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What makes a good cover letter?  This is a question I’m asked often by our career consulting clients, and my answer typically involves these 5 tips:

1. Don’t write one.

In general, I think cover letters are way over-rated.  Especially when you consider that a resume might get 30 – 60 seconds of a recruiter’s attention, and maybe only 10 seconds – how much time do you think a recruiter is going to spend reading an ancillary document like a cover letter?  Practically zilch.  Spending an extended period of time crafting a cover letter is not going to yield much result, and, in my opinion, your time would be better spent getting feedback on your resume from friends and family, and targeting your resume towards a specific job posting.

2. Keep it short.

Not all recruiters share my opinion about cover letters being unnecessary, and some application systems require a cover letter, so if you’re going to write one, keep it short.  I’m thinking no more than 1 or 2 paragraphs with a few sentences each.   If it’s short, the recruiter will be more likely to actually read everything you write, whereas if you’ve got a full page letter, the recruiter is more likely to skim and miss your key points.

3. Highlight key points.

There are specific instances in which I think a cover letter can be especially useful:

  • If you’re applying to jobs outside your state, use your cover letter explain why you’re available to relocate and your timeline to be available for interviews and to start the new position.
  • If you’re applying for positions that might be a pivot from your previous experience – for example, moving from educating children to educating adults – use your cover letter to explain why you’re a qualified candidate for the role and how your previous experience will be helpful in this new role.
  • If a position requires manufacturing industry experience and your resume doesn’t specify in which industries you have worked, then detail your manufacturing industry experience on your cover letter. Side note: I love when candidates include a short sentence on their resume about each company they’ve worked for with details about what the company did.

4. Write more than one.

Generic cover letters will get you nowhere.  If you’re planning to write only 1 cover letter and use it for every position you apply, you might as well not write one at all.  Use the job advertisement as a clue to what you should highlight in your cover letter.  If any qualifications are “preferred” or “highly desired” and you’ve got those qualifications, spell them out in your letter.  If a position requires extensive recruiting experience, start your cover letter sharing how many years of recruiting experience you have.  Target your letter to specific jobs and show you care about getting that particular position, rather than any other position.

5. Use your follow up as your cover letter.

If you follow up your application with a message to the recruiter or the manager for the role (do some research on LinkedIn or other sources to figure out who should get the follow up message) it might get your application a second look and a chance at an initial interview.  Instead of submitting a cover letter when you apply, consider using your follow up message as your chance to share more details about your experience for that particular role.  The timing of that letter should happen within a day or so of your application and can be a great way to stand out from the rest of the applicants.

In short – cover letters might not help you unless you’re strategic and pointed in your approach.  Keep them short and to the point of getting that PARTICULAR job.  Use your time wisely; don’t waste it on writing a long, generic cover letter that might not get much of the recruiter’s attention.

Catherine Schmidt
Catherine Schmidt
Catherine Schmidt is a former member of the Purple Ink team. She has a special interest in career coaching and recruiting and finds joy when she can connect the right person to the right opportunity.

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