How to Write a Cover Letter That Doesn’t Suck


What’s the most tedious, painstaking part of the job application process? If you think it’s writing cover letters, you’re not alone. In the 2013 AfterCollege Job-Seeker Survey, 20.9% of respondents found customizing résumés and cover letters to be the most stressful part of the job application process. I’ve certainly felt that way—and I write for a living!

The good news is, I’ve talked to several people in high places (AKA hiring managers and the type of people who would be reviewing your cover letter) and got the inside scoop. Read on for their tips on how you can write a cover letter that doesn’t suck.

Let’s start with what NOT to do.

  • Don’t get the name of the company wrong

“I get dozens of applications where the cover letter says ‘I think I’d be a great addition to Yelp/Amazon/’ or the objective statement on the résumé says ‘Find a great career in marketing communications’ or another even less relevant profession. Those go away immediately.”

Matt Baum, Director of Sales at AfterCollege

  • Don’t go on and on and on and on and… well you get the picture

“Leave lots of blank space so the document doesn’t attack the eye and isn’t overly verbose.”

Melanie Graff, Senior Recruiter at Yammer

  • Don’t just talk about what you did

“I don’t care so much about what you did (e.g. ‘Managed 200 Clients’). I would prefer to see how you made an impact (e.g. ‘Through my account management I helped raise quarterly sales by 35%’). Give me more of the juicy stuff and less general!”

Charlie Nelson, Director of Business Development and Client Success at SmartRecruiters

  • Don’t stress about it too much if you’re applying for a tech startup

“Maybe I’m just a technically minded person, but I don’t usually pay attention to cover letters. However, I only see applications that HR passes on. I’m sure they matter to them.”

Mike Feineman, Lead Developer at Room 214

Now that you know what not to do, let’s take a look at some winning techniques.

  • Do show off your strengths and sense of humor

“I only read applications that are tailored to the specific role and company; not boilerplate cover letters they send everyone. To stand out they need to talk about why the company interests them, what uniquely qualifies them, and show some personality. Make me want to work with them.

They need to seem smart and even a little funny while still professional. I like people who can take the confines of a professional interaction (like a cover letter) and make it fun and personal.

Their cover letters should really highlight the core skills that set them apart and touch on specific examples that show how they have the drive and motivation to succeed in sales while showcasing top-notch communication skills.”

Matt Baum, Director of Sales at AfterCollege

  • Do mention your company connections (if you have permission to do so!)

“If you can add something interesting or a little humor to make sure the reader keeps reading, that’s also great. And if you happen to know someone at the company and have that person’s permission to mention it, you can make note of that.”

  • And leadership experience…

“Also be sure to mention any instances when you’ve functioned as a leader, come up with an idea, and seen it through to execution, or become the leader of an organization or issue. For entry-level positions, fundamental core personality traits are very important, so I look for anything that demonstrates competitiveness, leadership qualities, and the ability to raise funds and awareness.”

  • And honors and awards

“You should definitely indicate if you graduated with honors; never be shy about your accomplishments.”

Melanie Graff, Senior Recruiter at Yammer

We also got a few hiring managers to critique some cover letters by real job applicants. Check out the “Cover Letter Teardown” tag to see those.

Still looking for more? Check out these additional resources:

News to Live By “The Way You Write Cover Letters is a Complete Waste of Time”

The Daily Muse “5 Ways Your Cover Letter Lost You the Job”

Levo League “4 Details Hiring Managers Really Look For in Your Cover Letter”

Ask A Manager’s Archives on Cover Letters

Streaming Online Workshop from The Career Center at the University of Washington Effective Résumés and Cover Letters


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