What Makes Great Cover Letters?


by Felix Tarcomnicu, SmartRecruiters

Cover letters are often underestimated as a tool for getting a job and many people don’t even send them in.  However, it is not enough just to send in a cover letter.  You have to send in a great cover letter in order to get the recruiter or hiring manager to listen to you.  So how do you do that?  We will discuss the anatomy of a great cover letter and how you can write one.

Keep it Short

Like a resume, a cover letter should not be more than one page.  But I would also advise that you keep it to three-quarters of a page, consisting of three paragraphs.  The first paragraph is used to introduce yourself to the recruiter.  The second paragraph is used to talk about your background and why you want to work for the company.  The last paragraph should be used to wrap your letter up and ask for that interview.

Remember, the purpose of a cover letter is not to express how great your writing skills are. The purpose of the cover letter is to highlight your achievements and explain why you are the best candidate for the job and therefore should get an interview.

Grab the Recruiter’s Attention

If your cover letter doesn’t grab the recruiter’s attention immediately, then your cover letter is a waste of time—both yours and the recruiter’s.  Recruiters are very busy and do not have time to look through everything.  For that reason, you need a strong hook to instantly capture the recruiter’s attention.  Come out strong and get right to the point.  You may think you are quite the wordsmith by being overly verbose—but being too wordy can actually have a negative impact on you getting that job.  To get the recruiter’s attention, make sure your first few sentences count and get right to the meat.

A great way to get a recruiter’s instant attention is to use numbers in the first two paragraphs.  This is a good idea for two reasons.  First, numbers will automatically jump out because the vast majority of cover letters consist of only words.  Second, numbers will give the recruiter a baseline in which to judge your past performance.  For instance, if you led your division in revenue generated—you can tell the recruiter exactly how much you made your previous employer by putting a dollar amount on it.  If the number is especially impressive, you can also try to bold or italicize it.

Personalize the Cover Letter

Cover letters, like resumes, should not be one-size-fits-all.  Instead, you need to personalize and cater each and every single cover letter you send out. With a cover letter, you should express why you specifically want to work for the company.  The goal of recruiters is not to just hire the smartest and most qualified candidates. The goal of the recruiter is to also hire great people who sincerely want to work for the company and will stay for the long haul.  Remember attrition costs the company money.

To explain why you want to work for them, it is important to go into specifics—the more specific the reason is, the more impressed the recruiter will be.  For instance, if you are a computer engineer and want to work for a company that has a unique SaaS (software as a service) platform in the pipeline, it may be advantageous to talk about that product and why you are the perfect candidate to work on it.

Another great way to personalize a cover letter is to do a little digging on the recruiter.  You can do this by viewing the recruiter’s LinkedIn profile, following the hiring manager on Twitter, or even their profile on the company page.  Use that personal knowledge to cater the cover letter to their taste.

Sell Yourself

In addition to personalizing your cover letter, you should also get in the mindset of a salesman when writing your cover letter.  After all, a cover letter is just a fancy way of saying “sales letter.”  But like any good salesperson, you should sell benefits, not features.  So don’t just talk about your fancy accolades.  Talk about what you can do for them and how the company can benefit from hiring you.

Grammar and Spelling Matter

Spelling and grammar is the easiest thing to get right on a cover letter.  To do so, just keep it as simple as possible (remember KISS).  If you are especially wordy, you may feel inclined to use colons and semicolons.  But keep in mind that the use of these two punctuation marks can backfire as the recruiter may disagree on the usage of these two controversial punctuation marks.  So in short, just keep your sentences short and sweet and you will have already won half the battle.

Great Cover Letters Have a Call to Action

Every great cover letter will have a call to action.  A call to action can be as simple as nudging the recruiter to call you.  The call to action should be in the last paragraph and should specifically ask for the interview.  The last paragraph should also mention the various ways the recruiter can get in touch with you.  Also, be sure to mention a specific time that you will follow up with the recruiter to ensure that everything is going along as planned.  Some applicants don’t follow up as they perceive following up as a tactic for the desperate.  But it really isn’t.  The follow up shows the recruiter that you are serious about the job application and want the job.  But of course, there is a fine line between following up and stalking.  Following up once or twice is polite and beneficial.  Calling them every other day is just asking for a rejection.

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