How to write a cover letter

Part of my job is hiring people. I’m looking for a job right now, and each time I apply for a position, I try to write the kind of cover letter I’d want to read.

At some point in the last few decades, we got it in our heads that the cover letter is supposed to communicate your passion for the position. So most cover letters read something like this.

Dear Cheese Grater Company, I am abnormally excited to get the chance to apply for a software developer role at your company. I have always loved cheese, and grating things, since I was the teensiest of tiny wee ones. My passion has not flagged since that time; nay, it has grown by leaps and bounds. My life has revolved around the grating art and the cheese that is processed therein. I challenge any human on earth to fight me to the death if they think they love cheese graters more than I do. I beg you, do not deny me the chance to prove my burning devotion to cheese and the graters that so nicely grate it. Yours in cheese, Evan. P.S. Please respond soon or I will probably explode. P.P.S. CHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESE GRATEEEERRRRRRRRRRRSSSS

This is not really useful.

What a good cover letter does is help the hiring manager, who is going through a pile of dozens or hundreds of resumes, determine if you meet the requirements for the job. Everyone hates this part of hiring; it’s a real grind. A lot of cognitive effort is going into deciphering the different formats of resumes to figure out if the candidate meets the prerequisites for the job.

So, if the job requires a CS degree or similar technical degree, they’re looking for the part of the resume that lists EDUCATION, and trying to find a bachelor’s degree in CS. If it’s in something else, they have to decide if that other major is technical enough to qualify as a CS degree.

If the job requires 3 years of experience as a software developer, they’re looking at the EXPERIENCE section, reading the job titles and descriptions to see if you qualify as a software developer, and then doing the date math to see if they add up to a total of 3 years of experience.

In other words, they have a bunch of requirements, expressed in the job description, and they have to figure out if your qualifications, expressed on your resume, meet those requirements.

There are two kinds of people who will be doing this screening. There’s a talent coordinator or HR person, for whom this is a big part of their job, so they’re motivated to do it, but who might not be that familiar with industry jargon. So they might not know that a “tools lead” is another way of saying “software developer”, or that “CouchDB” qualifies as a “NoSQL database”.

The other kind of person who’s doing the screening is the manager who’s hiring for the role. They are already overworked, which is why they are hiring in the first place, and they don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. So, they’re likely to just skip over any resume that makes them think too hard, and they’d love to have some shortcuts that helps them put more resumes in the “To Interview” pile.

So, the big thing you can do as an applicant to make everyone’s life easier is by doing the hard work for them. Use your cover letter to connect their requirements to your qualifications, as briefly and explicitly as possible.

So for a job that needs a CS bachelor’s and 3 years of software developer experience, just say how you qualify.

I’m applying for the software developer position. Here’s how my experience maps to your requirements.

  • “CS bachelor’s degree or equivalent.” I have a bachelor’s degree in computational biology, which is a branch of biology involving a lot of data manipulation and programming.
  • “3 years of software developer experience.” I did a 6-month software development internship at Acme Co, then two years as a junior developer at Mega Corp, followed by three years as a lead developer at Games R Us, for a total of 5-1/2 years.
  • “Experience with NoSQL databases”. I have not used NoSQL databases, but I worked with PostgreSQL at Mega Corp.

It’s OK if you don’t meet every single prerequisite on the job description. It’s good to be explicit about that; don’t try to bluff or minimise the requirement.

You can try to explain your qualification for softer requirements, like “You must be a self-starter” or “You communicate well”, with examples from your life. Or you can just save that for the interview process.

One extra benefit of this kind of cover letter is that it shows the hiring manager that you’ve actually read the job description all the way through, that you know what the job is, and that you want it anyway.

One thought on “How to write a cover letter

  1. Hi, Evan,
    I have created a Word macro that helps with generating a Cover Letter based on the requirements of the job.
    You need to provide:
    Job Title
    List of Requirements
    The macro will then generate a cover letter which is different each time you run the macro, so if you apply to the same HR company for multiple jobs, the cover letter will differ.
    For example, this is how it picks the intro line:
    Dim FirstLine As String
    Intro = Array(“My name is Olivian Breda and I apply to the “””, “I am Olivian Breda and I apply to the “””, “My name is Olivian Breda and I wish to apply to the “””, _
    “My name is Olivian Breda and I am happy to apply to the “””, “My name is Olivian Breda and I’m glad to apply to the “””, “I’m Olivian Breda and I’m happy to apply to the “””, _
    “I am Olivian Breda and I apply to “””, “I’m Olivian Breda and I apply to “””, “My name is Olivian Breda and I apply to “””)
    chose = Int(rnd * (UBound(Intro) + 1))
    FirstLine = Intro(chose)
    Here is the phrase that is placed before listing the job requirements:
    Dim GettingToThePoint As String
    Intro = Array(“Getting to the point, please allow me to give you the top reasons to set an interview with me:”, “I want to give you the top reasons to set an interview with me:”, _
    “Here are the top reasons to set an interview with me: “, “Why would you set an interview with me?”, _
    “I would like to invite you to set an interview with me based on the following:”, “I think I answer to your requirements well enough to set an interview with me:”, _
    “You might be interested in the top reasons to set an interview with me:”, “I would like to give you the top reasons for setting an interview with me:”, _
    “Here are some of the reasons for which you might want to set an interview with me:”)
    chose = Int(rnd * (UBound(Intro) + 1))
    GettingToThePoint = Intro(chose)
    How to apply to jobs easily? (2018.03.24) – Blog de Olivian Breda

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