What Makes a Cover Letter Effective?

by Dan Ketchum
A well-written, thoroughly proofread cover letter trumps a cut-and-paste job every time.

A well-written, thoroughly proofread cover letter trumps a cut-and-paste job every time.

A lot of factors determine whether your cover letter leads to getting an interview, and you can't control all of them. The factors range from market conditions to what sort of mood the hiring manager is in when she reads your letter. While there is no magic ingredient that instantly makes your cover letter effective, you can rely on time- and field-tested tips from hiring recruiters, universities and other sources to bolster your letter's overall impact.

The Basics

If you don't answer the basic “questions” required of virtually every cover letter, you'll find that your letter has very little effect. The Office of Career Services at Columbia University recommends keeping the six “W's” in mind. Let the employer know what position you're applying for, where you heard about the position, who you are, why you're interested, why you're worthy of consideration and when you're going to follow up on your application.


To grab the attention of a potential employer, an effective cover letter must be specific. Avoid general salutations such as “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern.” Find out who will be reading your letter and address her by name. Extend this specificity to the body of the letter, noting specific skills and specific qualifications that make you a strong candidate for a specific position. Specificity requires research, so know everything you can about the position you're applying for before you write your letter. Being specific lets employers know that you took the time to do this research and that you're not sending a boilerplate letter.


Hiring managers are often strapped for time, so don't waste what time your letter has in the spotlight; keep a tight focus and create a short, efficient, to-the-point letter. Seth Porges of “Forbes” advises job seekers to avoid resume overlap and limit yourself to three paragraphs, or about half a page. On the same note, the Michigan Civil Service Commission Career Services Office says to highlight one or two relevant accomplishments or abilities, rather than rattling off a list -- that's what your resume is for. Similarly, Porges urges letter writers to start strong -- “jump right into something juicy” -- and close your letter by making a strong point about how or why your experience or worldview would be an asset in the job in question.

Taking Risks

Although there will always be a place for the six “W's” and the standard cover letter format, there's also a time and place for breaking the rules. In 2013, one hopeful intern's letter to Wall Street financial firms took a disarmingly honest route, stating “I won't waste your time inflating my credentials” and “I have no unbelievably special skill or genius eccentricities.” Although it was controversial, the letter was circulated widely on Internet business sites and led "Forbes" to the call the letter, perhaps one of the “best ever.” Risks don't always pay off; it's up to you to assess the situation and determine whether an out-of-the-ordinary cover letter will catch your potential employer's attention, or turn him off.

About the Author

Dan Ketchum has been a professional writer since 2003, with work appearing online and offline in Word Riot, Bazooka Magazine, Anemone Sidecar, Trails and more. Dan's diverse professional background spans from costume design and screenwriting to mixology, manual labor and video game industry publicity.

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