The following advises on how to write an “e-cover” letter, which, for lack of a better term, is the cover letter to your cover letter. That is, we’re talking about the words you put in the body of your email, which has your cover letter and resume attached. This is somewhat of a gray area in this modern world of applications. Some jobs explicitly ask for a distinct, attached cover letter; others assume your email will suffice as the cover letter. Either way, whatever is in your email needs to get the person on the other end to open your attached resume and samples, and most importantly, respond to your inquiry. So I’m here to share what I know on that.
I recently accepted submissions for a writing position. The ad I placed yielded several excellent finds, but also returned some astonishingly sorry responses that made me realize people are really struggling with what a prospective employer wants to see. This is not to say that I write perfect cover letters or that I get every job I apply for. But being on this side of the line makes it very clear what works and what doesn’t. So here is my best advice on the matter:
1. Avoid soft descriptions of yourself in relation to the job.
Yes, you want to sell yourself. But not to the point where you are reduced to the equivalent of hocking magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Avoid all of the following phrases: “I feel I would be a good fit because…” “I think I have the right experience….” “In my opinion I am an excellent candidate…” and the like. These are soft and subjective statements. If you want to let me know you are the right person for the job, let your experience speak for itself. Deliver it with a harder, more direct phrase, such as “My experience exactly matches your needs” or “Your project perfectly fits my skill set.” A prospective employer is not going to be convinced because you “feel” or “think” you will be a good fit.
2. Keep it short.
One person’s intro letter was so long, I actually counted it: it clocked in at 1,248 words. That’s about twice as long as most op-eds! The average employer has limited time – minutes, if not fractions of minutes – to spend on your entry. They are looking for a few key phrases to make it worth their time to open the attachments you’ve sent. Don’t bury yourself in a ton of verbiage. Keep it short and sweet.
3. Don’t force or stretch your experience.
It makes sense to apply for jobs outside your field of expertise and experience… but not too far outside your experience. It just makes it look like you’re trying too hard, and very obvious that you’re not the right choice. If you have to build any kind of bridge to get from your experience to the employer’s needs; or if you have to liken your experience with a metaphor or analogy; or if you have to write, “I don’t have any experience in this area, but it’s one I’ve been interested in breaking into,” you are not right for the job. This piece of advice could also fall under the title of, “Mainly Apply To Ads for Which You are Qualified.” It saves everyone a lot of time—mostly you.
4. Use bullet points to make your relevant experience pop.
Think of your cover letter like a movie trailer—you want to give a quick preview of the high points so the audience comes back to see the whole thing. The movie in this case is your attached resume and writing samples (if requested). You can even attach a longer version of your cover letter where you go into the kind of detail your previous work likely deserves. But for the sake of the email intro, spotlight your main accomplishments with bullet points so the reviewing HR person can get the gist and decide whether they want to delve deeper.
5. Distinguish yourself, but not to the point of Crazy.
You definitely want the prospective employer to remember you, but not as a lunatic. I received responses in which candidates talked about themselves in the third person; some sent me fictionalized accounts of us meeting and me deciding they were perfect for the job. One person sent me excerpts from their novel and about five paragraphs in identified themselves as separating fantasy from reality and “back to the job hunt” (not kidding). It is true that I will not forget these applicants—but nor will I hire them. Find a unique but not eclectic or off-putting way of standing out.
What do you typically put in your e-cover letters?
Lauri S. Friedman is a freelance writer, editor and packager. Her website is: LSF Editorial Services