lead! You now now have a golden opportunity to bypass the recruiting “black hole” of online applications and HR blockades to put your resume in the hands of a warm-blooded influencer at the company. It most definitely should be accompanied by a well crafted cover letter.

General template:

Example: CMO reaching out to a startup founder via mutual friend

Example: PPC specialist reaching out to a big brand leader via a mutual connection

Example: reaching out to development agency officers before moving to a new country

Situation #3.) When you are conducting a proactive job search. 

Where a cover letter is relevant, if not mandatory is when you are conducting a proactive job search. It’s when you’ve identified specific companies you’d like to work with (regardless if they are currently hiring in your field or not), you’ve thoroughly researched their history and growth plans and you’ve crafted a strategy to find your way in. Once you’ve identified the best individual to make your introduction, you’ll most certainly want to whip up a customized cover letter and send it off via snail mail with your resume; both should be on that fancy paper you can get at Office Depot or Staples.

General template:

Example: copywriter reaching out to a marketing agency

Example: Lawyer reaching out to a clean tech consulting firm

Example: Web developer reaching out to a local sports team

Example: reaching out to a founder after listening to their podcast interview

How To Write An Attention Grabbing Cover Letter That Gets You Phone Calls:

This next part is only for those of you who don’t see yourself as the average “Jo/anna Shmoe” employee. If you put a high value on your skillset and you understand that you are both the CEO and CMO of “You Inc.” you are probably a proactive type of job seeker and you’ll immediately get what I’m about to say next.

In order to write an effective cover letter, you have to write it like a sales letter:

Cover letter vs resume

Yes, the same kind of sales letter that Neville teaches the people in his copywriting course to write. Remember Bobby and the boring emails he used to write to influential client prospects? That’s exactly how most people churn out cover letters. Boring, stale, snooze material.

Remember, you are the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of “You Inc.” It’s your job to show your potential customers (recruiters and hiring managers) that you have the best solution or product (your superior skill set) that will solve their business problems.

This will require that you understand that company’s vision, goals and pain points. You’re not going to get that simply from a job posting on Indeed.com. You’ll actually need to engage in the “hunting” part of “job hunting.” You can gain a 360 degree perspective of your target companies by doing things like studying their website, searching for press clippings, stalking their employees on Linkedin (in a professional way, of course), going to association meetings that some of their employees are a part of or by attending industry events the company will have a presence, just to name a few tactics.

When you are adequately armed with both the knowledge of what the company’s current trajectory is, along with an appropriate influencer within the company to direct your resume to, you can now write your cover letter.

The Cover Letter Checklist:

Your cover letter must take everything that is wrong in my bad cover letter example above and do the exact opposite. A cover letter that will have a hiring manager or recruiter calling you before they’ve finished reading will:

cover letter checklist

So to craft this masterpiece, you simply follow a tried and true copywriting formula: AIDA.

A – Grab their Attention

I – Spark their Interest

D – Create Desire

A – Invite them to take Action

So let’s say Emily Employee has decided she wants to work at Global Technical Services. She’s done her research and learned that their Atlanta area expansion has not been going very well. Local news reports revealed that their contractor relationships have been failing and they’ve been refunding their end-user clients to make up for lack of poor service. Emily has the Regional Manager, Richard Robinson’s contact info. So now instead of the snooze fest letter she sent above, she’ll send one that sounds more like this:

Good Cover Letter Example:

Good cover letter example emily

Here’s why this cover letter will perform better for Emily:

  • She immediately grabs Richard’s attention by addressing him by name.

  • She addresses the company’s biggest pain points: their current PR problem and their profit problem.
  • She stirs up interest by showing how her existing relationships in the field can contribute to a potential solution.
  • She is showing how she’ll be a benefit to the organization.

Richard is probably salivating with desire to get his hands on Emily’s connections and she gives him an action to take....review her resume and call her. If you were Richard, wouldn't you call Emily?

::::Denise Renee drops the mic and sashays off stage!::::

Ok, I’m back!

But there you have it: when and how to write a relevant cover letter. When job seekers start thinking more like marketers and sales professionals, I have the pleasure of seeing them become better resume and cover letter writers. I hope this nudges you one step closer to landing your dream job!

Sincerely,

Denise Renee

Download this entire Cover Letter Post for your own files or sharing with colleagues:

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P.S. Neville back with you. Whenever people ask “where can I find a copywriter” for the HR industry, I always refer them to Denise Renee. Years ago she took one of my classes and I was blown away by the content she wrote about how to cleverly stuff a resume with keywords so it shows up in a recruiters list.  You can grab her free ebook 5 Essential Resume Hacks or stalk her for cool personal branding and career tips on Facebook or Periscope.

If you ever have job-related or professional space copy to be written, keep Denise Renee in your Copywriting Rolodex.

 

P.P.S.  If you would like to ask Denise Renee any questions about your own cover letter or resume, ask below! She kindly said she'd answer them all. She was the gatekeeper for thousands of job seekers, so she knows a lot of the tricks of the trade.

Other articles to help you at work:

How to write a good memo.

Effective workplace communications skills.


User Feedback

Recommended Comments



Thank you Denise Renee! You just saved me a bunch of time as I'm about to start job hunting again. I have one question: As a recruiter did you ever get "presents" from applicants, like a box of cookies? Would this be frowned upon?
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Thanks Denise

How about a situation when you do not know the name of the contact person or more details about the job requirement? How do you handle that?

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Hi Denise, thanks for the great insight! How do you suggest people address a gap in their resume, especially those who have been out of the traditional employee mode for some time?
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Thanks, Denise. I was just about to start writing my cover letter this morning when I recieved Neville's email on cover letters. Perfect timing - thank you! I am applying for a 12 month placement as a PR Trainee in the company which I have worked for already for 3 years. My question is, do you think a cover letter is nessecary? (I personally do as I want to work specifically for this company and progress with them but just in a different department where there are more opportunities as I am currently in the sales dep). And how do you think I should adress the cover letter with the position being for a trainee placement? Thanks so much to you both - amazing content as always.
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great post! question: with my last job, I did not submit a cover letter, I was just asked to submit a resume online, but I made sure to email the person hiring for the position after I submitted the resume.

would you say that the email sent to the hiring manager should contain all of the items you suggested for a cover letter?

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Hi Denise,

Thank you for your the brilliant article. As a student of copywriting it's painful to see how many people craft pieces like résumés and cover letters without giving much thought to the message they're trying to convey and without realising that they should be communicating that they're trying to fix the employer's problem(s).

It's also a lucky coincidence that you and Neville just published this today, as I had literally just started my job search as a recent graduate and I had started to think of how to write a kick-ass cover letter.

My question to you is in relation to how copywriting changes depending on the country. In the first paragraph of your good cover letter you say 'wouldn't it be great if in 12 months the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported on Global Technical Services' improved vendor relationships and at least a 25% increase in profits.'

I don't know if it's the norm in the US, but in Europe, where I live, that would be considered a right hook, or a very direct selling approach.

Would you suggest altering the first paragraph to suit it to the UK market, and if so, what changes would you make? Or do you think it doesn't make a difference?

Thanks in advance, and kind regards,

 

Pedro

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Great article, just goes to show you can apply copywriting anywhere. That said, what happens when 1) the HR person's name wasn't mentioned in the job ad, 2) you have no idea about what kind of problems the company may have and you don't want to give fake promises 3) you have no interesting relationships to bring 4) the company has no website (they barely mention their name) from which you can do your homework?

The good cover letter example is one of a person who is hyper-qualified for the position and so the value he/she brings is conspicuous. What can I do when I don't have significant value to offer and have little to no information about the companies I apply to? Give up on the position and try for basic, entry-level positions? But even those ask for a lot and have many applicants competing for them.

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Big Dose of Kudos to Denise!

Actually, I'm also pretty stoked because I'm currently looking at cover letters from both sides of the table (you know what I mean, right, hiring and looking...) and note that the reject pile pretty much fits into the descriptions given by Denise in the article, and my own attempts at a cover letter are *so* nearly there!

Some good (okay, great) tips on how to make them better, too, so a big heartfelt "thanks" for those...

Best,

Guy

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Thanks! I'm beginning a job search after many years being out of the job market. I was wondering how cover letters fit into the world of internet job hunting ... now I know!
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Great post, thanks! When applying for jobs that would involve a substantial relication (from asia back to the US in my case), should it be addressed in the cover letter?

For example: I do not expect the new employer to cover relocation expenses.

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Guest Daniel Chavez

Posted

Hey Denise

This is a great post I will consider for my following job opportunity. Do you suggest to follow up to a cover letter after some time with no response? If it is appropriate to follow up, how much time you should wait to do it to not look desperate or uninterested?

Regards

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Guest Scharlette

Posted

I have always heard you have to "Sell yourself" in a job interview or resume. This approach to the cover letter is excellent in showing the marketing aspect of a candidate. Excellent!
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Guest Jasper Verelst

Posted

If I had known this before, maybe I hadn't been without a job for so long! But then again, I recently started my own company so I don't have to worry about writing cover letters anymore. However I could use lots of copywriting tips though for my own business marketing. Off course that's why I follow your blog and read all of your posts. Thanks Neville, greetings from Belgium!
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My dad spent his career in personnel. He once told me the hardest job I'd ever have was looking for a job.

He was right. Great article.

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Guest Sheiler

Posted

Before I started working freelance, I applied for jobs. This involved writing the dreaded cover letter. I hated dong that. But for freelance gigs, I'll often respond to ads online, various boards and also craigslist. The thing I used to hate - writing cover letters that got printed out and faxed back in the 1700s - is actually pretty easy (for me) responding online. I don't know why one's easier and the other isn't.

So I'll shoot out an email that talks directly to the person posting - about their specific exact thing they're looking for. And sometimes I'll throw a question out there that's specifically about their apple orchard, or their beverage distribution, something relevant that shows I've put a modicum of thought into their business. Like I'm already working for them.

The beauty of this post of Denise's is that I didn't know I still had this hang-up about cover letters. And that I've basically solved my own problem if I just use my online approach to writing ye olde cover letter. Thanks for that.

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Hi,

Many thanks for the tips, I receive a few cv and in almost all cases the applicant doesn't talk about my needs but about theirs. Sometimes I really struggle to figure out whether they would be good for the job that I am looking for, so in the end we usually hire people based on personal recomendations via our network.

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Guest Katherine Chalmers

Posted

While focusing your cover letter on how you can achieve goals the company cares about is valuable, a few other aspects of this post do not at all track with my experience as either a hiring manager or job searcher. Here are a few points to consider from a non-HR perspective:

1) Avoid HR at all costs

If your strategy for getting a job depends on getting past someone like Renee, you're doing something *seriously* wrong in your job search. Even if you see a posting on a job site, you should be focused on finding someone you know in your network or researching online to find who the "actual" hiring manager is and reaching out to him/her via other means. HR generalists seldom have sufficient domain knowledge to fully evaluate mid-level to senior managers and technical professionals. Plus, unless you're a low level admin or intern, the HR person almost *never* has the power to hire you; they simply have virtually unlimited power to say no. Avoid.

2) Your email cover letter is extremely important to hiring managers

While HR people might ignore the cover letter and click right to the resume 9x out of 10 times, as a hiring manager my review process is exactly the opposite. I'm not using a CTS so I get applications via email whether directly from the posting service or forwarded from an HR consultant. I don't even bother to open the attached resume 8x out of 10.

If you cannot write a single cogent paragraph that addresses how you can successfully accomplish the role outlined in my job posting, then you're clearly unqualified for *any* professional level position on my team. At the very least, simply showing that you actually read the posting puts you ahead of 80% applicants since most cannot be bothered to actually read all 450 or so words in the description. If you use the query in your email to ask some inane question that was ANSWERED in the job posting, your application is DOA when it gets to my inbox. I'm not opening your resume.

(BTW - If you want me to review your resume file more than once, don't name the file "MyResume.pdf." How do you expect a busy hiring manager to find it in a download folder with 25 other resumes with virtually the same name? Put your last name in the filename.)

3) Don't use the first name and last name in the salutation. That affectation went out of style 35 years ago.

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This post came at a great time for me, thanks for the great content. I was just wondering how you would suggest addressing the cover letter if you can't find out the name of the person doing the hiring?
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Guest Mikestar

Posted

This is some solid information.

I've tried looking for my first job, but have had no luck. Probably because I haven't read about this beforehand.

I've had a bit more luck doing some copywriting gigs on Upwork.

Oh well, still great information to have!

Thanks Neville! Thanks Denise!

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Hi Denise,

One thing I've always struggled with... is understanding the employers specific problem that you address in the cover letter and provide a solution for.

How do you conduct research to understand their specific problems and needs?

Thanks!

-Ben

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Guest Kimberly

Posted

Thanks for this timely and informative article!

Some of the responses were SPOT on (like Ms Katherine Chalmers).

Question: In your cover letter example, how did you come up with "at 25% increase in profits"? I though it's better to under promise and over deliver.

Question: Do you think it would be beneficial to include links to your online profiles in the cover letter?

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The advice above is solid but it fills me with dread that everything is already so automated, at least in the US.

It's a fact of my life that I have never got a job from a standard Cover Letter + CV/Resume. Yet, I have gotten jobs for others when I write up their Resumes. There was a period there was something almost mystical going on and people (in my network) used to seek me out as apparently I had the "lucky touch".

What works for me is if I write a bit of a story. Start with some pattern-interrupt based on my research of the company/potential employer. Because of exactly that bit of info that a Resume has 6, 9 or whatever seconds to make it beyond the initial scan by the human eye.

Actually now that I think of it I approach Cover Letters more like writing a Press Release.

I am always told that my Cover Letter is what made the difference and got the potential employer really interested in me.

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Guest Neville

Posted

Glad you liked Erica! I'm actually highly curious to see how Denise responds to this also.....

Bribing a recruiter....good or bad?? :)

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