I’ve written and helped edit hundreds of cover letters in my career, and as a coach on The Muse’s coaching platform I work with clients on cover letters each week. Below is a quick guide on some of my thoughts on cover letters and how you can write one that a sets yourself apart from the pack of other applicants.
Do I need a cover letter?
The short answer is that it depends, and there are three schools of thought:
- Not needed – Some job postings will flat out tell you that a cover letter is not necessary. If that is the case, no need to read anything into that – Skip writing one or risk getting your application ignored
- Cover Letter Needed – Again, not need to read into this, write the cover letter and don’t ask questions.
- No Guidance or Optional – This is where it gets tricky. On one hand, they don’t tell you have to write one, so you could skip it. On the flipside, they don’t tell you not to write one, so perhaps this is a way to figure out who writes one and who doesn’t.
My general rule of thumb: If you care about the position and you are interested in the job, write the cover letter. While cover letter doesn’t guarantee success, it does serve as a way for you to differentiate yourself amongst the applicant pile. Everyone that applies for the position will have lots of the same kinds of qualifications but the cover letter is your chance to show why you are a unique and special candidate. So if you care about the role, write the cover letter.
What is the purpose of a cover letter?
A cover letter has two main purposes:
Make them believe you can do the work – They want to know that you’re competent and capable for the job. They want to know you have the skills and experiences to do the job and do it well. Your job, is to convince them you have the right skills and experiences to do the job and do it well.
Make them believe you’re a good fit – In addition to being qualified, you’ll need to convince them you are a a good “cultural” fit. People like working with people they like or find agreeable, and you’ll want to come off as being someone they would want as a colleague.
What do I need to remember when I write a cover letter?
Make it personal – It can be tempting to copy and paste to generically in cover letters because it saves time and is efficient. However, if you really want to stand out you do need to make the cover letter personal and unique. If a recruiter is literally reading 100’s of applications, the cover letter is the chance you have at getting remembered and creating a relationship with the recruiter, so take the time to really make sure it reflects who you are.
Match Your Skills and Experience to Position Qualifications – As I said previously, one of your goals in the cover letter is to convince them you are capable of doing the job. The best way to do that is to show them the the skills you have are the ones that they are looking for. To do this, take a look at the job description and pick out what you think are some of the most important skills/qualifications for the job.
From there, look at your own set of skills and experiences, and find examples of how you’ve successfully exhibited those skills and experiences. Let’s say that one of the competencies for the job is Data Analysis – tell them how you have used Tableau, Excel, and other Data Visualization tools.
As a rule of thumb, I like to generally focus on 3-4 of the qualifications. Most job descriptions have many, so take a look at the job description and pick out the ones that you think are most important.
Show your Interest/Passion, don’t tell – In English class in high school, my 11th grade English teacher used to tell us “show me, don’t tell me.” He wanted us to be descriptive about what we were trying to say, as opposed to literally just writing it. The same maxim applies for cover letters. For example, if I am reading your cover letter as a hiring manager, simply telling someone you are passionate about analytics, while true, is not very convincing. However, if you tell me that you’re interest in analytics started because you loved basketball as a kid and you enjoyed reading the box scores and memorizing the statistics of Michael Jordan you’re favorite basketball player, it’s a lot more interesting, it’s somewhat believable, and makes me remember that you are the “Michael Jordan candidate.”
Be Concise – Yes, they are asking you to talk about yourself, but remember, you don’t have to tell them everything about yourself, and you also have a resume (which tells them about your experience) as well as a potential interview to share your qualifications and information.
- Cover letters (unless they tell you do not write one) are necessary but not sufficient. A good one can help set you apart, but you still need to have a great resume and interview
- To set yourself apart, refrain from copying and pasting and make the cover letter personal
- The purpose of a cover letter is to tell the recruiter you are competent and likeable
- Show don’t tell.
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