Okay, you’ve managed to avoid the top 10 resume mistakes of 2018, now you need to make sure your cover letter is up to par. But with jobs and how we apply for them changing so far, you’re probably asking yourself “what should a cover letter include in 2018?” But fear not, we’ve compiled the most common questions people have about cover letters and explained everything you need to know.
Cover letter basics: it’s all about the reader
Truth is, different companies tend to be impressed by different styles and approaches. The art of getting one step ahead of competitors when writing a cover letter can not and should not be limited to simply following a set of rules. Because their effectiveness depends on the “taste” of the hiring company.
Nevertheless, the answers to these questions will prepare you to write a cover letter that makes an impact.
1. Cover letter vs resume, what’s the difference?
You may be thinking the answer is obvious, but it’s actually more complex and important than you realize.
A cover letter that resembles your resume content-wise is bad by definition. Misled by the desire to state facts about their education and previous job occupations, many people send cover letters that quote from their resume verbatim. When printed out your resume will be most probably stapled to your cover letter, so it’s useless to make them identical – it’s saying the same thing twice. Boring. Redundant. Don’t do it.
What can you do then? Simple, be honest. Write about who you are, what you’re passionate about, why you’re curious about the job you are applying for. Tell the reader a story about yourself that emphasizes your compatibility with the position. Including a bit of tasteful humor is also a good idea. Making your reader smile can give you a competitive edge.
What a cover letter should NOT include: My name is James. I graduated from Intellectual Property in 2009, then I had an internship in Scotland, I then got hired at this and that company where I worked for a period of 2 years. I don’t work there anymore (obviously). And here I am – a perfect fit for your job opening. Want me?
What a cover letter should include: I worked (or studied) Psychology (or whatever it is that you’ve studied). This experience taught me how to understand and approach difficult people in a way that nurtures effective communication and minimizes conflicts. It also fortified my ability to give the best I am capable of even under stressful and perplexing circumstances.
2. Do generic statements spoil your otherwise great cover letter?
Generic statements can kill an otherwise promising cover letter. A catchy declaration of what you excel at should be based on specifics and not generalities. For instance, when you want to highlight your ability to overcome challenges, refrain from writing “I usually overcome challenges bravely.” Illustrate your statement with a story (preferably a one- or two-sentenced story). Give numbers, name places, be concrete and clear.
Stories are more memorable, they make you stand out as a candidate, and they make you sound confident. Those are three of the most important things a cover letter can do.
What a cover letter should NOT include: My previous occupation involved working closely with the Legal Department. I participated in various processes and activities. I was also responsible for the proofreading and editing of their documentation.
What a cover letter should include: For 3 years I worked as a marketing specialist – I had to write, proofread, and edit legal, pharmaceutical, and marketing-related documentation. In addition, I participated in the development of 4 marketing campaigns that tripled our monthly revenue (quote any relevant number that you can). It was my responsibility to write and edit site contents for the official website of the company (give a link to the website).
3. How unique should a cover letter be?
Hiring managers have to read through piles of cover letters all the time. So, standing out and showing your personality is a must. But to be clear, your personality is not what or where you studied, nor is it based on how much your previous employer fancied your being punctual and diligent. Your personality is engraved in what you love to do most.
In other words, what a hiring manager really wants to see in a never-ending pile of redundantly polite, monotonous, personality-free cover letters is YOU. Tell them who you are and why you like them. Be sincere, concise, and passionate. Provide a link to your portfolio, blog, website or whatever there is that proves you’re savvy, resourceful, and unique.
What a cover letter should NOT include: I am huge fan of your company. I’ve always liked you because you’re commercials are entertaining, your services – flawless, and your CEO is a friend of my mother’s third cousin.
What a cover letter should include: I really loved the marketing campaign you launched last April. I was impressed to see the subtle way you presented [their product] as tool for people to give their best to the ones they love and treasure. I want to be part of the development of such ideas because they have liveliness, beauty, and that extraordinary ordinariness we can find everywhere, in everything – if we only looked with our heart and not with eyes only.
4. How can your cover letter sound confident without being cocky?
Confidence is classy. Self-promotion is not. Confidence is being sure without being arrogant. Cockiness is being defiant because you’re afraid of being beaten. It points to unstable self-esteem. It might be useful to remember that suggestion when you feel tempted to boldly declare your awesomeness.
What a cover letter should NOT include: Ever since I first started school I’ve been a high achiever. In the fourth grade I was voted “most likely to succeed”. Today, not much has changed. I’ve been a star employee at my last two positions and want to advance my career even more.
What a cover letter should include: In the course of the recent years I had the chance to live and work in various cultural environments, an experience which has helped me to better understand how people communicate. Even working in environments where I did not speak the language, I was able to effectively build professional networks. I believe these skills will greatly contribute to your team.
5. What’s a good cover letter length?
Great cover letters have one feature in common: they briefly present relevant information. This means that you should tell the truth and tell it engagingly, yet briefly.
Save yourself the effort of filling your cover letter with ambiguous sweet talk and lengthy references to previous endeavours (remember, that should all be in your resume). Skip the exposition and jump right into what’s essential about you.
Now that you have all your cover letter questions answered, it’s time to make sure your resume is just as polished and prepared. Our Successful Resumes page is full of real resumes that got people hired at top firms like Spotify, Tesla, and Amazon. Check it out for practical tips and ideas for how to improve your own resume.
*note, the original version of this article was published in June of 2015