IT Employment

Three tips for writing an effective cover letter

Some experts think that the introductory note you include with your resume is even more important than the resume. Here are three tips for making your cover letter more dynamic.

Some experts think that the introductory note you include with your resume is even more important than the resume. Here are three tips for making your cover letter more dynamic.

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Since so many of us, particularly those in IT, don't actually send paper resumes anymore, "cover letter" is a bit of a misnomer. But even if you e-mail a resume, there has to be some kind of introductory note to accompany your resume. Some career experts will tell you this introductory piece is even more important than the resume itself. It's where you can offer a picture of the real you and not feel constricted by bulleted lists.

The goal with a cover letter is the same as with the resume: to stand out from the crowd. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you're composing your cover letter.

1. Grab the reader from the get-go

I recently unearthed some copies of my old resumes and cover letters. The good news is that I customized each cover letter for the position; the bad news is that every one began with some variation of "I am writing in response to your ad for...." Every. Single. One. It's a wonder anyone looking at the cover letter could stay awake past the fourth word. So what's the alternative?

Instead of saying,

"I am writing in response to your ad for an IT project manager," try

"My experience in managing the workplan, schedule, and budget for several large migrations makes me a good fit for the IT project manager position you advertised."

2. Avoid passive voice

A lot of people don't even know what passive voice is, much less when they're using it. Passive voice is when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. It's not always grammatically incorrect, but it isn't very dynamic when used in a resume. Here's an example of passive voice:

"I received many honors for my work."

This sentence would be much more dynamic if you say:

"I earned many honors in the course of my work." The implication with the latter is that your actions got you the honors, and the honors weren't just being handed out.

3. Don't be touchy-feely

I see a lot of cover letters with the phrases "I feel..." or "I believe...." I understand the natural inclination to use these words because they sound less boastful; but if you had to choose between "I feel that I can lead a large project from start to finish" and "My track record shows my success with leading projects," which would you choose? Another alternative is to just use stronger qualifiers, like "I am convinced that I can lead a large project...."

In all of the instances above, be certain to qualify and quantify your statements with results, e.g., specific time/money savings for the company, a marked decrease in network downtime, etc.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

15 comments
Kay Riley
Kay Riley

Great article Toni!! The introductory letter (aka cover letter) is still vitally important. As you say, eventually the job seeker will be sending someone his resume or portfolio and the cover letter is the first impression the hiring managers will get of your talent. Many people that NOT including a cover letter is a sign of disrespect, appearing that you didn???t care enough to do anything more than click ???send resume???. I am one of those people who had a hard time keeping ???I feel??? or ???I believe??? out of my cover letter. It goes along with your suggestion about avoiding passive tone. Bold Action statements that clearly state WHAT you've done, or HOW you've done someting is by far more appealing to hiring managers. Here is another great article with further suggestions about putting together great cover letters: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/03/25/what-makes-a-great-cover-letter-according-to-companies/#comments

bobp
bobp

Toni - Is ?I received many honors for my work.? passive? More obvious passive voice would be, "Many honors were received for my work." You stated, "Passive voice is when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence." Correct me if I am wrong. In the first sentence, "I" is the object of the action, but it isn't what I have seen as an example of passive voice. In some kinds of technical writing, passive voice is the preferred sentence construction. Obviously, resume writing isn't one of them.

GregKasarik
GregKasarik

The cover letter is your only opportunity to communicate personality and enthusiasm for the position. Those who do so are well on the way to answering two key questions of the selection process. 1. Can I work with you? 2. Are you passionate and enthusiastic about your work? I generally find that talking about "active" and "passive" voice is lost on most people. Instead, I prefer to tell people that they should be the "actor" in their cover letter. Don't say, "six years of working on documentation writing has given me excellent technical writing skills". Instead say, "My six years of experience as a document writer provided an excellent opportunity for me to work towards developing and honing my superior technical writing skills.

f30
f30

For somone who has entered the job market after being made redundant these tips and the members comments are very helpful, thankyou. In my experience of hiring staff the cover letter speaks volumes.

DesertPete9
DesertPete9

I agree with your basic suggestion, but "I received" is active voice; "Many honors were received" is passive. You need some form of the verb "to be" to qualify as passive.

Joe.Hathaway
Joe.Hathaway

"I received..." and "I earned..." are both active voice, merely substituting a better verb. Passive voice might include "Many awards were given to me..."

santeewelding
santeewelding

To all three, double negatives be damned, should you be capable of pulling it off. Sleight of hand like that, though, means you are beyond writing cover letters. You write about them, instead.

jr.switlik
jr.switlik

Great but do you really believe that cover letter and CV really matter?

DucksRGood
DucksRGood

Once the resume has been scanned and sliced/diced into the Applicant Data System, doesn't the text in the cover letter go in the bit bucket?

jimmanis
jimmanis

Thank you for the article. As someone who has both taught this subject and read thousands of actual job application materials over the past two decades, I appreciate the reinforcement your article provides. In my field of higher education, I can testify to the importance of writing strong cover letters. Add to the list: Make the letter "reader centered."

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

I just went through the process of bringing someone on board. I eliminated 3 candidates (out of 30 that made it past the initial screen) for horrible cover letters (and I mean...HORRIBLE), and another 2 for confusing ones (one that listed one job before another, but the cover listed mentioned them in the opposite order chronologically---the other seemed to be talking about applying for a different position at a different firm). So, that was 1/6 of the candidates that got bounced due to cover letters. (resumes weren't stellar, but they may have merited a phone interview had the cover letters been at least average) The final few candidates that I brought in for a second round of interviews all had the strongest cover letters of the group. The way they presented themselves in the cover letter seemed to translate to the phone and in-person interviews, as well.

agollom
agollom

Sure employers are looking at your technical skills, but one's ability to communicate is also high on an employers list of employable traits. Quite often a cover letter is a reflection of a person's communication skills and it can also be seen as an applicant's motivation for the job.

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

Some of the newer systems will be able to identify and separate the cover letter from the resume. So, the HR person will get the key-word indexed resume, and if need be, can pull up the cover letter (which is usually connected to the resume via meta-tagging of some sort). Some systems will just lump it all into one document. So, if the keyword doesn't exist on the resume, but does on the cover letter, it registers as a hit.

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