November 25th 2019
Writing cover letters is tough! And while there's a lot of advice out there, most of it will still leave you guessing. We wrote this series to answer a few of those lingering questions — because we've probably already made that mistake and we can tell you, no, you repeat your resume line by line...but you can if you want to.
In this article, we're talking about why you should write a cover letter and what should be in it.
Why should I write a cover letter?
A lot of people don’t. And if we’re being bit cynical, that’s a pretty good reason right there. But let’s try not to be. Really, you should write a cover letter because it’s where you put the important things that simply can’t fit in your resume — it’s where you show the reader that you’ve done your homework and researched their company, that you’re the right person for the job and that you bothered to write one in the first place.
The fact that it’s prose rather than bullet points and quick descriptions makes it important as well. Resumes can be really restricting, this is your chance to tell your story in a broader, more personal way that you simply might not be able to in a resume. And it’s in your cover letter that you can give color and context to what you’ve listed as skills and experience. This might seem like just some added flavor, but really, explaining why this or that line item is relevant or uniquely qualifying is just as important as having it on there in the first place.
Cover letters also serve as an effective writing sample for a lot of listings that don’t technically request one. Nearly every job, especially those that are cross-functional and/or remote, requires communication and writing skills. For better or worse, your cover letter is often how these skills will be judged. Crafting a cover letter is difficult and in many ways a very different kind of writing from pretty much everything else you do regularly. This can make it something that’s very easy to overthink and stress out about but it’s also a wonderful opportunity. Writing a concise and well-crafted cover letter shows the reader that you are a good writer, you can pay attention to details and you can do both in a high pressure situation.
Back to that cynicism for quick a moment — if you’re applying for a job (especially one you that you’re particularly interested in) you probably want to improve your odds as much as possible and ensure that you’re taken seriously. While the extremely lucky among us might be able to land a job without a cover letter, there’s really no reason not to hedge your bets and include one. Recruiters and hiring managers often have a lot of applications to read and while not universally the case, many will simply cut out applications without a cover letter. From their perspective it makes perfect sense. If an applicant can’t be bothered to write a few paragraphs about their interest why shouldn’t I skip their application, particularly if there’s a whole stack from people who did write cover letters. Worst case scenario your cover letter gets ignored, best case scenario it saves your application from ending up in the dreaded “didn’t write a cover letter” pile.
Ok, but what do I actually put in a cover letter?
If your resume is your way of telling people what you can do, your cover letter is your way of telling them why you should be the one to do it for them. In your cover letter you want to make it clear to the reader who you are and what you’re writing about before quickly moving to the more crucial whys of the application: what makes you right for them and what made you apply for this job in the first place.
While you’re answering these questions you should do so by framing these answers in terms of the reader and what you can do for them and their project. While, yes, the content of your cover letter is technically about you, what it’s really about is selling the reader on what you can do for them. For the majority of applications doing this successfully is going to involve expanding on your resume. You want to tell the reader why your specific qualifications make you the right choice for the job. Even if the relevancy of a given item in your resume is completely obvious to you it might not be to the person reading your application and — returning to a phrase from one of our resume articles — you never want to leave a hiring manager wondering why you included something. A cover letter is an opportunity to take that slightly less obvious connection and make it clear and compelling.
That being said, you don’t want to be repeating yourself so much as clarifying and expanding on the information that the reader already has from your resume or portfolio. Some overlap is to be expected - and might even be a good thing if you’re highlighting a specific work experience or role that’s particularly relevant — but you shouldn’t find yourself repeating resume bullet points as prose. Space on the page is precious here too and you don’t want to waste it doubling back unless it’s to make crucial point.
Beyond expanding on your resume, a cover letter is the place to explain why you are applying to this particular job, why you should be the one to get that position and what value you could bring to the company. If you’ve ever looked at a job listing and thought, “if only I could talk to them they’d know I’m the person for the job,” this is your opportunity to do exactly that!
Cover letters are a chance to tell (in a small way) the story of how you got where you are. What that means is going to change from person to person. You may want to speak to the parts of your work history that you see as a vulnerability or elaborate on an unconventional path. If you have a gap in your resume that you are worried about or a position you think will be misunderstood you can address it in your own words rather than letting the reader make assumptions. Talk about your professional goals and how they make you right for the role. If you’ve made a career change, explain how your previous work will help you do the job at hand. The content of each of your cover letters will be necessarily unique, but at the end of the day they are all about connecting the dots and crafting your story on your terms.
Read part 2 of this series on Cover Letters now How do I address it, how long should it be and how do I talk about my experience.
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