A cover letter is probably the only thing more important than your resume. Here’s how to make the perfect one.
It’s pretty well known that the only thing more important than having a solid resume, is having a solid cover letter. Most of the time, your resume will be something that’s static – it’s not going to change much even if you’re applying to very different companies.
Your cover letter, on the other hand, is something you write to a specific company tailored to the specific position for which you’re applying. That means it can be very specific and targeted to the specific company.
The cover letter has evolved quite a bit!
Cover letters originated during the good-old-days when applying to jobs involved printing out a resume and mailing it in. The cover letter was just an additional page a candidate would print out with a message for the people who were going to receive it.
In modern day, now that jobs are applied to electronically, people approach the cover letter in two different ways.
Option 1: Send in a PDF
Building a custom cover letter in a word processor and exporting it to a PDF is a good call if you’re not sending it directly to a hiring manager or you’re unsure of who is going to see it. If there is a recruiter involved in the process, they’ll likely print a stack of papers and hand it to the hiring team to look over.
That means having a PDF is important if the people who will actually make the decision will even see it.
Make sure your name is clearly on both documents (your resume and cover letter) and that its placement on the page matches up exactly the same. Hopefully the recruiter will staple the documents together, but you never know.
Option 2: Send within the text of the email or in a “message” section
This is an option if you’re sending an email or using a platform that allows you to include custom messages for each specific position. For example, if you’re applying via Angelist, there’s a place for you to include a custom message to the person conducting the hiring.
Adding a custom message tailored to the hiring team will help set you apart from most of the other candidates applying for the position.
What 95% of Candidates Do
About half of submitted job applications include only a resume and no cover letter or anything custom. Most of the others include a form letter that was copied and pasted across many other applications.
This means that you can easily differentiate yourself from most of the other applicants by simply including a custom message to the people you are contacting. You don’t need to get too fancy with it. Focus on the words, and don’t worry too much about the presentation.
Creating your cover letter in plain text – with no flashy design – ensures there is no distraction from what actually matters the most: the words.
How to Structure a Cover Letter
Your cover letter’s job is to sell the company on why you, though you might not have tons of experience and aren’t a coding celebrity, are the right candidate for the position. Here’s how you can communicate that:
Step 1: Connect on a Human Level
Try to build a connection on a human level. Right now, you’re nothing more than a few pieces of paper. Rejecting you is easy because they don’t know you. Tailor your letter, and your tone, to the size, style, and nature of the company.
If you’re sending a message to a large company, conforming to social norms is probably important. For a comparatively formal company – like positions in governments or banks – Dear Sir or Madam might be the way to go. For most small companies and startups, writing in a more conversational and less formal tone is likely the better way to go.
Remember: a human being will be reading your application, not a computer. If you know who you’re sending the message to, address them directly.
Hi Tim –
I saw your job listing for a junior engineer, and it got me really excited to think about potentially working for your company!
Step 2: It’s all about them. Tell them why they’re awesome.
Help them understand why you’re more excited about working for their company than for any other company. Happy employees are generally more productive than unhappy employees, and people who are upbeat and excited are more fun to work with and stand out from everyone else.
There are two ways you can go about this. You can focus on the tech stack (if it’s not a widely-used technology) or the business.
The Tech Stack
Let’s say you’re interested in video streaming. There is a technology that is used to stream on the web called WebRTC – there are some related jobs out there, but not many. There also aren’t very many people who are “good at WebRTC.” That means, if you are excited about streaming video, you should learn the basics and talk about why the technology excites you in order to get a leg up.
I’m passionate about streaming video on the web and have been working with WebRTC in some of my projects. Your product excites me because it uses WebRTC for some of its components, and I’d love to work on a product that uses this cool new web standard!
For this approach, it’s about narrowly targeting things you are genuinely passionate about that you don’t think other people are passionate about.
Don’t phone this in; being honest is vital. When you get into the interview, it will be important that your personality matches what you’ve said. If you say you’re excited about a technology, you should actually be excited when you talk about the topic in person.
For example, personally, I am excited about a programming language called Elixir. It’s a super impractical programming language to learn if you’re trying to find a job— as far as I know, there’s only one company in Boston that uses it and right now they don’t have any open positions. If I were looking for a new job, I would send my resume and a cover letter about why I’m excited about Elixir to Brian, the CEO of that company, even though they’re not hiring.
For this approach, you need to go into obscure technologies – not things that are “the norm.” It’s difficult to fake, so you shouldn’t take this approach unless you read this and immediately thought of your weird obsession with some obscure technology.
The Business / Product
Finding something about the business or product that gets you excited will probably be easier than the tech stack route.
Say you’re applying for a company like PayPal. PayPal is like a bank – generally not the coolest company. But some people view the company differently. For example, if you’ve spent time in Africa, you might know that cell phone minutes are used as a currency in some areas. PayPal is looking to break into mobile payments, so if you can relate to this aspect of rural Africa, this might be exciting for you.
I spent time in Uganda and people over there use cell phone minutes as a currency. After “spending minutes,” I became incredibly passionate about mobile payments and how we can more easily facilitate money transfers between people through mobile devices. I see PayPal as a leader in the field, and if mobile payments take off, I think it will be done by PayPal.
I would be super excited to be able to be a part of this mobile payment revolution and make a positive difference in the world!
Even if you didn’t spend time in Uganda, you can probably come up with a reason why mobile payments is pretty cool. Talk about that.
Are you interested in cooking? Find the companies that are building apps for chefs or cooks. Are you a user of a company’s product? Tell them!
You should be able to find one reason why you’re excited about working for a company or with its team.
Step 3: Why are you better than everyone else lined up?
Explain why you’re better than the other people applying for the position. List out one or two accomplishments that you think they should know about. One should always be about code, and it will probably be the same in all of your cover letters.
For an unrelated accomplishment, like if you’ve worked in the industry in a different role, mention something that you accomplished there. For example, if you’ve worked as an insurance broker and are applying for a job at a company that is a service for insurance brokers, mention it.
I recently worked at [Insurance Brokerage] as an insurance broker in a previous career, and I faced this problem when I [achieved some accomplishment]. Since I’ve worked directly in the industry, I’m passionate about helping others in the industry!
It’s all about the specifics here. It’s a bonus if you already know the industry a company is in – that means that although you might walk in the door as a “junior developer,” your domain knowledge of the industry will likely be ahead compared to developers with related experience.
Pro-tips for giving your cover letter even more impact!
Pro-tip #1: Get an intro if at all possible
Use LinkedIn and try to find out if you’re connected to someone who works at the company. Getting a direct intro to the hiring manager from someone within the company will generally give you a pretty good chance of getting an interview from the experience. It will also cut out several of the people standing between you and the hiring manager.
Even if you don’t know a lot of people in the web development industry, it doesn’t mean your connections don’t. For example, you never know if your sister went to high school with a guy who happens to be a web developer at a company. Get that introduction – it matters.
Try to get on a Google Hangout or meet for coffee with someone from that company, explain why you’re excited about the role, and ask them to connect you with the person who really matters in their company.
If you get an intro from someone and follow up with a solid cover letter, you have a much better chance of a yes (or a better chance of a no, which is at least better than the radio silence you’ll generally get otherwise).
Pro-tip #2: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good
After you write a couple of cover letters, you might notice that it takes a while to write a good one. For the first few, time yourself and get a good idea of how long they take you to write. Then, set a strict time limit of half of that time. If it takes you 20 minutes to write one, in 10 minutes you can do one that’s good enough.
The fact of the matter is you’re probably spending most of your time fixing things that don’t really matter. The phrasing doesn’t need to be perfect. You’ll get better at writing them if you write many cover letters relatively quickly, rather than a few in the same amount of time.
The reason being is that the experience of writing 10 cover letters will teach you more about writing cover letters than only writing 2. Writing cover letters is a lot like writing code. The only way to learn to be good at it is to do it.
Your end goal is to get each cover letter to take around 5 minutes of work.
Remember: most other candidates aren’t putting in any effort on this front. The 5 minutes of effort is better than the zero that everyone else puts in (especially if you spend that 5 minutes wisely).
Pro-tip #3: Don’t let the work of creating a cover letter prevent you from applying at all
If you don’t have a good reason why you’re excited to apply for the job and it seems like a lot of work to get yourself excited, that’s okay. Have a standard cover letter you can copy and paste in this situation. It’s not as good as one in which you talk specifics about why you’re excited about the specific company, but it’s better than blending into the crowd.
After the amount of time it usually takes you to write a cover letter, if you’re still looking at a blank page, send something a bit more generic.
The fact of the matter is, some jobs will be more exciting than other ones, and if you’re not genuinely excited, you should save your effort for the companies for whom it will be easy to be authentic.
Pro-tip #4: Follow a template
If you follow a standard pattern for all of your cover letters, you won’t have to start with a blank page every time.
Here’s what your template could look like (obviously the links would go to GitHub.com and showcase actual work):
Hi [Contact Name] –
I recently found your job listing for [ROLE NAME] and it seems like an exciting opportunity.
[Blurb about why it sounds like an exciting opportunity]
I recently worked on an Agile team that allows two players to play chess together. I wrote logic to allow Pawn Promotion to happen and you can check out a code sample here.
I also added real-time streaming functionality of the pieces using websockets and Firebase. See the pull request here.
Please let me know what the next steps are!
Then play mad libs and fill in the blanks from there. Filling in the blanks will be much faster than crafting it all from scratch.
Pro-tip #5: Make it skimmable
Hiring managers are probably looking through a lot of resumes and a lot of cover letters. That means your cover letter should be easy to skim.
Here are some tips for making yours easy to skim:
- Keep paragraphs short. One to two sentences in each.
- Remove any filler words that don’t add meaning to a sentence.
Notice how the template below is a lot harder to read:
Hi Jeff –
I recently found your job for Junior Web Developer and it seems like an exciting opportunity. Mobile payments are something that I’ve been excited about for a while and I love that I could have the opportunity to make a difference in the world. I recently worked on an Agile team building an app that allows two players to play chess together. I wrote logic to allow Pawn Promotion to happen and you can check out the code sample here. I also added real-time streaming functionality of the pieces using websockets and Firebase. See the pull request here. Please let me know what the next steps are!
The words are the same, but the paragraphs aren’t split out and the big block of text can seem overwhelming to read.
And start applying today!
If you’re searching for available positions, check out our (seriously) Exhaustive List of Web Development Job Boards!
Pull the trigger and start applying! It’s exciting and nerve wracking – but it could just be the step you take before becoming a fancy programmer like this guy:
Want to procrastinate a bit longer? Arm yourself with winning networking strategies, then get the show on the road!