Make It Work: How To Write A Cover Letter That Doesn’t Suck

We all have to work, whether we like it or not. It doesn’t have to be the worst thing, but it’s not always the best. Let’s tackle work issues as they come, when they come, together. Join me every Monday with The Frisky’s new column, Make It Work. Also, follow me on Twitter and holler at me if there’s a topic you’d like me to cover!

The job application process is kind of the worst. Looking for jobs is a nightmare and half, and then when you finally find something that you want to apply to, you have to do the thing that everyone hates so very much — the cover letter. Cover letters feel like the worst kind of writing, a way to sell yourself without coming off as needy or desperate, but they’re necessary, and very important. Resumes are usually a requirement, but the cover letter is where you’ve got to shine! Here are some tips for writing a cover letter that grabs a potential employer’s attention and gets you one step closer to landing an interview…

1. Dispense with the formality.

I’m not advocating for a cover letter that reads like a text message or something you’re posting on your Tumblr of Blake Shelton-Adam Levine “The Voice”-themed fanfic. Think of it this way. You have to be as coherent and charming and well-spoken in your cover letter as you will be in your interview. Actually, you have to be more charming, because these idiots aren’t going to call you unless they think you’re a competent, sound fit for the company. Use clear language but also be sure to tailor it to the kind of job you’re applying for. The cover letter you write for a job as a lawyer will be very different from that of a marketing executive at some startup, or whatever. Know your audience, and then write for them. Drop in specifics that demonstrate your knowledge of the company you’re applying to, so it’s clear you’ve done your research and you didn’t just copy paste the same generic thing to every job you’re applying for.

2. Consider the salutation.

If you’re embarking upon your first job search in years and years, keep in mind that the rules are probably different. We live in an age where people get job offers over DM on Twitter, or in casual Gchats. This is just the way our world is changing, so get in or get out. Once you’ve reconciled the fact that modern society as we know it is hurtling towards a model in which we only speak in emoji, do yourself a favor and strike every single “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” from your cover letter. First of all, not a single person in the world says “madam” in seriousness. You know who says “madam”? Weird dudes in fedoras with carefully groomed chinstraps who try to pick you up at bars by sidling up next to you and saying, “What are you having tonight, madam?”

I have a lot of friends who hire people, and the number one thing that turns them off from a resume? “Dear Sir.” The assumption that your cover letter is reaching a man is rude and oftentimes not true. Look, if you wanna go the “madam” route, well, best of luck. I like a nice, gender-neutral “Hello.” Not “to whom it may concern” or “Attention” or “HIRE ME UGH.” Just “Hello.” Like I would say to a person in real life, who I was meeting at dumb networking event or on the street or at a bar or in the lipstick aisle at Duane Reade.

3. Don’t lie. Well, lie a little bit.

Okay, so. I have no idea of knowing if you’re going to be 100 percent honest on your resume, but if you’re going to stretch the truth — which I don’t recommend — make sure the carpet matches the drapes, as it were. If you fudge some things on your resume, or just massage what your job duties were to make it sound a little nicer, then make sure that you’re shilling the same half-bullshit in your cover letter. Oh, and you’ll also need to keep your stories straight when you actually score the interview, so keep that in mind too, sunshine.

Basically — don’t lie. Don’t say that you were the founding editor of a website that you actually just interned at. Don’t say that you were the SVP of R&D or whatever, when you just, you know, had a normal job at the company. Telling tall tales of your career achievements feels like a totally cool way to make yourself desirable and hireable, but please remember that every single thing in this world, from the last time you bought toilet paper to where you went to high school, can be fact checked. If you want to make what you actually did at your job sound like more than “browsing Zappos, then filing some stuff, then writing an email,” use your words. I have a theory that all recruiters and hiring managers know that the bulk of what we do at desk jobs is a combination of staring at Seamless trying to decide what to order, writing emails, checking Facebook, answering calls, and doing what we were hired to do. There’s no need to blow things out of proportion.

4. Spellcheck, you guys. Spellcheck.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve sent out a cover letter, walked away from my computer, and come back to read it over again, only to see that there’s a typo in my opening sentence, or that I’ve spelled my own name “Megna” instead of “Megan.” I like to give myself the benefit of the doubt, and tell myself that everyone is so busy these days that they’re really only reading these things between meetings and emails, so the tiny typo that I might have made will go unnoticed. That is a stupid way to think, and even if it is the case, still spellcheck before you send anything off. Your resume could reach the one hiring manager that was a copy editor in a past life who stands by her strong hatred of typos and will not abide them from potential employees. Typos might make her skin crawl, and she will certainly throw your resume in a garbage can and go get a coffee. Don’t let that happen to you.

5. Be the professional, courteous, and kind version of you. 

Be the you that you’re going to be when you make it to the interview. Keep it professional, but also make your personality shine. When you finally get that interview for the job that you really, really want, make sure that the person who appears in front of them conveys what they’ve come to expect based on your letter. So if you’re not much of a comedian in real life, don’t pack your cover letter full of one-liners. Don’t use $4 SAT words in every sentence if your conversational vocabulary isn’t so showoff-y and formal. And the enthusiasm you showed for the gig in question on paper should be beaming from you in person. Ideally, your potential employer read your cover letter and thought to themselves, This person seems like they’d be a great addition to the team and has the right personality for the job. Bring your A-game and show them that their initial hunch was right.