Skip navigation
Careers Café

A cover letter should clearly spell out your main strengths

Use your resume for breadth, and your cover letter for focused storytelling.


It has been a while since I wrote about cover letters – about generating raw material for them, and ensuring that they are convincing. The latter is quite a challenge, but it doesn’t need to be.

Part of the unnecessary challenge is that, when we sit down to write cover letters, we often overcomplicate the process, and start cramming in everything that will fit, plus some stuff that doesn’t. The cover letter is not necessarily a great place to list everything that’s relevant. Use your resume for breadth, and your cover letter for focused storytelling.

This is perhaps the hardest to do in the opening paragraph. Go ahead and write the first paragraph after the rest of it. Start with your body paragraphs about the most relevant strengths you have for the role, and the most relevant examples you have to back those up. You may only provide two to three really key strengths in your letter.

What unites those strengths for you? Answering this can help you create a more compelling opening paragraph. “Compelling” needn’t mean “gimmicky.” You don’t need to tell a brilliant joke or start with an opening sentence that no one has ever read before. You do need to show that you understand what the job requires. Synthesizing your most relevant strengths is one way to demonstrate that understanding.

Say you’re applying for a role that involves staying on top of details, following through with processes that might be drawn out, and ensuring that people are kept up to date. Maybe the uniting factors are that you love roles that let you use your detail orientation and reliability to build trust. Marvellous. Now, you can avoid sentences that could appear in anyone’s letter – sentences like, “I am confident that my education and experience make me an excellent candidate for this role.” Instead, you can say something like, “Given my history of building trust through my reliability, I know I can contribute in this role.” Is it the most amazing sentence ever written in a cover letter? No – but it doesn’t need to get your letter into a book on cover letter gimmicks. It needs to show that you know what’s required to do the work well, and that you’re about to demonstrate that you have those strengths.

In the next blog post, we’ll look at how to handle applying for a role that feels like a bit of a stretch – one that you feel you can do, and which is likely to appeal to people who have more relevant experience than you.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *