Landing the Interview: How to Write a Cover Letter That Wins

By Sunday, September 2, 2012 15 Permalink 13

So you’re scouring the internet for a new job because your current employer has figure-four leglocked you into submission. Or, you’re ready to get off the couch and onto someone’s payroll. You peruse the job boards until you come across a posting that makes your eyebrows jump with optimism. You click it as your limbs tingle in delight. You read through the job description and it seems like it was written specifically for you.

It’s your dream job — or at the very least a better one — and you’re excited about the opportunity to apply for it and fantasize about throwing the deuces to drudgery. You look through the applicant requirements and see they’re requesting a resume and cover letter. Nothing out of the ordinary. You’ve seen this a bunch of times so you already know the drill.

You open your resume and agonize over the wording to make sure it fits exactly what the company’s looking for. You’re happy with what you’ve come up with and you’re ready to submit. Then you remember you still need to attach a cover letter. You open a blank word document and stare at the blinking cursor and the negative space it’s created. You type a few lines, hit delete, then say fuggetaboutit. You download a cover letter template from some random site, or use one you’ve saved and fill in the info where it tells you to.  You attach your resume and cover letter then click submit. You pat yourself on the back, cross your fingers, then go back to work or tv.

You may have just cost yourself the opportunity of a lifetime. 

One of the most frequent questions I get as an HR Generalist and former headhunter is “Do hiring managers and HR people really read cover letters?”

I’ll be honest with you. The answer is sometimes. And when they do read cover letters, they’re usually doing it for one of three reasons:

  1. It’s a values-driven organization and they wanna know why you’re applying and more importantly what makes you a good fit within the culture.
  2. They wanna assess your ability to convey your thoughts via written word. The job description may not say strong writing skills are required, but they don’t want to email back and forth with a dodo that doesn’t understand red squigglies and structure.
  3. They’re on the fence about your application and they’re looking to your cover letter to determine if they give you the nod or the head shake of despair.

Regardless of why they’re looking at your cover letter, you don’t want to take shortcuts in the application process. Let me ask you a question that’ll put you in the shoes and chair of the person that’s deciding if you get your foot in the door:

How would you feel if someone handed you a stack of 200 applications and told you to go through them and look for the people that not only meet the requirements, but also set themselves apart from the rest? How would you feel if you got to application 153 and realized someone had taken a generic template and plopped in the relevant information? You took the time to review their application and they couldn’t even take the time to be original. Yeah, hoop dreams into the trash can.

Resume-StackYou never know where your application is gonna fall in the batch, or how many people submitted resumes that look just like yours. You think you’re one in a million, but your profile is one of a hundred. How you differentiate yourself is the difference between having healthcare benefits and living the struggle in the flesh. And since I don’t want you to live in struggle, let me show you how to write a cover letter that wins with four simple steps:

Thank Them Early

Most people start their cover letters stating where they found the position. That’s cool, but so did the other 152. You should always assume that your resume was toward the end of the pile. Open your cover letter by thanking whomever it may concern for taking the time to review your credentials. It’s a small change, but does wonders in terms of setting the tone. Who isn’t perked up by appreciation, gratitude, and humility other than the Grinch, Satan, or a curmudgeon?

Tell Them You’re Excited and Why You’re Looking

The second sentence should say something to the effect of “I was excited to come across the X position on Y site. I’m currently in the process of seeking a new opportunity *state why you’re looking and spin it positive* and this role is exactly the type of position I’m looking for.

Convey What Made You Excited About the Position (Pause)

You follow up the last point with something like “What really jumped out to me about this opportunity is X.”

It’s here that you highlight specifically what it was about the job description that got you excited. It could be usage of certain skills you have, or something within the values or organizational history that resonates with you on a deeper level. You don’t have to bare your soul, but you need to tell them who you are.

When you clicked on that posting and decided to apply, there was something that got you excited or made you wanna submit your application. The cover letter is the perfect opportunity to do that. You can repeat this process with one or two in-depth examples and it should suffice.

Close It Out Traditionally, But With a Twist

After you’ve conveyed why you’re excited about the role, you can close it out with “Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions regarding my application. I’m happy to discuss my accomplishments as well as the challenges I’ve faced over the last few years.”

Most folks just say don’t hesitate to contact, drop their number, and throw in the signature. With the approach I suggested above, you’re letting them know that you’re confident in what you’ve accomplished and ready to talk about areas where you may have failed or run into obstacles. It takes the “salesy” tone out of your cover letter and lets them know you have nothing to hide.

If you follow these four steps, you’re putting yourself in a much better position with the person that’s initially determining if your dreams become reality. Regardless of what you think and what people tell you, don’t slack on the cover letter. At the very least, it’s a great feeling to know that you’re always providing the best representation of yourself possible. Happy Huntings!

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  • Rereading this, needed a reminder…I hate trying to figure out how to be interesting, and sell myself.

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  • SBMLurker

    I’m in grad school, so this is definitely good to know. Thanks for sharing!

  • SaneN85

    This is great Advice! Cover letters have probably been a weak spot of mine, so this will definitely come in handy.

  • I hate writing cover letters. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them.

    I followed this format to the T…and I hate them just a TAD bit less than I did before.

    Testament to a job well done here.

  • larenee10

    You are awesome. I just wrote the best cover letter of my life, thanks to you.

    • Rich

      Thanks for this comment. Really appreciate it and glad to see this post is still helping people!

      • It is absolutely still relevant! I have it bookmarked and have referred people to it quite often. Thanks for the tips!

      • Sure is… I just used it to refresh my stale cover letter. I gave them so much personality I hope it isn’t too much, lol. Welp… guess we’ll see.

  • Lorraine

    Hello Rich,

    Thanks for these wonderful tips. I followed your advice and wrote a cover letter which is probably the best cover letter I’ve ever written. It wasn’t as bland and cliche as the ones I’ve written in the past. I hope this will help me receive some good feedback. Thanks again!!

  • Zahné


    I’m going to try this! Will let you know how successful it is… I’m in the process of applying for my dream job.

    Thank you for the advice!

  • Renee H.

    This is such great advice, but my mind screeched to a halt when I read, “*state why you’re looking and spin it positive*.” Well, I got fired from my last job… How can I possibly put a positive spin on that?? I missed a deadline that (potentially) cost my employer ~$200K. (They may still receive their funding, regardless of my mistake.) What would you recommend that say?

    • Rich

      Hey Renee,

      That’s a tough break and I see why you came to a halt. I’d suggest taking out the “spin it positive” part and focusing on why you’re pursuing the type of opps you’re pursuing. Not what happened to lead to your job search. Emphasize demonstrated strengths. The goal is to get into an interview so you can sell everything else that makes you awesome.

      Nonetheless, you’re gonna have to explain what happened in most recent job. It’s not something I’d lead with or throw out there, but when asked, you’ll need to explain how and why you made the mistake, and what you learned from it or what you’d do differently.

      Also, whatever skill or trait you lacked in that situation (attention to detail?) you’ll need to play up in all your other roles/experience. Good luck and drop me an email via contact form if there are other questions.

  • Hello Rich,
    Thank you, I am following your advise

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  • a. chigozie

    hi, so today i read (somewhere, can’t remember) that the cover letter should be no more than 200 words, do you agree?

    • Rich

      Sorry. Just seeing this message. I don’t know about 200 words, but no more than 1 page is standard.

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