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Careers Café

Convincing Cover Letters


So, you’ve got one page to persuade an employer to hire you—no, scratch that.  You’ve got one page, along with your resume, to persuade an employer to interview you.  Here’s what happens with that page:

  • Some employers read it
  • Some employers don’t
  • Some employers who read it will only read it if they’ve shortlisted your resume

In an ideal world, you’d have plenty of relevant experience you can draw on to create a convincing portrait of why you’ll be excellent at the job you’re applying for.  But we don’t always have that luxury.  So, what do you do when you can’t just draw a straight line from past experience to future opportunity?

Say exactly why you think you’d be excellent.  Thankfully, this doesn’t mean you need to add unsubstantiated adverbs to your letter (superlative! outstanding!).  It does mean that, when you’ve told a story about your abilities to do the job, ask yourself what the key point is that the employer should understand about that paragraph.  Then, write in that sentence, move it to the top of the paragraph, and see if you can trim what follows.  Finally, ask yourself how the employer will know that you’re likely telling the truth, and put in that evidence.  Trim again.

Have someone else check that your letter establishes that you can do the job you’re applying for.  If your university offers cover letter critiques, take advantage of them.  If not, ask a tell-it-like-it-is friend to tell you whether you have drawn clear, unambiguous connections between the skills you’ve demonstrated in the past and the requirements of the job.  Worried that you’re making too obvious a point?  You’re probably not.

If someone referred you, say so—if it makes sense to.  If someone in your network has recommended that you apply for the job, ask whether you have their permission to say so in your letter (or other contact) with the hiring manager.  If you get an enthusiastic “yes,” then mention that person right in the opening paragraph.  If someone simply made you aware of a job opportunity, doesn’t feel that they’d be influential with the hiring manager, or hasn’t given you explicit permission to use their name, don’t include their name.  Mentioning a mutual contact works because hiring managers will go to that trusted contact to find out more about you.  Make sure that contact isn’t surprised that you’ve mentioned them.

Avoid some of the most common mistakes.  It’s easier than it seems to introduce basic errors of fact into cover letters.  Make sure you’ve addressed your letter correctly and name the right job title (LinkedIn can be a help with both).  With other common mistakes, it helps to have a fresh pair of eyes on your letter, as errors like to hide from the writer. So, just like applicants to grad and professional schools sometimes name the wrong institution in their package, so do many job applicants name the wrong organization.  If you tell organization X that you’re very excited about working for organization Y, organization X will gladly not stand in your way.

Like writing a strong resume, writing a strong cover letter requires knowing what the job is about and explicitly stating why you can do the job.  An added bonus of the cover letter is that you may surprise yourself with how many of your past experiences will be useful in your next job.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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