Earn the Interview: Write a Cover Letter That Doesn’t Suck

Cover Letter WordsI read an article recently that detailed why 95% of recruiters don’t read cover letters. One recruiter put it best when he said cover letters were generally so bad, he concluded they weren’t worth reading.

From the candidate perspective, it is clear we don’t like writing them: “Well, it doesn’t say a cover letter is required, so I must not need to send one, right?


You need to send one. And recruiters will read them, or the good ones. Just make sure it doesn’t suck like this one (note the text is intentionally blurry; we’re focusing on format and style, or lack thereof):

Cover Letter Sample

This is the draft a client recently sent me of one she was planning to use… and one of the reasons 95% of recruiters don’t read cover letters. Note the long, long paragraphs and the lack of white space. Most important, think about how long it would take a recruiter to read all of this.

Not going to happen.

So, while I am an advocate for sending cover letters, whether they are requested or not, they must be good cover letters. True, some recruiters will read them. Some will not. You can’t control that.

What you CAN control is the quality, effort, and content you put into a letter that, coupled with a great resume, will put you up 2-0 over less-prepared competition.

Here are 5 ways you can write a great cover letter, and get it read.

1. Save Something for the Interview

The purpose of the cover letter is not to tell your whole life story. Nor is its purpose to regurgitate everything on your resume. When you do either, you make your cover letter longer than it needs to be. Look, don’t over-engineer this. I see way too many cover letters that are multiple pages.

If you think you have to write multiple pages, you’re making it too hard. Besides, you need to save something for the interview!

The cover letter should be an invitation to look further at you, and create a compelling reason for a reader to grab your resume (and hopefully be mesmerized by it).

Your goals for writing the cover are simple, and can be simply told:

  • Introduce yourself
  • Tell the narrative about how your experience makes you the perfect candidate for a job
  • Create a call to action for following up

To that end it should be inviting to read, create a connection to the employer, and be as concise as possible.

2. Make it Inviting to Read

Remember that any given recruiter is looking at gobs of cover letters, and probably sifting through a couple of hundred emails per day.

Any document you send relative to a job search, is competing with hundreds of others documents for ‘eyeball time.’ To wit, 83% of recruiters recently said they spend one minute, or less, reading a cover letter.

That means they are skimming, not reading.

That means the example I showed you at the beginning is not going to tell a recruiter much at all. It’s impossible to skim. Most likely it will go in the discard pile. So, your job is to give them meaningful, easy-to-digest-in-one-minute information.

That means:

  • A simple opening paragraph that connects to them
  • Bullets of compelling evidence that position you as the perfect candidate
  • A closing paragraph with a call to action
  • Strategically placed bold font to lead the viewer down the page
  • Lots of white space

Compare this “look” of the example below to the one I showed you at the beginning:

Cover Letter Sample AfterReadable in one minute? Check. Visually interesting? Check. Far more likely to get read than the one at the top? Check!

3. Unify Your Design

Make your cover letter look and feel like your resume and other marketing material. This presents you as having thought through coordinating your materials. Some might call this branding. Others might call it planning.

I like to think of it as being professional.

And it doesn’t have to be fancy. If you use horizontal lines at the top of your resume, convey that same look to your cover letter. The only thing that matters is making them feel like a “matched correspondence” set.

4. Invite the Reader in with a Good Introduction

Please do not start a cover letter with: I’m writing to apply for such and such position, # 123455.”

Gah! That’s how all the other letters start. And you want to stand out from them.

Instead, make a connection of some kind to the employer.

It can be anything from the mention of mutual acquaintances, an experience you had with the organization or industry, or maybe something you found on the employer’s web site that you can comment on.

I find this is often a sticking point for younger careerists. It can be challenging to finesse those initial sentences that connect you to an employer, in a way that makes them want to keep reading. What should you say other than, “I’m here to apply for….”? Do some research. Make it authentic and interesting.

Here are a few examples:

Example 1: When I read the client testimonials on your web site, I summed up my impression in two words: Trusting Relationships. You blow your clients away with your commitment to their goals. It convinced me to apply for the Project Manager position that’s open. You need someone in that job who understands the concept of Trusting Relationships. You need someone who can translate the vision of the client, to a delivered solution. I hope you agree that I am that person.

Example 2: I was recently speaking with the Man and Lady Badger and they strongly recommended I connect with you regarding the opportunity to start my biomedical career at Medco. As a human biology major I spent my college years focused on science. After getting away from it, I now yearn get back. I’d like to bring the experience and professional skills I’ve honed in the mean time to help further your mission at Medco.

Example 3: A recent BusinessWeek article highlighted the ever-increasing need for a cultural fit between the organization, and the employees it hires. I was impressed with what I saw on ShipperCo culture page, and I believe there is a strong cultural match between us. This, along with the other information I’ve researched on your company, compels me to apply for the Credit Assistant position (Reference number CHQ-BLSE-927UVR).  

5. Provide Your Evidence

Think of your cover letter as the “highlights” and the resume as the “detail” of why you are the perfect candidate. In your cover letter body, use 3 or 4 bullets to share evidence and accomplishments that position you as qualified.

  • Be brief, articulate and to the point
  • Quantify the scope of work and results
  • Bold the keywords the employer is looking for in that job

Here’s an example:

  • I understand how to connect client needs to the organization mission. I recently presented a project proposal for a $400K site wide sustainability program supported with schematics, flow charts, and spreadsheets.
  • I’m a perfect combination of strategy+ business. I’ve managed projects, programs, events, and people. I have the ability for turning chaos into solutions. I recently took an under-performing publication with a circulation of over 25,000 and generated a $750,000 profit in less than 9 months.
  • I listen with an ear for detail, and with the client relationship front and center –  I’ve worked with up to 30 unique clients while sustaining nearly 100% client satisfaction in my programs.

Tie the examples and results to the desired skill set for the job.


End your letter with a call to action about when you will call the employer. For that to work, however, you must follow up on your commitment and call them. If you don’t you’ve lost credibility in the search. As well, a P.S. might not be a bad idea, as P.S. memos on letters always get read. You can include a teaser about a great story you have, a big accomplishment, or a testimonial from a reference.

Okay, there you have it.  You now have no excuse for writing a cover letter that sucks. In addition, I know these steps will help you feel more confident about putting your best (written) foot forward… and will help you earn the interview!





For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Degrees of Transition!



Lea McLeodAbout the Author: Lea McLeod helps recent grads and mid-careerists navigate the job search. And once you have a job, she’ll coach you to the brilliant performance of which you are capable! Her “Developing Patterns of Success” Workshop has been deployed to help thousands of college hires worldwide do just that. Follow her on Twitter and her blog: DegreesofTransition.com.



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