Here’s a hard truth: your cover letter might have almost no impact on whether or not you get hired. A hiring manager might gloss over it, or not bother reading it at all.
But under certain circumstances when a recruiter is unsure if she wants to move forward with you, it counts big-time.
Madeline Mann, Director of People Operations at Gem HQ, says cover letters are crucial if you’re applying for a position at a small-to-medium company: “For us little guys -- the companies who hire dozens instead of hundreds; the start-ups looking to change the world with team members who are equal parts talented and passionate; the tribes where each new person immediately sends ripples through the culture -- we read every cover letter, and make our interview decisions based on them.”
Even if you’re applying for a position at a larger corporation, writing a cover letter is still important. Our recruiters at HubSpot have said they often use cover letters when they’re on the fence about a candidate. They use the cover letter to decide if they’ll move forward.
Claire McCarthy, a recruiter at HubSpot, says a cover letter is, “your opportunity to showcase your business acumen and written communication skills. Cover letters can just as much disqualify you as a candidate as they can sway me to move you forward.”
At the very least, as Jodi Glickman, a communications expert and author of Great on the Job, points out: “Not sending a cover letter is a sign of laziness. It’s akin to making spelling and grammar mistakes in your resume. You just don’t do it.”
Ultimately, a cover letter differentiates you from other candidates beyond the content of your resume. It can prove your enthusiasm for a company, showcase how well you’ll fit into the culture, or explain gaps in your resume.
But that’s only if you write a good cover letter. Otherwise, the cover letter wastes your time, and the hiring manager’s time. To ensure your cover letter demonstrates exactly why you’re an exceptional fit, we’ve compiled powerful tips from experts in the recruiting and career development field.
1. Address the hiring manager personally.
Claire McCarthy, a recruiter at HubSpot, says, “Specificity is key. I can spot a generic ‘fill in the blank with company name’ cover letter from a mile away.” That specificity should start early, with an appropriately addressed letter, which says, “To [Hiring Manager’s Name].”
Here are a few ways to find out who is hiring for a certain position:
- Reach out to any contacts you have at the company and see if they can tell you.
- Email or call the company, and ask who is hiring for position X.
- Do some sleuthing on LinkedIn or Google. Type in [hiring manager + company X] and see what you find.
At the very least, you’ll want to address “The Hiring Team” instead of “To whom it may concern.”
These little touches go a long way towards proving you’ve put genuine effort into this cover letter, and aren’t simply sending out generic ones to every company you find online.
2. Stand out from the start, and don’t fall back on a generic introduction.
John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of Knockout CV, told Harvard Business Review: “People typically write themselves into the letter with ‘I’m applying for X job that I saw in Y place.’ That’s a waste of text.”
Your cover letter introduction is your one shot to capture the hiring manager’s attention and ensure they don’t throw it away. No pressure, right?
Claire McCarthy seconds Lees’ point, explaining that as a recruiter, she already knows you want the job -- it’s why you applied, isn’t it? She urges candidates to instead use the introduction as space to explain why you’re qualified.
Start off by saying something direct, dynamic, and persuasive. Lees suggests saying something like this: “Before you read any further, let me draw your attention to two reasons why you might want to hire me …” See? This sentence sets you up to share critical information the recruiter needs to read early on.
The exact contents of your introduction will vary depending on what you know of the company culture: a tech start-up, for instance, could invite a more candid or creative introduction, whereas a financial position probably deserves more stiff professionalism. You’ll need to do your research to ensure your tone fits their brand.
3. Address gaps in your resume -- or risk seeming suspicious.
No one has a completely linear career path. Most employers won't fault you for having career setbacks or gaps, but it’ll look suspicious if you’ve got a full six-months unemployment on your resume and can't explain it.
Bart Turczynski, a career expert and editor for Uptowork.com, suggests using your cover letter as a chance to fill in those gaps in your resume that could otherwise raise an eyebrow.
Turczynski says, “use the cover letter to share what you did during that gap time. Think of any courses, [or] workshops you might have attended in that period.”
It’s likely if you don’t address it, a recruiter is going to be skeptical of your work ethic. It’s important you explain what you learned or how you pursued professional growth during an unemployment period. If you took off time to travel after college, you don’t have to hide it -- own up to your own life story and explain how the opportunity to travel positioned you to be more successful, long-term.
4. Answer the three critical questions a hiring manager might ask herself.
Jenny Foss, Founder and CEO of JobJenny.com, writes three questions hiring managers will be looking to answer when they read cover letters:
- Can he or she do this job?
- Do we like him or her?
- Do we think he or she is going to fit around here?
Your resume partially answers the first question, but it doesn’t answer the second or third. When you’re up against plenty of people with similar skill sets, your cover letter needs to convince the hiring manager you’ll be the better fit than the rest of the pile.
First, do extensive research on the company's culture. In your cover letter, you want to try to match their tone -- do they come across as goofy, relaxed, fast-paced, or conservative?
For instance, if the company seems incredibly results-driven from their About Us page, you might adjust your tone to reflect how focused and disciplined you are, with points like, “Over the past year as digital marketing manager at Company A, I’ve generated $30k+ in revenue, increased organic traffic to our blog by 14% …”
However, if the company seems more playful and relaxed, you might use a tone that sounds similarly fun-loving (check out 8 Impressive Ways to Start a Cover Letter, with Examples for some ideas).
Answering Foss’s question two -- whether you’re likeable -- is harder to address. It’s often difficult to come across as likeable through digital correspondence, but you want to be authentic and use friendly and respectful phrases.
For instance, you could convey a general good-naturedness via email correspondence, with phrases such as, “At your earliest convenience,” “Have a great weekend” and, “I look forward to hearing from you,” etc. Stay clear of sounding pushy or frustrated, and remain humble by focusing on past achievements (“I’m a fast learner … I got two promotions in seven months”), rather than sounding boisterous (“I’ve always been smart.”).
5. Don’t waste time repeating the contents of your resume.
Wasting a recruiter’s time by repeating information already on your resume is an easy way to lose their interest -- plus, it’s depleting space you could be using to convince them you’re the most qualified candidate.
Vicki Salemi, a Monster career expert, says, “Recruiters are looking for a cover letter that highlights your professional achievements, like the fact that you got promoted two times in three years, you earned a coveted award within your industry and/or you possess a unique skill set. Think of it as a ‘best-of’ roundup of your career so far.”
Notice Salemi mentioned professional achievements such as promotions or awards: while those achievements might be listed on your resume, they aren’t explained or highlighted. Use your cover letter as a chance to explain more in-depth.
For instance, your resume might say “Event planner, Two years”. But your cover letter could take it a step further: “I dealt with the nuts and bolts of the event planning process, and I have increased my leadership skills and my teamwork skills exponentially. I increased event retention and was recognized as the ‘event planner of the year’ at my company.”
See? Your cover letter lets you provide critical background details about your experiences, showcasing how you’ve learned and grown from past roles.
6. Prove your values and passions align with the company’s.
Passion is a major indicator of success, as well as long-term company loyalty. It’s often challenging to display passion in the rigid format of a resume, so your cover letter is a good opportunity to show your excitement for the position.
Madeline Mann, Director of People Operations at Gem HQ, says: “The other important ‘why’ in the cover letter is, ‘Why this company?’ It is a huge bonus in the cover letter if there is any mention of geeking out on our technology, cultural tenets, or our mission. These candidates are the ones who understand, at least on a basic level, what we are building and why it is important, and are enthusiastic about it. This gives them an edge because our small start up runs on passion and thirst for knowledge -- if you don't get excited about complex bleeding edge technology then you won't have nearly as much fun as everyone else.”
The easiest way to prove your ability to do a good job, apart from writing a list of skills, is to show recruiters you understand the company’s bottom line and crave the opportunity to help drive success. This is more convincing if your values align with the company’s, or if you care deeply about the company’s overarching goals.
7. End with your elevator pitch.
To write your closing statement, Claire McCarthy recommends thinking of yourself as a lawyer: “You're making a case as to why you are a qualified candidate for this position, and why the recruiter should move you forward. What's your value prop? What will you bring to the table, and what's going to set you apart from the pack?”
This is your chance to dig into skills or experiences that might not be obvious from your resume. With your closing statement, you want to speak confidently about how you envision your future at the company and in the position to which you’re applying. This is an opportunity to paint a picture to show the recruiter the connection between your past success at Company Y and your likely future success at her company.
Be blunt. Claire recommends saying something like this: "As the most junior rep at my Boston-based company, I worked West Coast hours and hit 125% of my annual quota in 2017, and plan to take this track record of success, and commitment to my craft to Company X’s sales team."
Essentially, your closing statement should be your elevator pitch for why you’re best suited for the role. Take all your prior experiences and relate them in a convincing argument for how you’ll succeed next.