I’ve read a lot of cover letters throughout my career. When I was a fellowship program manager, I reviewed them in consideration for more than 60 open positions each year. So I saw it all–the good, the bad, and the standout examples that I can still remember.
As a result, I’ve become the go-to friend when people need feedback on their job applications. Based on my own experience putting people in the “yes” (and “no”) pile, I’m able to give these cover letters a quick scan and immediately identify what’ll turn a hiring manager off.
While I can’t give you insight into every person’s head who’ll be reading your materials, I can share with you the feedback that I give my own loved ones.
1. The Basics
First things first, I skim the document for anything that could be disqualifying. That includes typos, a “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, or a vibe so non-specific that it reeks of find-replace. I know it seems harsh, but when a hiring manager sees any one of these things, she reads it as, “I didn’t take my time with this, and I don’t really care about working here.” So she’s likely to pass.
Another thing I look for in this initial read-through is tone. Even if you’re applying to your dream company, you don’t want to come off like you think someone entertaining your candidacy is the same as him offering you water at the end of a lengthy hike. You don’t need to thank the hiring manager so incredibly much for reading your application–that’s his job. If you align considering your application with the biggest favor ever, you’ll make the other person think it’s because you’re desperate.
So, skip effusive thanks and demonstrate genuine interest by writing a cover letter that connects the dots between your experience and the requirements of the position. Telling the reader what you’ve accomplished and how it directly translates to meeting the company’s needs is always a better use of space than gushing.
2. The Opening Sentence
If your first line reads: “I am writing to apply for [job] at [company],” I will delete it and suggest a swap every time. (Yes, every single time.) When a hiring manager sees that, she won’t think, “How thoughtful of the applicant to remind me what I’m reading!” Her reaction will be much closer to, “boring,” “meh,” or even “next!”
Compare it to one of these statements:
I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorchester, helped me discover a love of reading.
My approach to management is simple: I strive to be the kind of leader I’d want to work for.
In my three years at [prior company], I increased our average quarterly sales by [percentage].
See how these examples make you want to keep reading? That’s half the battle right there. Additionally, it makes you memorable, which’ll help when you’re competing against a sea of applicants.
To try it out for yourself, pick a jumping-off point. It could be something about you or an aspect of the job description that you’re really drawn to. Then, open a blank document and just free-write (translation: write whatever comes to mind) for 10 minutes. Some of the sentences you come up with will sound embarrassing or lame: That’s fine–no one has to see those! Look for the sentence that’s most engaging and see how it reads as the opening line for your cover letter.
3. The Examples
Most often, people send me just their cover letter and resume, so I don’t have the benefit of reviewing the position description. And yet, whenever a letter follows the format of “I am skilled at [skill], [skill], [skill], as evidenced by my time at [place].” Or “You’re looking for [skill], and I am a talented [skill], ” I could pretty much re-create it. Surprise: that’s actually not a good thing.
Again, the goal isn’t just to show you’re qualified: It’s to make the case that you’re more qualified than all the other applicants. You want to make clear what distinguishes you, so the hiring manager can see why you’re worth following up with to learn more. And–again–you want to be memorable.
If you write a laundry list, it’ll blend into every other submission formatted the same way. So, just like you went with a unique opener, do the same with your examples. Sure, you might still include lists of skills, but break those up with anecdotes or splashes of personality.
Here’s a real, two-line excerpt from a cover letter I’ve written before:
If I’m in a conference room and the video isn’t working, I’m not the sort to simply call IT and wait. I’ll also (gracefully) crawl under the table, and check that everything is properly plugged in.
A couple lines like this will not only lighten up your letter, but also highlight your soft skills. I got the point across that I’m a take-charge problem solver, without saying, “I’m a take-charge problem solver.” Plus the “(gracefully)” shows that I don’t take myself too seriously–even in a job application. If your submission follows the same list-type format all the way through, see if you can’t pepper in an example or anecdote that’ll add some personality.
You want your cover letter to stand out for all the right reasons. So, before you click submit, take a few minutes to make sure you’re putting your best (and most memorable) foot forward.
Related Video: This Is What People Really Think Of Your Resumé
This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.
How to Name Your Resume and Cover Letter
Tips for Naming and Saving Your Job Application Documents
When you are applying for jobs, it's important to give your resume a title that makes it clear that the resume is yours, not just that of any random candidate.
It is particularly important when you send employers your resume and cover letter as attachments (either via email or through an online job application system). When the employer opens your document, he or she will see what you have named your document.
You, therefore, want the title to be professional, and to state who you are clearly.
Read below for more advice on what to name your resume file and other job application documents, as well as what not to name them. Also read below for advice on how to save your documents.
Tips for Naming Your Resume
Avoid generic titles. Don't email or upload your resume with the name resume.doc, unless you want a harried human resources associate to save over your file with someone else’s. With a generic file name, there will be no way to distinguish it from all the other resumes with the same name.
Use your name. Choose a file name that includes your name. This way, hiring managers will know whose resume it is, and it will be easier for them to track and manage it. It’s also less likely that they’ll lose it, or get your materials confused with someone else’s.
If you name your resume janedoeresume.doc, Jane Doe Resume.doc, or Jane-Doe-Resume.pdf, the employer will know whose resume it is at a glance and be able to associate it with the rest of your materials and application.
If you can fit it; use both your first name and last name (or just your last name). That way your resume won't get confused with someone with the same first name.
Go beyond just your name (maybe). You might choose to provide a bit more detail in the title than simply your name. You can also include the title of the position in your document name for your resume and cover letter.
You can use spaces or dashes between words; capitalizing words may help make the document name easier to read.
Be professional. Remember that hiring managers and other people who will interview you are quite likely to see your cover letter and resume file names, so make sure those titles are professional and appropriate. Now is not the time to pull out your AIM screen names from middle school. Save the joke names for your private social media accounts and keep these file names professional and simple.
Be consistent. Consistency is important when naming your resume, cover letter, and other application documents, so use the same format for each. For example, if you simply use your last name and a description of the document for one title (“Smith Resume”), use the same format for all your other materials (“Smith Cover Letter”). Make sure any capitalization, spacing, use of dashes, and other style choices are consistent between documents.
Avoid version numbers. If you are applying for jobs frequently, it's possible that you have several versions of your resume saved on your computer. Avoid including version numbers (e.g., John-Smith-Resume-10.doc) in your file name and other cryptic codes.
Get rid of those numbers and codes when you submit your resume. An employer might get the impression that the job is halfway down a long list of potential opportunities. A hiring manager who sees “resume-10” as part of your file name will wonder what resumes 1 through 9 looked like and whether you’re just applying for every job in town.
Develop a filing system on your computer to keep track of the different versions of your resume, rather than using the file name for that purpose, and make sure that proofed, ready-to-go resumes are stored in a separate area from drafts.
Edit, edit, edit. Before submitting your resume or cover letter, proofread the document title. It sounds silly, but a typo in the title might make an employer think that you do not focus on details and that you are unprofessional.
Options for Saving Your Resume
It's important to send or upload your resume as a PDF or a Word document. This way the receiver will get a copy of your resume and cover letter in the original format.
To convert your Word documents to PDFs, depending on your word processing software, you may be able to do so by clicking “File,” then “Print,” then “Save as PDF” (from the list of menu options in the bottom left-hand corner). If not, there are free programs you can use to convert a file to a PDF. Saving your resume and cover letter as a PDF will ensure that the formatting stays the same, even if the employer uses a different word processing program or operating system.
However, if the job listing requires you to submit your documents in a different format, be sure to do so. Not following instructions could cost you an interview.
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