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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

20 Cover letter do’s and don’ts

19 min read
20 Cover letter do’s and don’ts
Artwork by:Antonina Kasyanikova
There is plenty of advice out there in terms of writing a cover letter, so we thought that we would summarize it into a simple do and don’t format.

A cover letter can make or break your application. While the factual nature of a resume makes it relatively straightforward to fill in, there is a lot of opportunity to mess things up when you need to fill a blank page with why you would be a good fit for the role.

While the hiring manager will likely receive similar resumes for the position, the cover letters that they receive can vary wildly. In this blog is a simple list of do’s and don’ts that will ensure you are on the right side of the equation:

  • 10 things to do for an ideal cover letter
  • 10 cover letter don’ts if you want that interview invite

As with all advice, hopefully, you will be able to work out what makes sense for you. Your cover letters will be different for each position, so don’t feel that you must adopt the same tactics every time.

Which pieces of advice are most important for you to bear in mind? Discipline is important when you have a limited number of words to outline your value.

Pink block with red cross cover letter d's don'ts
Pink block with red cross cover letter d's don'ts

10 Cover letter do’s

While every job search is different, there is much advice that is universal. Before you sit down to write, think about the sort of letter that you wish to produce. What are the essential ingredients? When you start writing it is hard to stop the flow, so take the time to think things through first. A hiring manager who is interested in your candidature will take the time to read it, so make it worthwhile for them. 

  1. Outline your value to your future boss.
  2. Feel free to share some personality.
  3. Research the company and specific role.
  4. Tailor the letter with selective examples.
  5. Say that you really want the job.
  6. Unobtrusively include selected keywords.
  7. Positive focus on your future activity.
  8. Share rare skills that set you apart.
  9. Share content that isn’t on your resume.
  10. Include a call-to-action to ask for an interview.

A great cover letter should complement a resume – follow the following cover letter do’s to make the most of that precious page.

1. Outline your value to your future boss

While the cover letter will be read by many people, there is only one person that truly matters. While HR managers and recruiters will have their views, it is your future boss who will be making decisions on your application. Put yourself in their shoes and think about what they would like to read. What problems are they facing? What hidden drama lies behind the bland job description? The cover letter should talk directly to them and hint that you could be a solution to their problems. 

2. Feel free to share some personality

While social media has made it much easier for a hiring manager to get to know a potential new hire, it doesn’t hurt to share a bit of personality in a cover letter. Outline how you went about your work and why your approach made a difference to those around you. Avoid adjectives without justification – anyone can reel off a list of appealing words. Your personality will be conveyed in the context of what you have achieved. 

Be unapologetic about who you are – pretending to be someone different may secure you the role but it will also ensure that you are miserable. Be yourself, everyone else is taken.

3. Research the company and specific role

While you don’t need to mention your research in the cover letter, the content should make it clear that you possess a deep understanding of the challenges that face your future employer. Don’t be afraid to conduct some personal research on socials – you never know what a random conversation with a company insider might uncover. Only network with those within your current network – cold messaging strangers won’t work out well for you. 

Think about the role in the context of where the company is going. Don’t make assumptions based on your previous experiences. Every company does things differently. Position yourself as someone who will fit in seamlessly.

4. Tailor the letter with selective examples

This is one of the tough choices to make in the job application process. It is likely that you will have your own list of top career achievements that make you glow with pride, but if they are not directly relevant to the role, then you focus on something else. Think about the accomplishments that will highlight your potential in the future role. Something may be objectively impressive, but if it isn’t relevant then question marks will remain.

Try to find a balance between sharing niche examples of your skillset and proving that you have what it takes to smash the basics. Your resume should serve to hint that you have basic experience but don’t be too cute with your cover letter content. Sometimes you need to spell out the obvious of why you should be given the job. Remember to back it up with context and quantifiable accomplishments. 

5. Say that you really want the job

Okay, so this might be obvious, but you need to remember that the hiring manager is “meeting” you for the first time as they are reading your words on the cover letter. They will have checked you out on social media, so they will know what you look like, and you can be sure that they will be imagining you speaking out loud as they read your words.

If the cover letter is devoid of any passion for the role, they won’t feel any kind of emotional connection. That is a missed opportunity. You can’t expect them to be excited about meeting you if you are not making it clear that this is the role for you. Don’t be coy about “exploring opportunities.” This faux professionalism will not work in your favor. Let them know that you want the job and explain why you would be successful. 

6. Unobtrusively include selected keywords

When you are seeking to influence someone, it is important that they do not feel that they are being influenced. That may produce the opposite effect. While there is an argument to include a select number of keywords to indicate to the ATS that you are a suitable candidate, it is important to integrate them into the cover letter in such a way that your career story does not seem artificial.

Finding synonyms for the keywords in the job description may be one solution, but do not be too obvious about it. Read into the job description to think about what it means rather than simply parrot its content.

7. Positive focus on your future activity

You know that you have what it takes to do the job, so base the majority content of the cover letter on how your past achievements can highlight your future potential. No cover letter should be a list of “I did this, this, and this” without any consideration of why you are sharing this information. It is okay to leave a whole raft of unanswered questions – that is what an interview is for. Awaken the hiring manager’s curiosity.

8. Share rare skills that set you apart

Your future boss will likely be reading a lot of cover letters. If you only focus on the core requirements of the role, you won’t stand out much. Take a calculated risk and dedicate some space to some of your rarer attributes. Let the hiring manager assume that you can do the more mundane stuff. A sentence that shares a couple of your more unique skills is enough and make sure that you have the stories to back them up during an interview.

Present yourself as someone who is eager to learn new things and not afraid to take risks in the search for knowledge. Not everything that you try will work out as you expect, but if you do not try then you will never grow.

9. Share content that isn’t on your resume

It is sensible to view a resume and cover letter as a tag team. While the resume should contain all the information that you would wish to talk about during an interview (the hiring manager will rarely have a cover letter open when they interview you), a free-flowing cover letter format allows you to explore certain aspects of your experience in more depth. Repeating what is included in the resume is a wasted opportunity. 

Offer some more depth on the stories that you would wish to tell during an interview. If a cover letter explores other aspects of your application, the hiring manager will get a sense that there is much more to come.

10. Include a call-to-action to ask for an interview.

The end of your cover letter is no time for modesty. Interviewers will read the cover letter after a resume, so now is the time that they will be wondering whether you are worthy of an interview. You have made your best case in the application, so use the last paragraph to share that you are curious to find out more during a potential interview. Why wouldn’t you be? It is all about the mutual fit, so say that you can’t wait to find out more.

Avoid any kind of arrogant or presumptuous tone – you can’t possibly know who else has applied for the position. Every other candidate will include a call-to-action in their final paragraph – don’t stand out as the person who doesn’t do it.

10 Cover letter don’ts

Some of the don’ts are linked directly to the do’s. For example, do include keywords, but don’t stuff the cover letter full of them. When you really want the job, it is easy to overdo something and cause the wrong impression. Judgment can go out of the window when you have spent a little too long obsessing about your prospects. 

  1. Copy/paste a generic cover letter.
  2. Assume that it won’t be read.
  3. Be selfish about your motivations.
  4. Use informal language or too much jargon.
  5. Stick rigidly to the job description.
  6. Criticize previous employers.
  7. Send an unedited cover letter.
  8. Mention your salary expectations.
  9. Write more than a page.
  10. Highlight your shortcomings.

Pay attention to this list and make sure that you are avoiding falling into these traps.

1. Copy/paste a generic cover letter

When you are applying for several jobs, attending in-person interviews, preparing for virtual chats, and trying to give yourself a little bit of mental breathing space in between, it is often tempting to take shortcuts. Sending off a generic cover letter is often a sacrifice that candidates make, assuming that it is a formal requirement rather than a document that is read and analyzed carefully.

If you send a generic cover letter you are indicating that the role is not that important to you. When compared with other (maybe less qualified) candidates who have taken the time to tailor the cover letter, your application will suffer. Hiring managers are keen to retain the talent that they hire, so show that you are thorough in your application.

2. Assume that it won’t be read 

Your cover letter won’t be read if you are not suitable for the role. A brief glance at your resume will give a hiring manager enough information to awaken an interest, but once that threshold has passed, they will want to find out everything that they can about you.

Resume writers like to suggest that a fantastic resume is enough (after all, that is their livelihood), but you can be sure that your cover letter will be read at some stage in the hiring process. It may not be immediately, but you never know when the hiring manager may need an extra nudge in your direction. 

3. Be selfish about your motivations

Don’t make the cover letter all about why you need the job. The needs of the employer should be at the heart of every paragraph – talk about what you can do for them rather than what they can do for you. Sure, you might want the job because your partner is moving to the area and you like the idea of free childcare, but that doesn’t give them any information about why they should hire you. They will assume that you have weighty personal reasons why you want the job but don’t include them at this initial stage of the application process.

4. Use informal language or too much jargon

While a cover letter should be lightly conversational, do not fall into the trap of being too informal. You cannot truly judge how you pitch yourself to someone until you have met them in person, so err on the side of formality.

Do not use too much industry jargon in the cover letter as it will make your application sound somewhat formulaic. Anyone can include a ton of industry buzzwords – stand out by telling your career story in your own words.

5. Stick rigidly to the job description

Seeking to mirror every aspect of the job description may also backfire on you. Employers want to hire people who broadly fit the demands of the role, but they are also interested in those who have different experiences to bring to the team. A new hire is like an injection of fresh inspiration, but there will not be much effect if they are a carbon copy of everyone else in the organization. Highlight your suitability in the cover letter but leave space to revel in your unique differences.

6. Criticize previous employers

This is a big red flag within any application. Never criticize a previous employer, no matter how much it might be justified, especially when you are taking the time to think about what to include in a cover letter. Being negative about a past experience reflects badly on you as a person and hints that you may be one of those people who complains all the time and feels that the whole world is against them.

7. Send an unedited cover letter

Proofreading the cover letter and asking a friend to give you their thoughts is a crucial part of the application. It doesn’t have to be the same friend or ex-colleague every time (as their advice may get a little stale), but an alternative opinion can sometimes be beneficial.

It goes without saying that any spelling or grammar errors can be catastrophic for any job that requires attention to detail. If you don’t care enough to take five minutes to run your cover letter through an online program such as Grammarly, how careful will you be once you have got a regular monthly salary coming in?

8. Mention your salary expectations

The salary dance should not begin at this early stage. It is a normal part of the recruitment process to put feelers out in terms of potential compensation, but few roles will be specific about the exact salary on offer. If you are working with a recruiter, you can be open with them about your expectations. They will likely inform the employer but never include your salary expectations in a cover letter. It just isn’t the place for it.

9. Write more than a page

Breaking this golden rule displays a shocking lack of awareness. Of course, you have plenty to say about why you are a great fit for the role but do not burden an employer with all this detail before they have even expressed a firm interest. Any kind of extreme in the application process may be seen as an act of desperation, so keep the cover letter to a one-page concise and compelling career story.

10. Highlight your shortcomings

While modesty and humility are admirable qualities in certain situations, there should be no hint of any shortcomings in your character or experience within your 300-400 word cover letter. When you are limited in space, why would you choose to mention any negative aspects of your application? Doing so may hint that you do not have enough redeeming qualities to discuss. Focus exclusively on the good stuff – everyone else will be.

Key takeaways

  • Much of the above advice is suitable for any job search, but please do think about your specific situation.
  • Cover letters should be intensely personal, so if you have a good reason to ignore any of this advice, then go ahead.
  • The goal of a great cover letter is to secure an interview and serve as a conversation starter for the rest of the job search process.
  • Bearing these pieces of advice in mind will give you every chance of taking the next step toward your dream job.
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