3 Secrets Of Writing Attention-Grabbing Cover Letters

Robots consume resumes; humans read cover letters--although if yours sucks, they'll chuck it after a few seconds. Here's how to write one they'll remember, and that might get you a job.

Whether resumes are gobbled up by robots or scanned by recruiters (for all of six seconds), a cover letter should demand more than a passing glance--if you know how to write it well.

Here's how.

Don't annoy the reader

Just as there are plenty of reasons your resume gets chucked, cover letters are typically equally trash-able. As David Silverman once noted for HBR, bad cover letters come in three varieties:

  • Recap: A resume, now with paragraphs!
  • Formula: A form letter or template you send to everybody.
  • Confessional: An attempt to explain why your resume is so weird.

The first two are toxic and lazy; the third is understandable. Especially if, for instance, you spent three years abroad instead of scrambling for pennies during a recession, as this writer did. (Full disclosure: I tell potential employers that my travels helped me to see multiple perspectives or something like that; they seem to like it. Fingers crossed.)

Know when to send a cover letter

Silverman says that you should only use a cover letter if you know the name of the person doing the hiring--it's not Sir or Madame--or if you know the job requirements well. He says they're also good if you've been personally referred. Since companies are mostly hiring through internal referrals, that's probably the case--though it's not good for the economy or innovation.

Don't be boring

How do you ensure your reader's eyes don't glaze over? Like Cara Aley at Brazen Careerist writes, you can use the cover letter to show your employer-crush why your experience is just right for the job description. Do not, do not, do not let it look like a template. Would you hire someone who sent you a template? No. So don't send one.

Also, Aley advises to be confident in your writing. This doesn't mean that you spill over with humblebrags; it does mean that you sign off with a "I look forward to hearing from you" rather than "I hope to hear from you." You're qualified, so act like it.

Fitting in is part of being qualified. You need to show you're party to their cohort--even if it means taking a chainsaw to an owl. When companies say "finding cultural alignment," they're really talking about whether or not you have the same personality type. Consciously or not, firms replicate themselves. Getting angry at this fact is like getting angry at the weather.

And more than anything else, write something they would want to read. Don't overwrite. And study your Elements of Style.

Think you know what makes for a good cover letter? Is there one you'll always remember receiving? Tell us about it in the comments.

Your Guide to Writing an Eye-Catching Cover Letter

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leth-Olsen]

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21 Comments

  • tdiddy49

    Having a story to tell and getting someone hooked and interested from your first sentence has worked out great for me. 

    I'm an upcoming senior in college who landed a summer internship at a fast-growing, Austin-based tech startup with a one-liner about how I had serendipitous encounter with their products while volunteering at SXSW. After my boss hired me, she told me she had to bring me in to hear more about my story and that I beat two MBA candidates with my enthusiasm for the job. 

    I'm just one person with one experience, but based on what happened to me, that's what I'd recommend to people. Tell a meaningful story, start off with a bang, and bring your A-game at the interview. :)

  • Dana Leavy-Detrick

    One thing I would add, to increase the likelihood that your reader will actually open and read your cover letter, is to have an abbreviated, concise "version" of your cover letter in the email body. In other words, just a couple of lines introducing yourself, mentioning what position you're applying to (important, as recruiters handle multiple positions), a quick reference to your qualifications as it pertains to the job opening, and a closing thanking them for their time.  The idea is to compel them to want to continue reading about you. The worst is when someone sends a blank email with an attachment, or a one line body text with no information. I speak from experience when I say hiring managers are turned off by that.

  • Stephen Q Shannon

    Full disclosure. I work with HR folks looking for jobs. One is deep into 6 figures. Over past 7 years he helped successfully build a small, but mighty division of larger company. He and his associated NEVER, EVER looked at one cover letter. Ladders most recent survey published in Fortune mag claims 97% of pro recruiters eschew cover letters. Secrets revealed: If you elect to send a cover letter do as the article says and two tips from me, for what they might worth by now, 1) Slave-ishly use the language of prospective employer when you 2) extol how your Qualifications match exactly the organization's listed Requirements (not their lame job description). By all means ship your digital and hard copies (also often get tossed, I am told) to the decision maker who just might be a very highly paid HR pro who has a passion for results-based recruiting (Hat Tip to reverse engineering guru and former veteran recruiter, Lou Adler). Got that? "Lettuce" know how things turn out while you never said die.

  • Money Resumes

    Something I would add is that you should avoid cover letters that seem like a long read on first glance. Don't write a whole page full of block paragraphs. Keep it shorter and sweeter. Add in some bullet points. Just get them to read the resume!

    -Ian Matthew
    http://www.moneyresumes.com

  • FinalOpinion

    I too kept looking for the "three attention grabbing secrets", but never found them in this article.  Oh well, thank God at 82 yrs. old the only cover letter I need is the one I use when I am lost, telling somebody where I live.  LOL 

  • Inethos

    HR personnel and their "rules" are the problem. They are the ones that limit the success of a company since they only bring in sheep and any independent, creative thinker.  

  • Guest

    I disagree, I think it is less the people and more the software that the bosses have decided to use to cut down the number of HR people have to use. When there are enough HR people to handle the resumes the results turn out well. It is when they are rushed and only shown resumes that make it through a computer program first that things go badly.

  • Mirjana

    You haven't told us anything new or we didn't know. It was all general and pretty boring. Send us an example of a REAL ATTENTION GRABBING cover letter....

  • tiresius

      The headline says "Three Secrets for Writing Attention Grabbing Cover Letters."  The article never delivers any Secrets for grabbing attention, only "don't be boring," "don't annoy the reader," "know when to send a cover letter," and "fitting in is part of being qualified."
       Seems to me that either the headline writer or the article writer need to figure out what really is involved in "writing attention grabbing cover letters," rather than telling us what NOT to do.

  • Robert Jacobson

    Hey, he's fitting in with FAST COMPANY.  

    The reality is that personal introductions and referrals are vastly more important than cover letters, no matter how good the latter are.  That's how it's been done for about 6,000 years, so get on it.  Get some.

    Also, as we taught people at the UCLA Placement Center, eons ago when there used to be jobs: get in touch with your passion, find out what it's pressing you to do, discover a place where you can do it, and then sell your doing it like crazy -- directly to the person for whom you want to and will actually work. Not HR.  Forget HR.  Especially today, it's just a buffer.  Do some research and intercept your future boss in an agreeable setting, then describe your inbuilt ROI -- and bring your passion.

    If you're recruited, that's another story, but most people aren't. There are a thousand applicants for every advertised job, two dozen come with introductions. Those aren't "opps" worth your time.  Go out and make your own career. Start now.

  • Robert Jacobson

    You are correct. I had earlier been ruminating on Catholic hospitals' inability to perform abortions for women in need unless they will otherwise die or sometimes if they have been raped -- it varies per whatever ecclesiastical interdiction happens to pertain in a diocese. (There's no such prohibition in the Bible.) Even those exceptions seem not to apply in Ireland, where the interdiction is total. Learning to apply it correctly can be murder.

    The word I meant to use was intercept, which I edited into my comment.  Thank you for your keen eye.

  • Karen the Ninja

    I recently applied for a job that needed serious office re-organization skills. They needed someone who had serious MS Office skills, so in my cover letter I said that I was an "Excel Ninja."  They loved it. Plus, during the interview I backed it up with a flash drive full of sample Excel spreadsheets, pivot tables, macro-enabled documents, etc, that I had created. I have finished 2 rounds of interviews and meet the company owner to discuss pay next week.