The 7 Secrets To An Eye-Catching, Gig-Nabbing Cover Letter

Hiring managers are trying to find a needle in an application haystack. Here are the sharpest ways to make your point.

"It is not uncommon for me to get 100 applications for one spot, so I'm constantly looking for reasons not to advance a candidate to the interview round," writes Slate editor Katherine Goldstein. "Writing a good cover letter is your best shot at getting noticed. If I hate a cover letter, I won’t even look at the résumé."

That noticeability, Goldstein says, depends on demonstrating that you know the organization and that you are the perfect fit and then distilling that detailed argument into a cordial few words.

It goes like this:

1. Get to the point

“People typically write themselves into the letter with ‘I’m applying for X job that I saw in Y place.’" Knockout CV author John Lees tells the Harvard Business Review. "That’s a waste of text."

The better move is to let the cat out of the bag. In the first sentence, state why you're excited about the job and why you're the right fit. As HBR argues, you want to open with detail. Here's an example:


I'm an environmental fundraising professional with more than 15 years of experience and I’d love to bring my expertise and enthusiasm to your growing development team.

A much stronger open than saying you saw the listing on LinkedIn.

2. Get their attention

Let's try to gain some empathy for the pain of the hiring manager: they're getting slammed with stacks of applications every time they post a listing. Goldstein, the Slate editor, says she's read "something like 500" applications for entry-level media gigs. That's why a generic opening is so ineffective--it's just like everybody else's.

3. If there's a personal connection, show it in the first few sentences

Friends hire their friends. As the New York Times reports:


Riju Parakh wasn't even looking for a new job ... But when a friend at Ernst & Young recommended her, Ms. Parakh’s résumé was quickly separated from the thousands the firm receives every week because she was referred by a current employee, and within three weeks she was hired. "You know how long this usually takes," she said. "It was miraculous."

Internal referrals account for 45% of Ernst & Young's hires. That sends a strong signal: expand the shape of your network to engineer your own nepotism. Then, when you write the cover letter, highlight those connections.

4. Know who you're writing to

Speaking of personal connections, let's do away with "To Whom It May Concern"; between LinkedIn, Twitter, and the company's site, the actual name of the person doing the hiring should be discoverable.

5. Know their problems

“Do some research beyond reading the job description,” says Lees, the author of Knockout CV. To do that, figure out the challenges the company (and their industry) is facing and where they see their growth sectors. This can be done by reading the news, yes, but as Extreme Productivity scribe Bob Pozen tells us, the best way to know what people's working lives are like is to talk to them.

Getting someone's ear is easier than you think (journalists do it for a living). You could ask for an informational interview at the outset, or failing that, try and grab coffee (and remember to take notes).

6. Know their tone

A startup might love your goofy-casual cadence; the aforementioned Ernst & Young may not.

7. Know your value

After doing all this research--combing through their website, reading every scrap of news, and talking to a few people in the company and industry--you should have a solid sense of what skills the company is searching for.

"Show that you know what the company does and some of the challenges it faces," Amy Gallo writes at HBR. "Then talk about how your experience has equipped you to meet those needs; perhaps explain how you solved a similar problem in the past or share a relevant accomplishment."

Telling the story of how you saw a problem, how you solved it, and how you can do the same for them is a reliable strategy. In fact, it's the only thing that Google has found is consistent among successful hires.

Hat tip: HBR

[Image: Flickr user Joe Shlabotnik]

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5 Comments

  • Most of this is good, but I'd take issue with #4 and #5. When I'm combing through resumes, it doesn't matter to me whether people have addressed it to me personally. It matters about the quality of the letter/resume. In fact I think too many people spend too much time trying to suss out who the hiring manager is, especially when it's hard to tell who that is in most companies. Re: #5 if you happen to know someone who works at the company but isn't the hiring manager, it's cool to talk to them if you want to find out more about the culture. But asking for an informational interview when you're applying for a job reeks of trying to buck the system. When I was combing through 300 resumes for an administrative assistant, I can't count the number of emails and phone calls I got from people trying to set up interviews, get coffee, etc. I didn't appreciate their tenacity...it showed me they had unrealistic expectations of the hiring process and my time.