Cover letter advice for job seekers

I recently posted an available position for an important writing-intensive job at Hunch. The detailed job description asks candidates to send their resume, a brief email stating why they are interested, and their Hunch username.

I’m fortunate that the posting has generated a tremendous response from many qualified, articulate, and enthusiastic applicants. That’s a privilege for any hiring manager.

As might be expected, I have also received scores of submissions from candidates who made such a poor first impression that they would never be considered. I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the key differences in these two groups.

Side note: if you’re reading this and are among the candidates interested in a position I’ve posted, congratulations: you have already done more research than 80% of your peers competing against you. Good for you.

Here are some of the things which the strongest candidates do in their cover letters:

  • Express enthusiasm, with rationale.  Examples: “This appeals to me, because I’ve done x and y throughout my career.”  or “You want somebody to do x, which I consider my true passion.”
  • Call our company by name and give specifics.  Show that you’ve done 30 seconds of research.  Example: “I noticed that Hunch recently did x, y, or z.”
  • Reference specifics from the job description and add to them.  “I can not only help you with the x and y you’re looking for, but also with z.”
  • Be humble.  It’s better for your experience and background to speak for themselves rather than for you to thump your chest in every sentence.
  • Highlight interesting things in the cover letter that are not in your resume.  Don’t just reiterate your resume’s entire list of bullet points.
  • Feel free to instill a bit of humor in a sentence or two.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Focus on the results you achieved rather than just the activities you did or the responsibilities assigned to you.
  • Keep it to about 3-4 paragraphs, max.

Among the most egregious deal killers that I’ve seen from candidates:

  • Forwarding a resume with no cover letter.  This gets an immediate ‘delete’.
  • Sending a form email and calling us “your company”, as in: “I’m sure that I could become a valuable member of your company.”  You might as well send no cover letter.
  • Grammatical/spelling errors and run-on sentences.  It’s a writing-intensive position, remember?  Among common errors: “I could definitely compliment your team”, “This job really peaked my interest”, and 50 word sentences that leave me scratching my head.
  • Don’t go overboard highlighting the fact that you consider yourself a hard worker, a team player, or a dependable employee.  These are laudable traits but something which top tier companies will assume of strong candidates.  The proof will come out during interviews, subsequent discussions, and reference checks.  Instead, use the valuable space in your cover letter to talk about the things that make you truly unique.
  • I’ve had half a dozen candidates send me a cover letter which references another company or another individual.  This just shows general carelessness and an inattention to detail.
  • Never call yourself a ‘guru’.  Probably don’t even call yourself an expert.  Instead, you can reference your “deep experience” or “passion and skill” and then point out the specific things you’ve accomplished in the field.
  • Don’t call yourself the ‘perfect candidate’.  Probably 25% of the submissions I receive contain this verbiage.  There’s no way for you to know who you’re up against, so instead, present yourself confidently and let the hiring company decide how well you are a fit for the position.
  • I had one generally qualified candidate close his email with a bible verse.  This shows an extraordinary lack of professional judgment and an inability to separate (perfectly valid) personal beliefs from the neutrality of a professional workplace.
  • Don’t sell yourself short from the first sentence.  I received one email whose entire contents consisted of: “I probably couldn’t do the x, y, and z portions of the job, but I’m pretty good at r and s.”
  • A sizable number of candidates exclude their graduation year from their college listing.  This is confusing and calls into question whether all relevant work experience is included on the resume.
  • Overly long cover letters that lack focus and that are not tailored to the position that’s being offered.
  • Think hard about whether to include your GPA.  In my opinion, the quality of a recent grad is usually a function of <quality of the school> + <optional gpa> + <relevant summer/intern experience> + <personal qualities>.   If you are a recent grad from a less-selective school, that can be ok, but you’re probably not doing yourself any favor if you also list anything but a really stellar GPA or a “cum laude” designation.

It’s a tough job market out there, but there is plenty of room for strong people to shine.  And I guarantee you that if you take the time to present yourself well starting with the initial cover letter, you really will separate yourself from everyone else from the very beginning.  And that can make all the difference.

5 responses to “Cover letter advice for job seekers

  1. This was a very great entry, Kelly. Not only was it informative and helpful, but extremely well-worded. Hopefully Hunch is able to fill the position soon.

  2. Andrew Svonavec

    Kelly–
    Just a random LinkedIn surfer commenting on your advice to job seekers…
    I find it hard to believe that people nowadays fail to reserach a company with an opportunity that really interests them. Perhaps these submissions were from unqualified people that are simply following the law of large numbers in their job search and should not even warrant mention. The bible verse applicant is a great example of a serious candidate who shot themselves in the foot. My guess is this person was from out of town, probably near where I went to grad school, and would probably have been a poor hire anyway.
    Best of luck with your search. If I were a hardcore blogger or perhaps someone who could relate to Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, I would certainly apply. Hunch sounds intereting to say the least. The social media push is critical to marketing success nowadays. Take care.

  3. I’m sending this to a couple of recent college graduates. You have offered some great advice!

  4. @Andrew: I agree. Lots of people seem to be hoping that the law of large numbers will eventually land them something if they just keep spamming hundreds of companies with their resumes. But it’s unlikely to work for a high quality company and you’d hope that these people would learn the lesson after consistently getting no response.

    A high number of poor-quality submissions is clearly the downside of posting to public forums like Craigslist, and could be avoided by going through a recruiter. But I do have to say that I’ve also received a large number of very high quality candidates for this search, and $25 for a Craigslist posting sure beats 15% of year 1 salary that a recruiter might charge!

    @Susan: thanks!

  5. Pingback: Binomial Revenue » Blog Archive » Awesome Jobs In Tech That You Can Have TODAY

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