10 Tips for a Better Cover Letter

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					5/11/12                                                 10 Tips for a Better Cover Letter

                     10 Tips for a Better Cover Letter
                     May 7th, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

                                                    Like    82                              7

                     Recently I’ve been reading through dozens of letters from people who are interested in
                     working together, and I want to share some insights regarding what makes for an
                     effective cover letter and what doesn’t.

                     If you consider these tips from the employer’s perspective, I think you’ll agree that
                     most of them can be considered common sense. However, my experience thus far
                     suggests they aren’t commonly applied. Because most people make these avoidable
                     mistakes, I’ve been rejecting about 80% of applicants based on their cover letters

                     Most of the time, the mistakes people make in their cover letters are actively
                     disqualifying them. So I don’t even need to look at their resume or CV.

                     While these tips are based on my recent personal experiences, I believe they’re
                     general enough to be of value to others.

                     1. Avoid spelling and grammar mistakes.
                     Nothing says loser like a cover letter filled with spelling and/or grammatical errors.

                     What do such mistakes convey to a potential employer? They suggest that you do
                     sloppy work, that you don’t pay much attention to detail, that you don’t care enough
                     to do a good job, that you’re uneducated, or that you’re not very bright.

                     That one minor typo that sneaks through even after proofreading probably isn’t a big
                     deal. Some may see it as a negative strike, but employers understand that mistakes
                     happen and that perfection isn’t a realistic standard. However, if you have several
                     spelling mistakes in your letter, or if your grammar sounds like you haven’t passed the

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                     3rd grade, that’s likely to hurt your chances.

                     What if you’re applying for a job that isn’t in your native language? I still think you
                     should make the effort to provide a quality cover letter and resume without spelling or
                     grammar mistakes.

                     I’m used to communicating with non-native English speakers because 50% of my
                     readers live outside the USA, and I’ve been doing business internationally since the
                     mid-1990s. On a personal level, I’m impressed with people who can communicate in
                     multiple languages. That said, it still makes a poor impression when you send a cover
                     letter and resume with more grammar and spelling mistakes than most native speakers.
                     This suggests that you may have difficulty communicating with other team members.

                     I’m not saying that you need perfect English skills. I’m simply saying that you shouldn’t
                     let yourself be disqualified so easily by sending a poorly written cover letter. Don’t let
                     your use of language betray you.

                     Take the time to have a native speaker proofread your cover letter and resume and
                     correct any mistakes. This doesn’t take much extra time, but it could mean the
                     difference between getting a follow up call vs. being disqualified as a poor

                     Think of it this way: If an employer has to decide between you and another equally
                     qualified applicant, and the other person has an error-free letter while yours contains
                     many mistakes, who has the advantage?

                     Speaking personally, I’d be very unlikely to follow up with someone who sent me a
                     cover letter that showed poor English skills, even if it was obviously sent by a non-
                     native speaker. I’m going to favor people who show can communicate well in the
                     primary language of my company.

                     This is an easy mistake to avoid, so don’t be foolish or lazy here. If you simply provide
                     an error-free cover letter and resume, that alone is probably enough to place you in the
                     top 50% of applicants. Not doing so puts you in the bottom 50%; that’s the half that
                     won’t get a callback.

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                     Someone may think it’s ironic that I give such advice when my articles often contain
                     typos. I do fix typos when people report them, but the nature of my work makes typos
                     a lesser concern; I don’t compete with other bloggers to minimize typos. But perhaps
                     I’d be interested in hiring people with a better eye for catching mistakes than I have.

                     2. Express long-term interest.
                     Businesses are built by people who stick around. From an employer’s perspective,
                     there isn’t much value in working with someone who only wants to work for a few
                     weeks or even a few months.

                     Hiring someone new is expensive. It takes time to filter applicants, interview them, and
                     find suitable people. It takes more time to train and mentor them. Initially many
                     employees produce negative value — they drain more value out of the company than
                     they can provide.

                     High turnover is a problem for many companies. If you have a turnkey business that
                     relies on unskilled workers who get paid minium wage, then high turnover may simply
                     be par for the course. But for many small businesses or for businesses in creative
                     fields, having stable, long-term workers is much better.

                     Suppose you’re an employer. One applicant says they’re looking for a summer job
                     before they go back to school. Another indicates that they’re looking for long-term
                     employment in your field. Who are you going to favor, all else being equal?

                     I received one letter from a man who wanted to work together for just 3 weeks, during
                     a specific window of time he’s available. It doesn’t make sense to follow up with
                     someone like that when there are other people looking for serious long-term work.

                     I’m not suggesting that you lie. If you’re only available for the summer, then be up front
                     about that, and seek out seasonal positions. But if you see some possibilities for
                     working together with an employer long-term, it’s wise to indicate that you may stick
                     around if things work out. If you do the opposite by suggesting you probably won’t be
                     around long, then it’s riskier for an employer to invest much in you.

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                     If you position yourself as a high turnover employee, you’re also likely to depress your
                     income. High turnover jobs tend to be close to minimum wage. If a job pays well, it’s
                     probably not a high turnover job. So if you’d like to earn more money, position
                     yourself as someone who will likely be around for years if you like the work.

                     No one expects you to commit up front to years of employment with a new company.
                     You’ll have to feel each other out first to see if you’re a good match for each other.
                     But at least suggest the possibility that if things go well, you may stick around. This
                     makes you seem like a better investment. It can’t hurt your chances.

                     This of course assumes that you truly want to build a serious career, not just find a job.
                     If all you want is a job, then read 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job and then
                     see if that’s still what you want.

                     3. Apply locally.
                     If you’re applying for work far from where you live, you’d better explain why in your
                     cover letter. And your explanation should sound plausible.

                     Otherwise the employer may wonder: Why is this person looking for work so far from
                     home? Are they unable to find work locally? They must not be very good.

                     Wanting to move to a new city to expand your horizons is a good enough reason. Lots
                     of people move to New York City or San Francisco because they want the
                     experience of living in those places. But if you’ve been living in your current city for
                     years, and if there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for a major relocation other than
                     the fact that you need an income, that just makes you look desperate and unworthy.

                     When I get applications from people in other countries for positions that would require
                     relocation and a special work visa, I cringe a bit. Hiring someone from out of the
                     country is riskier and more complicated than hiring a local. It doesn’t make much sense
                     to look so far away unless I’ve already exhausted local possibilities, first within my
                     own city and then within my own country.

                     Las Vegas isn’t a city for everyone. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for having

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                     people relocate here just to see if we can work well together. Naturally I’m going to
                     start with local applicants for work that would be done locally.

                     The only reason to go outside my city, state, or country is if I’m looking for people to
                     work virtually (over the Internet), or if I need people with such talents that the local
                     workforce cannot provide. All else being equal, I’ll hire someone local to me before I
                     give serious consideration to working with people in other cities or countries. It doesn’t
                     make sense to go beyond local if I can find good people locally.

                     4. Paint a clear picture of your intended
                     Some people send me employment-related letters that are so vague I honestly can’t tell
                     what sort of work they’re interested in doing. These letters included phrases like, “I
                     can do pretty much anything you need done.” Their resumes show a work history that
                     has little or nothing to do with my field.

                     Since these people fail to specify what they want, they put the onus on me to use my

                     Unfortunately for them, I simply imagined myself dropping their letters into the recycle
                     bin. That was fairly easy to visualize.

                     If you don’t know what you want, you should develop a clearer picture of that first
                     before you go around applying for work. Don’t expect potential employers to figure it
                     out for you.

                     It seems that some people mistakenly assume that raw enthusiasm and a willingness to
                     work is enough to get them in the door. It isn’t.

                     Even if you’re looking for an internship, specify what type of internship you’re seeking.
                     Are you a marketing student looking for a marketing internship? A programmer
                     seeking a programming internship? Or an unfocused drifter looking for whatever? If
                     you’re not clear, you’re positioning yourself as the latter. There aren’t as many quality
                     internships for unfocused drifters.

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                     If I get a vague letter from a local applicant who seems otherwise intelligent, and it’s
                     easy to meet with them, I may do so if I’m not too busy. Perhaps we can have a nice
                     chat, and maybe we’ll figure something out. But for the most part, I’m just being social
                     when I do this. The person hasn’t given me sufficient cause to seriously consider
                     working with them, at least not yet. If we share common interests, I may meet with
                     them just to see what comes of it and because I have that kind of flexibility. But if I’m
                     busy or if this sort of thing comes from a non-local applicant, there’s no reason to
                     follow up.

                     Contrast these types of letters with someone who suggests something very specific in
                     terms of working together. I received some great letters from web developers who
                     want to upgrade my website. Their portfolios show a history of making websites for
                     small businesses. It makes sense to follow up with these people. I don’t have to stretch
                     my imagination to figure out how we might work together. They shared something clear
                     and concrete to consider, something I can say yes to.

                     You might think you’re limiting your chances by being too specific. But look at this
                     from the employer’s perspective. If I get a few letters each week from people who are
                     offering to do “pretty much anything,” they’re all going to blur together. None of them
                     will stand out. This approach is generic and warrants a generic rejection.

                     Now suppose I get a letter from someone offering to serve as my Logistics
                     Coordinator for live events. They give me a list of things they can do. They build a
                     good case for why they’re qualified to do this. Their resume shows some relevant
                     work history. This makes it easier for me to imagine how I might fit this person into the
                     company as a whole, making it more likely that I’ll follow up. If I don’t need to hire
                     such a person just yet, then obviously I won’t hire them. But even in that situation, I’m
                     likely to file their letter in case I need such a person down the road or if I decide to
                     expand capacity in this area by bringing on a new person. And I may also follow up
                     with something like, “Check back with me in 6 months. I may have something for you
                     then.” At the very least, I’d be more likely to follow up with this person in some

                     If you’re too vague in specifying what you want to do, you’ll be passed over.

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                     Employers are too busy figuring out how to hire, train, and integrate people who
                     actually do know what they want. They don’t have as much time to help you figure out
                     what you want. Figuring it out is your job, not theirs.

                     Remember that most jobs are never advertised anywhere. You have the power to
                     design and create your own position instead of merely responding to what’s being
                     advertised. The advertised positions are generally much more rigid than what you can
                     design for yourself, and they’ll also attract a lot more competition. When I ran my
                     games business, I was able to find and hire everyone I needed without advertising any
                     of the positions. I filled every position through my network of contacts.

                     If you have any difficulty grasping the importance of defining your own work position,
                     and especially if you disagree with it, read How to Order.

                     5. Build your case to win.
                     Think like an attorney building a case as to why you should be hired. Make sure your
                     case is a strong one.

                     When you’re seeking a rewarding long-term career, understand and accept that lots of
                     other people are looking for the same thing. It’s a competitive situation, so you need to
                     play to win. Being good isn’t enough. You need to be the best among the other
                     applicants for your position.

                     In a criminal trial in the USA, the mantra is “innocent until proven guilty.” This means
                     that you’re assumed to be innocent unless the prosecutor can prove your guilt beyond
                     a reasonable doubt.

                     Some people apply for work as if “employable until proven incompetent” is the mantra
                     that applies. They provide pretty good cover letters and resumes, figuring that as long
                     as they satisfy expectations and don’t screw something up, they have a reasonable
                     chance of getting hired. They’re careful to avoid the obvious mistakes, and yet quite
                     often they still lose. They lose to people who are willing to be unreasonable —
                     unreasonably good, that is.

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                     That’s because the mantra that applies in the world of work is closer to the standard in
                     civil cases as opposed to criminal cases. In a civil case, the standard is “the
                     preponderance of evidence.” This means that whichever side builds the best case wins,
                     and the other side loses. One side may build a great case and still lose if the other side
                     builds a slightly better case. This may not sound fair, but such are the vicissitudes of

                     Some people send me very good applications. However, a few surpassed the standard
                     of very good. They provided something excellent — like a significantly longer letter
                     explaining in detail how we might specifically work together. They didn’t merely offer
                     up enthusiastic ramblings; they built a strong case for what we could accomplish

                     If you hold yourself to an unreasonable standard of going well beyond what most
                     people do, then even if you don’t come out on top, you’re more likely to get a follow
                     up. The employer might even add an extra position to accommodate you.

                     People with higher than normal standards are very valuable in the world of work. What
                     employer would want to hire someone very good if they could hire someone

                     Being too close to the average (even the good side of average) isn’t such a great idea if
                     you want to be hired for a competitive position. You want to be at least one standard
                     deviation beyond that. If you’re good-average, you’re still in the slush pile. It’s too
                     easy for a more competitive candidate to knock you out of the running simply by trying

                     If someone else could easily beat you by spending an extra half-hour on their cover
                     letter, you’re probably going to be beaten.

                     If you claim certain skills, back them up with solid evidence. Explain how you
                     developed skills that aren’t conveyed by your education and work history. Don’t claim
                     general skills like being a hard worker or being well-organized unless you can back
                     them up. Share a quick story to explain how you’ve applied these skills. Otherwise
                     you’re doing what so many other people do, and someone else that includes such

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                     evidence will make you look like a second-rate applicant.

                     You don’t have to like the competitive aspect, but don’t ignore it either. If you’re going
                     to compete, then compete to win; otherwise don’t bother.

                     6. Be professional.
                     Present yourself as a competent pro — or at least an amateur on the rise. Employers
                     want to hire competent professionals with strong skills. It’s too risky to hire people
                     who position themselves as emotionally immature and unprofessional.

                     I received several letters from people who:

                              complained about their previous employers
                              complained about their history, upbringing, current life situation, etc.
                              shared what types of work they’re sick and tired of doing
                              explained how under-appreciated and misunderstood they felt
                              told me how fed up they are with their unfulfilling lives

                     This sort of thing may seem honest and open, but it’s really unprofessional. If you do
                     anything like the above, you’re positioning yourself as an emotionally immature man-
                     child or woman-child, not a serious professional. In my view any such applicant is an
                     easy no, instantly disqualified.

                     I sympathize that you may be looking to improve your life situation, and you may have
                     had real problems with previous employers. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and
                     say those problems were beyond your control. Even so, it’s unwise to position yourself
                     as someone who needs rescuing. This doesn’t make you look like a quality hire. It
                     makes you look irresponsible. A new employer can’t verify that your ex-boss was an

                     When an employer sees the above, they’re likely to assume:

                              If this person had conflicts with previous employers, they’ll probably have
                              similar conflicts here.
                              If this person is willing to complain about their previous employers, they’ll

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                              eventually complain about me.
                              This person is unappreciative, ungrateful, and disloyal.
                              This person has an unreasonable sense of entitlement.
                              This person has a negative attitude.
                              This isn’t someone I’d want on my team.

                     Again, I sympathize if you really are in a rough spot, but it isn’t appropriate to vent
                     your past resentments in a professional cover letter if you’re looking for serious work.

                     Put yourself in the employer’s shoes. When one applicant sends a letter complaining
                     about their “poor me” situation, while another equally qualified applicant writes
                     positively of how much they learned from previous employers and why they moved on
                     without burning bridges, which person would you invite to join your team?

                     A potential employer isn’t your therapist. Put your best foot forward if you want to be
                     hired. Do you want sympathy, or do you want to work?

                     7. Inject your personality.
                     Cover letters and resumes are typically very bland. It’s likely that your potential
                     employer will be looking at several other applications at the same time. I’ve be going
                     through them in stacks of 10-15 at a time.

                     If your communication style is just as bland as everyone else’s, it won’t help you stand
                     out. But if you inject some originality and personality in your cover letter and resume,
                     this can help you.

                     For one, it makes you more memorable. If your letter is more memorable, you have a
                     better shot of getting a follow up.

                     Some of the letters I received expressed a lot of personality, such as a quirky sense of
                     humor. I can’t speak for all employers, but I appreciate it when people do this, as long
                     as they’re expressing positive aspects of their personality.

                     You take a bit more risk when you do this, but I think it’s a reasonable risk. I respect
                     people who do this. It gives me a more realistic sense of what it would be like to work

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                     with you. If you express your geeky side, your humorous side, or your creative side,
                     then I can more easily visualize you as a real member of the team as opposed to a
                     faceless applicant.

                     A friendly tone is generally good, but don’t be so casual that you seem
                     unprofessionally goofy. Make sure that each paragraph of your letter contains
                     substance and value; cut the fluff.

                     Another thing you can do to personalize your cover letter or resume is to include a
                     photo. Since most people don’t do it, it’s one more easy thing you can do to make
                     yourself stand out from the crowd. Even a grayscale photo is nice. If you’re worried
                     about discrimination based on how you look, then feel free to decline this suggestion,
                     but keep in mind that if you do an in-person interview, your employer will eventually
                     see what you look like anyway. If you show an employer what you look like, it’s
                     easier for them to visualize working with you. I think this is a risk that should generally
                     work in your favor.

                     If you can express some of your skills through your cover letter and resume, do that
                     too. Follow the mantra “Show me; don’t tell me” when possible. If you claim to have
                     strong design skills, make sure your resume reflects it. If you claim to be highly
                     creative, but your cover letter and resume look very bland and typical, that’s a
                     mismatch that can work against you.

                     On the other hand, I don’t recommend expressing aspects of your personality that
                     could work against you. Try not to position yourself as someone dark and creepy
                     who’d be difficult to work with in a team environment. For instance, don’t share your
                     interest in collecting firearms unless it’s relevant to your work.

                     8. Don’t play the destiny card.
                     If an angel came to you in a dream and said you’re going to work for this company, or
                     if you receive several synchronicities about applying for a certain position, please don’t
                     put that in your cover letter. It may be exciting for you, but it can come off as immature
                     and manipulative if you convey this to a potential employer.

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                     One problem is that when you do this, it’s not unique. It won’t impress any but the
                     most gullible employers. Most of the people who play the destiny card aren’t going to
                     get hired. So when you claim that your application was divinely mandated, you’re
                     actually triggering a “don’t hire me” pattern by grouping yourself with others who
                     weren’t hired. This is more likely to hurt you than help you.

                     Another problem is that from an employer’s perspective, this sort of thing can come
                     across as manipulative and border-line desperate. I’d like to believe that I have the
                     free will to hire or not hire you according to your skills and qualifications. If you
                     suggest that I’m supposed to hire you or that I’d be wrong, foolish, or mistaken to do
                     otherwise, you’re going to trigger my B.S. detector. And I’ll drop your application into
                     the recycle bin right along with the other divinely inspired ones.

                     If I happen to experience a major synchronicity with respect to hiring you, then great;
                     by itself that wouldn’t be enough for me to say yes, but it might nudge me to take a
                     second look. But your synchronicities are yours; they mean nothing to me. If you frame
                     our potential working relationship as something that’s fated to happen, then I’ll provide
                     you with a lesson in free will. Perhaps you were fated to apply and get rejected, so you
                     can learn how to avoid this mistake in the future.

                     We may choose to work together, but we aren’t fated to do so. Don’t try to subvert a
                     potential employer’s ability to decide. If you seek to be the best choice, then earn it
                     without playing the destiny card.

                     9. Express your greatness.
                     Don’t position yourself as weak, timid, desperate, or needy. Do position yourself as an
                     excellent choice in a competitive field.

                     What do you excel at? Why should an employer hire you instead of someone else?

                     Identify one or two qualities you possess that you’ve developed to a much greater
                     degree than most people. Emphasize those qualities. Present them as strengths, and
                     center your application around these strengths.

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                     For example, if you believe you’re very creative, then send an application that you’d
                     expect to be the most creative one an employer will see this year. Otherwise you’re
                     just blowing smoke; your creativity claim is weak.

                     If you claim to be an excellent video editor, then why would you send a plain text
                     cover letter? Send a video application, and make it shine. Or at least send a letter with
                     a link to a video.

                     Share that which makes you stand out from the crowd. If you’ve won some awards,
                     share that. If you’ve published some articles in your field, share that too.

                     If you can’t share anything that makes you seem different and better, someone else
                     will. They’ll get hired. You’ll get ignored.

                     10. Apply for work that matches your skills
                     and experience.
                     Don’t apply for work for which you aren’t qualified with a “what have I got to lose?”
                     attitude. You’re just wasting people’s time.

                     Apply when there’s a strong match between the position and your skills, experience,
                     and goals. Otherwise don’t apply at all.

                     One thing that’s actually impressive is when you share where else you’re applying to. If
                     you send an employer a letter that you’re applying to them as well as 5 of their top
                     competitors, they’re more likely to take notice of you. Some employers may want to
                     hire you partly to keep you from joining their competitors, especially if you’re well
                     qualified. This is particularly true in technical fields.

                     Even if you manage to get a job for which you’re a mismatch, it’s unlikely to work out
                     in the long run. And while you’re stuck in that mismatched job, better opportunities will
                     pass you by because you’ll be too busy to notice them. Meanwhile, you probably
                     won’t be very productive in a job you don’t really want to be doing.

                     You’re responsible for your own career development. Don’t put the onus on potential
                     employers to figure out who you are. No one else can give you a life purpose; you

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                     must figure that out for yourself.

                     If someone applies to work with me, but their education and work history shows a
                     mismatch with what I can provide, I can’t really take them seriously. I’ll hold out for a
                     more qualified applicant. I’d rather keep a position vacant than fill it with someone
                     who’s a mismatch.

                     If you know that your resume won’t seem to be a good match for a new position for
                     which you’re applying, you’d better explain that, and your explanation had better make
                     sense. Otherwise it seems like you’re branching out in desperation because you
                     couldn’t find work in your intended field. It also suggests that you don’t really know
                     what you want, and you probably won’t be sticking around for long.

                     Decide what kind of work you’d like to do. Build your education and skills in that
                     direction, whether through formal university education or self-education (both are
                     equally valid in my view). Then apply for positions that match your current skills and
                     which will help you continue your career development.


                     I don’t think anything above is particularly controversial if you simply consider the
                     hiring situation from the employer’s point of view. This POV is important to consider
                     because it’s the POV that decides whether or not you get hired.

                     You have the ability to create an amazing career for yourself, but only if you step up
                     and do what it takes to make it a reality. Most people are unwilling to pay that price,
                     and so they wallow in unsatisfying work. The price of fulfilling work may seem high,
                     but it’s still affordable for those who accept that fulfilling work deserves a premium

                     This article assumes that you seek meaningful and fulfilling work — a consciously
                     chosen career that challenges you as opposed to a cog-like job to pay the bills. You
                     aren’t likely to find such career positions advertised anywhere; it’s up to you to define
                     and create them. But if all you want is a job, there are plenty of frappuccinos in dire
                     need of frapping.

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                            Uncopyrighted by Pavlina LLC, www.StevePavlina.com. Feel free to share.

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