Cover letters, like résumés, are hard. And most people are bad at them.
This makes sense – you probably only write a cover letter or résumé every few years. It involves selling yourself and your skills, which is something most people struggle with.
On top of this, it's difficult to sort through all the advice on the internet and figure out what's actually worth following.
In this article I'll go over some common reasons why your cover letter probably isn't that great, along with my top 10 ways to improve your cover letter and stand out from the crowd.
Why Your Cover Letter Needs Work
People rarely think that their cover letter is the problem, even if they've been struggling to get interviews. They'll often say something like, "But I've had tons of people review it and they all say it's okay!"
There are a couple of problems with this.
First, you want your cover letter to be better than okay – in order to stand out in an extremely competitive job market, it needs to be stellar.
Second, most people don't know how to write a good cover letter, and therefore they can't help identify the problems with yours.
It's often hard for reviewers to provide constructive criticism for fear of hurting someone's feelings. What you really need someone who has a lot of experience hiring or recruiting in your specific field in order to receive accurate advice.
My Top 10 Tips for Improving your cover letter
As someone who has reviewed a lot of cover letters (good and bad), here's a few of the most important things to keep in mind.
Stop Reusing the Same Cover Letter
You should write a personalized cover letter for jobs you care about.
Cover letters are a way that you can stand out from your competition and show the organization why you're interested in working for them. This is more important to some organizations than others (FAANG typically doesn't care), but a great cover letter will never hurt your chances of being hired.
It can also be a helpful exercise for you – it gives you the chance to think about and articulate why you're interested in working for this company – so when you're asked in an interview, "Why this organization?" you have an answer readily available.
Don't Follow Outdated Templates
You can skip listing your address or your employers at the top.
Instead, treat it like an email, and start the letter simply with "Dear Hiring Manager". Don't worry about hunting down a specific person to address your letter to, unless you already know it.
You also don't need to struggle for creativity for an opening line. Stick to the basics such as "I'm interested in X" or "I'm writing about Y position".
Tell the Company Why You Want to Work for Them
Do you like the company culture and values? Do you think the work they're doing is interesting?
Give them a specific reason that you're interested in working for them at the start.
Also, let them know how you found them. Did you read a company blog about interesting research they're doing? Did you see that they deeply value philanthropy and encourage all employees to get involved in a range of volunteer efforts?
However you found out about them, make sure to include it in your letter.
Interviewing and hiring people is extremely expensive and time-consuming for an organization. Companies would prefer to invest that time and effort into people who are truly interested in working for their organization (and are therefore likely to accept an offer that is made), not any generic company.
If you can show an organization that you're deeply interested in working for them, it will likely increase your chances of being interviewed.
A good litmus test for this is to ask yourself, "if I changed the company's name and the name of the job, could I send this cover letter to a different company?"
If the answer is yes, you need to re-write your cover letter.
Communicate Why They Should Hire You Instead of Another Candidate
Don't just summarize your resume.
They have your resume. They know what it says.
This is a chance for you to tell the potential employer who you are as a person and why you would be a great fit for the job.
Have you received great compliments on your work from past coworkers and bosses? Can you confidently say, "I am the go-to person for all things X"? Mention it here!
For example, are you so passionate about networking that you read the Illustrated TCP/IP guide on the beach? Write about it! Did you spend weekends working on a cool app idea you had? Talk about it!
A lot of this section is context dependent – ideally you should have a sense of the culture of the employer and base the stories you offer on this. But in general, you can treat cover letters as a conversation.
You want to tell the company how you can solve problems they currently face.
Use examples of how you solved problems at your previous job to show how you'll be helpful to this organization.
It's very important to show this with specific examples, rather than simply tell them. This makes your claims more reliable and easier for an employer to picture.
It's much less effective to say, "I am a flexible problem solver, with great attention to detail and an ability to manage complex code pipelines."
Instead, it's much better to write, "In addition to being extremely adaptable, I recently migrated my organization's code release process entirely to AWS, where I was able to implement a continuous CI/CD pipeline. This resulted in the organization moving from 1 release per week to daily releases, with fewer reported problems, and 10% improved developer satisfaction reports. I apply the same level of dedication and focus to all projects I am assigned, from code reviews to major project overhauls."
One of these is significantly more believable, and shows, rather than tells, a prospective employer about your abilities.
Ensure Your Cover Letter Sounds Like You
This doesn't mean that the cover letter should sound exactly the way you talk. But it should still sound like your voice.
If the letter is full of statements such as, "If you are looking for a hard-working, dedicated sales engineer with team spirit," it probably doesn't sound like you.
The people you're sending your cover letter to are real people. Often, they were in your position just a few years ago, and if you're hired they're going to be your coworkers.
Think of them that way, and write the cover letter as though you're describing to a coworker why you're the perfect fit for the position.
Keep It to One Page
Don't make your cover letter longer than a page.
If it's longer than a single page, you've written too much. If you're looking for things to cut - think about the points above.
Was anything you're writing about covered in your resume? Remove it. Are there meaningless phrases like "If you are looking for a hard-working, dedicated sales engineer with team spirit,"? Remove them. Keep it simple and tell a story about why you would be a great fit for this job, on this team, at this company.
Think of this as your 'elevator pitch' where you practice refining your story for an interview. You can use a modified version of this story when you get the dreaded 'tell me about yourself' request in an interview.
Explain Any Inconsistencies
If you've previously only had jobs doing one thing and are now applying for jobs doing something totally different, you need a clear and convincing explanation why you would be good at the job.
Employers often receive hundreds, if not thousands of resumes for a single position. They need a fast, easy way to sort through the resumes in order to decide who they want to give interviews.
If they sense anything wrong, like someone who is over or under qualified or has no experience in the field, they're likely to simply toss it in the "no" pile.
It's your job to convince the employer that you would be great at the job with your application materials. This is particularly relevant if you're attempting to change careers or coming from a self-taught or bootcamp background.
That doesn't mean you can't apply for those jobs (plenty of self-taught developers have successfully changed careers!), but it does make it a little harder.
You need to clearly show to employers why you're qualified with an excellent cover letter and a resume which highlights projects you've done and transferable skills from previous jobs.
Read your cover letter. Then read it again.
If you struggle with grammar and spelling, or English isn't your first language, check out Grammarly. It's free and will help you identify changes you should make to your writing.
If you can, ask a friend who got great grades in English to help you out. If your cover letter or resume is difficult to read due to spelling and grammatical mistakes, the focus won't be on your achievements.
Plus, communication is a big part of any job no matter how technical, and your application is a place to showcase your communication skills.
Since you've had essentially unlimited time to write and review your resume, cover letter, and application, it's expected that they will be free from grammatical mistakes or spelling errors.
Send Your Cover Letter The Right Way
When sending your application to a company, your cover letter should be in the body of your application email. Don't send an empty email with two attachments to the hiring manager.
Also, use a professional email address! Something like firstname.lastname@example.org is fine.
University addresses are also fine, though after you have been out of university for a few years, it's probably a good idea to update it.
Something like email@example.com is not.
Looking for more advice about how to write the perfect cover letter? Check out these resources: