IT Employment optimize

Tried and true tips for writing an effective cover letter

A cover letter, or an introductory email, to a recruiter is a valuable marketing tool for yourself. Be sure to get it right with these tips.

Some recruiters are so pushed for time that they won't even get to your resume. Some will scan your cover letter (or the text of the introductory email in which you include your resume) to see if you're worthy of an interview. That's why it's important to make sure your cover letter is presenting you in the best possible way. Here are some tips:

Determine what the employer is looking for and meet that need. Read the job description carefully and address all the requirements of the job in your application. This is why it's important to customize a cover letter for each job you're applying for. If a job description says the ideal candidate will have experience in programming web pages, then it's really not necessary, nor applicable, to mention your two years as a support pro. Keep your cover letter short and to the point. It really is good that you have a world of experience over a number of years. But you know what it comes down to? The recruiter's time and attention span. He or she is looking only to fill a need and the easier the information can be discerned, the better. Don't repeat the contents of your resume. Think of the cover letter/introductory email as a synopsis of your work history and a brief introduction to you as a person. Leave out the specifics of work dates and software versions. Try to remain positive. It's okay to briefly mention that you were downsized at your last company. But don't get maudlin or negative about it: "After 24 years with this company I was unceremoniously let go." It may be true, but the recruiter is not interested in being a therapist. A positive tone also indicates professionalism. Write in clear and accessible terms. Again, time is of the essence for a recruiter. The easier it is for the recruiter to understand what you're trying to say, the better your chances. Write your cover letter, let it sit for a few hours, and then reread it. You'll be surprised at what a fresh look will show you. If you have someone else who can read it as well, that is a good idea. Proofread. I've heard from a lot of recruiters who say they will toss a cover letter and resume in the trash if there is a typo.

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.

33 comments
sliepner
sliepner

Having cleaned my desk, monitor and keyboard after a coffee incident which occurred after reading "IT Junior with experience" if you have not read it....do. Re the actual discussion there are a couple of areas worth highlighting. 1. Grammar, punctuation and spelling. Unless you are competent in all of the above, never, ever use spell check. Get someone who is,to proof read for you. In the UK, even ensuring that your language settings are set correctly, "word" etc. do not understand the English language and can turn quite sensible phraseology into complete gibberish at the literal push of a button. 2. The information extrapolated from your letter CV will change from individual to individual, what one person sees as being clear & relevant, another will not. 3. Stay away where possible from the word "I", any more than twice in a cover letter and it becomes intrusive. 4. Try and not fill either your letter or CV with "adjectives" especially if you are unsure of their meaning/spelling. I recently read someone's letter where they had culled the dictionary for every adjective possible up to and including proudly stating that they were "contentious" one assumes they meant conscientious, which put paid to that idea. 5. Read aloud your creation, or get someone else to read it aloud back to you. You might be surprised that what you thought was a best seller, might not be quite as sellable as you thought. and finally: 6. Re 2, as an example, I read and sniggered at "Stovies" post, I can see where the respondees were coming from, but I "understood" and was amused by his post. Just because something is not perfect does not mean it is irrelevant.

colinwpa
colinwpa

In my experience, the vast majority of recruiters, especially those employed at agencies, are technically clueless. They act not as facilitators but as gate-keepers. Due to their technical blindness, they cannot know that 20 years of experience in ABC is better or equivalent to 2 years in BCA, in other words, at best they can only word match, without any understanding, so if the job spec asks for BCA, make sure your cover letter and resume uses the exact term, BCA, if you are to stand any chance getting through the gate. Of course, the employer will know ABC is equivalent to BCA, but he won't get to know about you since the gate keeper didn't let you in!

d.j.elliott
d.j.elliott

Check out LIZ RYAN on Yahoo groups. She has many insights on jobseeking. She has specific ideas about what she call the "pain letter." check it out

don.jenkins
don.jenkins

It's funny a recruiter would toss a CV for a typo. I've seen many job postings with typos, incorrect grammar, mis-use of acronyms, and terms used in the wrong context. It makes me wonder if I want to work with such a sloppy organization.

penelopeelse
penelopeelse

A colleague of mine recently asked for my help screening and interviewing for an IT junior. We were open as to their experience, but wanted character traits of initiative and attention to detail. I received 300+ cvs, of which 90% were illiterate and got binned without further thought. Of the remaining 10%, half were so dull or poorly formatted that I couldn't be bothered to read them. So, of the 15 or so CVs I actually did read, the ones that I understood best were the ones where the cover letter clearly signposted me to their relevant experience/character traits. I'm human, and tired - reading CVs is seriously hard work. Those cover letters (if - and only if - done well...which they usually aren't) possibly helped me decide who to interview. BUT, I'd say it comes a poor 2nd after a literate, easy-to-read, well-formatted, relevant CV. It doesn't matter how great the cover letter is if the CV is hard-going. I have just finished helping a friend convert his poorly-worded, impossible to mentally-process CV into an un-put-downable best-seller. Start there, get professional help - it's a great investment.

blarman
blarman

I have no gripe with the author personally, but I am an implementation guy. Show me _examples_ of good and bad. I already KNOW everything in these articles, now help me apply them. I can't count the number of these so-called "improvement" articles which miss this mark. It's not like there isn't enough room for elaboration...

alistair.k
alistair.k

I find that 99% of the jobs I am looking at are advertised by recrutiment agents. "My client is looking for..." so there is no oportunity to research who the company is, what their values are, how they sit in the market, etc. Sometimes there is a hint that the client is a "brand leading retailer" or a "blue chip engineering concern" but thats about as much of a hint as you get. Yes, same rules apply, match your skills to what has been asked for, but they are swines for just throwing out a pile of buzz which may or may not be relevant. I always find the approach via agent harder than those where I know the company and am applying directly. Any tips for dealing with the minions of satan, sorry, recruitment agents, would be welcomed...

Stovies
Stovies

Hello Toni, ?too busy is an escape for lazy Baskets,? who are doubly contaminated by having a title with reference to human resources. Personnel, relates to people and they in HR want to be treated as people; but they are so American (and so English) as to want to elevate themselves above the herd. I hope you get my drift. Most people educated in the UK after 1960, and I suspect America is the same since most of our contaminants come from that source, have no grammatical foundation for their use of the language and can scarcely string two words together. Just like our semi literate HR thingies. Kettle calling the pot syndrome is about right. Besides, the HR readers of our CV will soon learn that the stupid writers have been schooled by 'Toni' in how to trick them into being bothered to read in the first place.

whinchat_50
whinchat_50

Good tips, often found myself writing too little or too much in cover letters. Thanks.

denishuggins
denishuggins

I've written many cover letters for clients, and I find them effective when you write not directly about you, but what others say about you. For example, instead of "I am a great listener" try "My supervisors have consistently praised my ability to listen."

wyndham
wyndham

Personally I agree with this, but I have been told by more than one recruiter that they don't read cover letters at all and that I should only concentrate on changing my CV to best reflect my skills for the job.

billfranke
billfranke

Excellent advice! It's always a pleasure to read your articles. You are a rarity in cyberspace because you not only know what you're talking about, but you say it well: clearly, briefly, and in easy to understand language. I give all my authors and students this advice about writing (I've been a medical editor for 13 years and a writing teacher for 40 years).

darkstate
darkstate

After wasting 19 1/2 yrs in a dead end job that i totally got stuck in as a programmer, I badly injured myself then got the sack because of my health due to the injury sustained at the company. Anyways While I have all this spare time recovering my health and trying to get back on track, I thought lets try something new as a job and started on the track to becoming an admin and getting my mcsa, and hopefully ending up with a mcitp, If you don't try you will never know. So Seen as I've not needed or thought about the whole cv and cover letter letter for well over a life time ago, I thought lets get one done and see what a pro cv and cover note writer thought about my attempt, It lasted maybe 20 seconds then got thrown in the bin. It took well over an hour for the cv to be re written and the cover note took maybe 15 minutes, but with a lot of questions and answers on the way, I was told to make the cover note match the criteria of the job I was going for. Not been for any interviews yet as i'm still in pain but i guess i have a lot to look forward too?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I am not dumb enough to mention it though. Oops. :D "The information extrapolated from your letter CV will change from individual to individual, what one person sees as being clear & relevant, another will not" Hooray, someone gets it. From HR as well, which I've got to admit is something of a surprise. Well done you killed a stereotype. :p

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Bit of an oxymoron that isn't it? You guys truly take the cake. I bet there are thousands of your peers who could take your booker prize candidate and put it directly in the round file, or the white paper recycling box if they are progessive. In order to aim a cv/resume or a cover letter you have to know your audience and we don't. Not to mention it's really hard to show that you have ten years of experience in VS2010, and are a good team player who likes to work alone..... You want better applications, advertise your vacancies better. It's you guys who turned hiring into a lottery, can't blame us for simply entering as many times as we can.... I once got turned down for a job because I wasn't enough of a yes man. Great cover letter that would have been. Born sychophant, no wrinkle left unslurped...

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

I will keep this in mind. In fact, another member wrote me and wanted an example to illustrate how not to repeat the resume info in the cover letter verbatim. I'm working on that now.

desirawson
desirawson

Not only is there no opportunity to research the company or meet a person FACE TO FACE, but check the emails that you receive regarding job openings and be careful that they are from a reputable job search company. I was "offered a job" at home scouring resources for jobs that must be re-written so as not to plagiarise any already written advertisements, and then I was to submit my re-written job opening to the "company's back door" (all done electronically), they would review my job posting, verify the position, verify that I did not write it verbatim, and then post to the web with a promotional advertisement such as Education, then IF the job hunter(you)selects "Yes, I would be interested in furthering my education..." then I would be paid a few dollars for every dollar that the person spent on their education. It reminds me of the old pyramid schemes.

e_engler
e_engler

When I did a contract HR position in a federal government agency, we pre-screened the letters/resumes with a checklist for meeting the desired qualifications before sending a ranking list with the resumes that met the minimum to the hiring manager. The easiest ones to rank and pass on were the ones with the cover letter that clearly identified how they met the requirements (in the order identified in the advertisement). Don't get too fancy - make it clear and obvious, each and every requirement and qualification if possible. Point form is ok if there is a lot of items. Not every organization works this way, but many of the larger ones have a similar system. This makes it easier for the hiring manager to take say the top 25 resumes (by my ranking) and pick the 5 or 6 that stand out to them for an interview.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

You apparently qualify as a member of the group 'Most people educated in the UK after 1960...'

alistair.k
alistair.k

For someone who is complaining about other people's command of the English language your post is hard to read and makes little sense to me. The point of communication is to get your message across, to be understood.

mckinnej
mckinnej

As a hiring manager I don't bother with cover letters. They are typically redundant to the info already on the resume, so they're a waste of my time. If you happen to include new info on your cover letter, well, you just hosed yourself. I'm not going to see it. Our recruiters have never mentioned cover letters, so I doubt they put much emphasis on them either. They are looking at resumes for the skills I need. That is what we discuss when filling a position.

RoninV
RoninV

You hear/read about how you must capture the reader of your cover/resume in the first thirty seconds. The comments here show that there are no clear cut ways of getting to that first interview. Focusing ones resume to the specific job being applied to seem to be a set-in-stone option. It would be great if potential employers would discuss why one didn't get the job offer or interview.

mcbinder
mcbinder

I know that this is an informal forum, but you should really get in the habit of making precise, grammatically correct sentences using correctly spelled words. The habit will flow through to your everyday writing and you need to be at your best when you look for a job. Beware of "professional" resume and letter writers. They offer a good starting place, but rewrite their product documents to make the documents your own. If you don't, it will be obvious that you did not write them when compared to other documents you may present to the prospective employer. My grammar is not perfect and I use a spell checker on everything. I?m sure I will get blasted for every mistake in this comment, but dark's letter is so full of glaring mistakes that I needed to comment. MCB

pivert
pivert

It takes me at least 2 hours to write a coverletter. - check the site of the company, look for background info - match the jobdetails and info with cv - write a clear letter without repeating yourself (sentences starting with 'I') - look for copy/paste errors and strange sounding sentences because of that. - reread it multiple times (is it consistent?) - reread it again (woud I hire myself?) and send it. 15 minutes is way too fast to put together all this info (job description, background, how am I going to fit in and present myself as THE candidate)

penelopeelse
penelopeelse

Actually we were simply looking for people with some spirit, which we did find through our approach. Experience didn't have to be IT-related - one chap had shown initiative in a lion-sanctuary... He got interviewed. The reasons people failed to get through to interview in this case were not that they lacked relevant experience but purely - PURELY - because they failed to present themselves professionally and engagingly.

maj37
maj37

I agree the post you refer to is difficult to read and very confusing. I guess I should also say that no I don't get his drift, I think he has been adrift too long. maj

darkstate
darkstate

After being up for 21 hrs and not realizing My comment was going to be scrutinized, I apologize wholeheartedly for my incompetence In writing a comment, Thanks for showing me my grammatically incorrect way of commenting about my current health situation. And of course giving me pause for thought as to what I'm going to come up against in the real world of cv/cover note writing. Just can't wait.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Not in a cover letter, cv, or interview it doesn't. Quite patronising point 6 wasn't it? If that leaked out in your approach, I'd round file you on the spot. Two months in total between jobs since 1981, it isn't me that needs advice....

penelopeelse
penelopeelse

1) I'm not a professional recruiter, just an employer looking for people who fit. Frankly I'd say don't bother with recruiters for all the reasons you say. Get connected instead, then you enter a business like ours because we know you or know of you. 2) Professional = literate, coherent and easy to read. Can you do that? I'm sure you can. These people couldn't. 3) Engaging is just something that comes through in a CV. It doesn't need to be itemised, for heaven's sake. Either someone is interesting or they aren't. But again recruiters aren't looking for that, maybe. We are, because we're looking for growth potential and initiative. 4) I said the cover letter was the least of it, though helpful at the end. 5) The requirement list was extrenmely specific in terms of the type of person we were looking for - most seemed not to have read it. A cover letter would help point us to how they fulfilled each of our requirements. 6) Your tone is bitter, and I suspect this leaks out into your communications. You're assuming the worst of me whatever I say, which is tiresome and unappealing. I'd suggest you find a more positive tone, because employers want can-do people.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

failed to present themselves professionally and engagingly to you... So did you include any clues on the application about what you consider professional and engaging? Did you mention that role was in fact for a really good cover letter writer? I mean some of them might have got the wrong end of the stick and thought you wanted keen willing to learn and interested in some aspect of IT. That's not even recognising that 95% of all resumes are generic, targeted at word search engines, non-technical types and cover letters if you get one in "the apply for this job" link are to the agent not their client... Basically by the time we've negotiated the the recruiter obstacle course and the HR hurdles, we are too knackered to do anything but stumble over the next set. If you want the best people put some effort into getting them. Some organisations do, they get people like us, you get the pick of the rest.... Well coached amateurs.... My best tip. Remember that the best candidates are interviewing you, while you are interviewing them.

darkstate
darkstate

I take total strangers comments with a pinch of salt. I have no high expectations in life, Just to try and help where possible.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I knew an individual who would complain about the brand of gin when he got a free martini.

dallas_dc
dallas_dc

I think the responses were offered to help you, not to put you down. Absorb all comments with a positive attitude, and look for insight that can help you improve. If the comments don't offer anything you can use, then ignore them. That is what this forum is all about.