Ah, the dreaded cover letter. Many gallons of computer ink (and sweat) have been spilled printing off copies of cover letters to mail to potential employers.
For many people, writing a solid cover letter is one of the bigger challenges of the job-hunting process.
Whereas resumes are relatively straightforward and consists of a more or less bullet list of your work accomplishment, cover letters are a bit more subjective and require some creativity.
Many people have trouble writing in a narrative fashion about themselves and their careers, so writing an engaging cover letter that will capture the attention of hiring managers is especially difficult.
In short, a cover letter is a single-page letter that you send in with job applications.
The purpose of a cover letter is to introduce yourself to hiring managers and give a short description of your work experience and skills, and how they make you the ideal candidate for the position.
The ideal cover letter should capture the reader’s attention and thoroughly and succinctly explain your accomplishments and talents.
As with many things, this is easier said than done.
Hiring managers are only human, and even the perfectly crafted cover letter can find itself placed into the resume “black hole”, never to be seen again.
All is not lost, however. There are several things you can do to significantly increase your chance of your cover letter being noticed by recruiters.
Some of these things are fairly obvious (no typos or grammatical mistakes) and others are a bit abstruse and counter-intuitive (don’t use serif fonts).
20 Science-Backed Tips For Writing A Successful Cover Letter
Here are 20 science-backed tips on how to write the perfect cover letter that will get you hired.
1. 86% of Executives Think That Cover Letters Are Valuable for Evaluating Candidates
Let’s start off our list with a simple one.
If you search on the internet, you will find tons of articles that say stuff like “the cover letter is dead” or “ditch the cover letter in your application”.
This is not entirely accurate though. While it is true that online recruitment sites like LinkedIn have cut down the number of employers who want to see a cover letter, the majority of employers still think cover letters are valuable.
86% of surveyed executives said that they think cover letters are valuable for evaluating potential employees .
So, even if you think cover letters are pointless, you should still be sending one because you know everyone else is going to.
8 in 10 hiring managers said that it is common to receive a cover letter with electronic resumes.
2. However, Only 26% of Recruiters Say That a Cover Letter Is Valuable
Even though executives still think that cover letters are valuable for gauging candidate potential, only a small percentage of recruiters think the same.
According to a survey, only 26% of recruiters said they found cover letters valuable .
The reason why is that most recruiters are more interested in looking at resumes that list job skills and work experience, not a cover letter that speaks to the personality of candidates.
Also, recruiters usually comb through hundreds of applications and resumes a day so they likely don’t have time to read through every cover letter they receive.
This may be a problem for job seekers who rely on their cover letter to explain gaps in employment or someone who wants to switch careers to a different industry.
Even though most recruiters don’t seem to value cover letters, you should still send one anyway because you never know if your application will fall in the hands of someone who cares about them.
If you need to explain any gaps in your resume, then you should consider adding a summary section to your resume.
3. 45% of Recruiters Say They Will Reject an Application If It Doesn’t Have a Cover Letter
Another piece of information that points to the importance of including a cover letter.
Even though only about 1 in 4 recruiters think that a cover letter is valuable (see tip #2), according to a survey, 45% of surveyed recruiters said that they would reject an application if it does not include a cover letter .
This statistic sounds strange, considering that only 26% of recruiters say that they find value in cover letters, but hey, recruiters are people too and sometimes believe and act in contradictory ways.
Of course, absolutely no recruiter said that they would reject an application that did include a cover letter, so no matter the job application, you should always send a cover letter with your resume.
In fact, the only time you shouldn’t send a cover letter is only if the posting explicitly states you cannot send one.
4. Social Media May Be The New Cover Letter
The point of a cover letter is to give hiring managers a picture of your personality and character.
However, many recruiters and hiring managers have turned to social media pages to find out more about candidates.
According to data, 70% of employers say that they use social media to investigate and vet candidates .
This figure is up significantly from 60% in 2016. In fact, approximately 3 out of 10 employers have someone specifically dedicated to going through candidates’ social media pages.
Employers look at social media to figure things out like the candidate’s qualifications, their professionalism, what other people think of the candidate, and any reasons that would disqualify them from the position.
In other words, social media may soon become the new cover letter.
Among social media pages, LinkedIn and Facebook are by far the most commonly searched.
Hiring managers don’t stop just at social media either; 69% of employers search for candidates through search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
Basically, this means that when applying to jobs, you need to scrub your social media pages of any less-than-flattering information or pictures.
Here are some examples of big social media no-nos.
- 39% of recruiters said that they have rejected a candidate’s application because they found provocative or inappropriate photos
- 38% say they have rejected a candidate because of pictures of them drinking alcohol or using drugs
- 32% have rejected a candidate because of racist or sexist comments made on their profile
- 30% have axed a candidate because they badmouthed their previous employer or fellow employee
- 23% have rejected a candidate because they shared confidential information about a company
- 17% have rejected candidates because they have lied about absences, or frequently post during work hours.
5. 44% of Recruiters Have Found Info on Social Media That Made Them Hire The Candidate
Social media is not entirely negative though.
Almost half of the surveyed recruiters say that social media has helped them hire candidates.
44% of employers have stated that a piece of information on a candidate’s social media page has made them hire a candidate .
Some major reasons recruiters have hired candidates have been:
- Information that has supported their claimed qualifications (37%)
- Good communication skills (37%)
- A professional image (36%)
- Creativity (35%)
Be careful of interpreting these statistics as saying you should just opt out of social media entirely.
Not having any social media pages can actually hurt your chances of being hired.
Over 50% of recruiters have said they are less likely to give a callback to someone who does not have any social media pages.
6. 54% of Hiring Managers Will Reject a Generic Cover Letter That Is Not Customized for the Position
It is common knowledge that one should tailor their resume for the specific position they are applying to.
The same holds true for cover letters. According to data, 54% of hiring managers say that they have rejected an application because of a generic cover letter or resume that was not tailored for the position .
To be clear, customizing your cover letter means more than just addressing the hiring staff by name and switching out company names.
Hiring managers are a perceptive bunch and they can tell when a cover letter for another position has been copied and had the titles changed.
You need to make sure the entire cover letter is unique for the application. In most cases, this means that you should just write a new cover letter for every job you apply to.
We know that this is a lot of work, but doing otherwise can seriously hurt your chances of being hired.
If you are not sure how you should structure your cover letter, use the job description as a reference.
Try to match the language of your cover letter with the language used in the job description.
Automated software combs through applications and looks for these keywords so using the language in the job description gives you a better chance that your resume and cover letter will get past the robo-censors.
If the job description uses lots of employment buzzwords like “dedicated” or “collaborative” try to incorporate those words into the structure of your cover letter.
Go through the job description line by line and ask yourself if your cover level hits all the main points and that you are using the same language.
7. The Ideal Cover Letter Length Is One Page
While cover letters should be a bit more narrative than your resume, that does not mean you should give a long-winded rant in your cover letter.
Most experts agree that the ideal cover letter should be no more than 1 page long, fewer than 400 words, and contain 4 or fewer paragraphs.
This advice is backed up by science too .
The majority of surveyed recruiters and teachers said that a cover letter longer than one page was undesirable. Any longer than one page and recruiter lose interest.
What’s more, according to the Orange County Resume Survey, nearly 70% of employers said that a shorter cover letter is always better than a longer one and that they would prefer the cover letter to be no more than half a page; Their thinking might be that if you can’t give a succinct one page summary of why you deserve the position and are qualified, then your writing skills are probably lacking.
Also, experts recommend that a cover letter should never be double spaced. Using double spaces ups the page count for no tractable benefit.
Even if your resume is within the appropriate word count, double spaces make it look longer which can be a turn off for hiring managers.
8. Recruiters Spend an Average of 8 Seconds Reading Cover Letters
It is an often-cited statistic that recruiters spend an average of 4-5 seconds looking at a resume, and the same is true of cover letters.
Studies have shown that recruiters spend an average of 8 seconds or less looking at a cover letter .
Even though recruiters spend so little time looking at cover letters, that does not mean you shouldn’t send one in as that can disqualify you completely from the position.
The reason why recruiters spend so little time looking for cover letters is twofold. First, recruiters just don’t have the time to thoroughly read every submission they get.
Considering that the average job opening gets an average of 250 applications, there is no way they can actively read every cover letter they get.
Second, recruiters and hiring managers are experts at gauging candidates and largely feel they only need to skim a cover letter and resume to get a good gauge of the applicant’s ability.
Whether or not this is true is another matter entirely, but the implications for your cover letter writing are clear:
Your cover letter should consist of short, declarative sentences that make good use of the language used in the job posting.
Paragraphs should never go more than 4 lines in length and make sure you pick a font that is large enough to read easily.
Recruiters are much more likely to reject an application if the text is poorly formatted or too hard to read.
9. Recruiters Do Not Like Seeing Too Much Self-Promotion in Cover Letters
In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Business Psychology, researchers found that candidates that used a significant amount of self-promotion language in their cover letters are perceived as insincere and manipulative by hiring managers and recruiters .
The researchers defined self-promotion language as language that is primarily meant to indicate that the candidate is a better potential hire than other applicants.
The researchers found that, while some self-promotion can help your chances of recruiters remembering your application, too much ingratiation reflects negatively of applicant’s personality and they are more likely to be judged as not a good fit for the job.
The same study also showed that men seem to be judged more negatively for using lots of self–promotional language than women were.
This finding could reflect recruiters’ changing attitudes about gender and the workplace. In the past, women have been expected to downplay their accomplishments and the accomplishments have been dismissed.
These findings could indicate that hiring managers’ perceptions of women candidates are changing and that women should use more self-promotional language in their cover letters than men should.
10. Most Hiring Managers Do Not Care About Your Education Credentials for Your Cover Letter
It may sound counter-intuitive, but most hiring managers do not care about academic metrics on your cover letter. 2 surveys by Gallup found that only 28% of hiring managers from over 600 leading business said that they cared about seeing info on a candidate’s degree of GPa in a cover letter .
The overwhelming majority (84%) stated that knowledge of the field is the most important thing to see in a cover letter.
The second most important factor in a cover letter was evidence of applied skills for the profession.
Further, only 9% of hiring managers said they cared greatly about the specific institution where you earned your degree.
This finding is in direct contradiction to public perceptions. The same surveys found that nearly half of US adults felt that the kind of degree was a very important factor for hiring managers and 30% said they thought that which institution you earned your degree from was important.
In other words, hiring managers don’t really care about your degree but care if you can demonstrate you have the knowledge and applied skills to succeed in the position.
So when writing your cover letter, feel free to leave out info about your GPA, institution you attended, or even your degree.
The 2 exceptions to this rule are for recent graduates who may not have previous work experience and for those applying for academic positions.
Most recent graduates do not have a pool of job experience to draw from, so adding your major and GPA can help your chances.
Further, applications for academic positions usually want to see your academic history which includes the institution you attended and your academic performance.
11. Using Strong Action Verbs in Your Cover Letter Can Increase Your Odds of Being Hired by 140%
If there is one thing hiring managers hate it is a poorly written cover letter that is boring and does not capture their attention.
That is why it is important to use the active voice and strong action verbs in both your cover letter and resume.
Sentences should be constructed so that they are in an active voice and the subject appears before the verb. Hre is an example of active vs passive voice.
“A comprehensive database containing client information was created by me.”
“I developed a comprehensive database of client information.”
Using action verbs and the active voice give your sentences momentum and make them easier to follow and more engaging.
Using the passive voice gives your writing a wishy-washy cadence that reflects negatively on your communication skills.
A study by the data scientists over at TalentWorks found that using strong action verbs in your resume and cover letter can increase the odds of being hired by almost 140% .
We recommend using distinct strong action verbs every 4 sentences in your cover letter.
12. Only 47% of Job Seekers Include a Cover Letter with Their Resume
Only 47% of job seekers send in cover letters with their applications .
Don’t be one of these people. Even if the job position says that a cover letter is “optional”, it is usually anything but. Nearly 53% of employers think that a resume is not enough to judge whether you would be a suitable hire .
So again, the data seems to imply that you are always better off if you send in a cover letter, even if the application states that a cover letter is optional.
13. Hiring Managers Want to See “Emotional Engagement” in a Cover Letter
A 2006 case study published in the journal Business Communication Quarterly found that using emotionally engaging language in a cover letter made it more likely to be called back for an interview.
The study defined “emotionally engaging” content as content that expresses a deep interest in the position (“I am extremely interested in the Y position at Company X.”), a willingness to negotiate salary, and describing experiences and skills that match the requisite qualifications.
The particular study sent out 27 identical resumes, 9 with no cover letter, 9 with a one-sentence note, and 9 with a 1-3 paragraph cover letter utilizing emotionally engaging content.
None of the 18 resumes sent without a cover letter or with the one-sentence note received a callback for an interview, but all 9 that were sent with a cover letter did.
Further, none of the hiring managers subsequently spoken to had a copy of the resume on hand for reference, but 55.5% of them (5) had printed copies of the cover letter and referred to its contents.
Basically, this case study seems to imply 2 things:
1) Cover letters are an essential part of the job application, no matter what recruiters might say on the matter, and 2), using emotionally engaging language in a cover letter makes you more likely to get a callback for an interview.
To be clear, this is just one study that has an admittedly small sample size, but the focus on using emotionally engaging language in the cover letter is unique.
14. There Are 6 Key “Self-Validation” Strategies for Cover Letters That Make You More Likely to Get an Interview
The purpose of a cover letter is not only to describe why you are qualified for the position but to convince hiring managers that your claims are true.
Plenty of people embellish or lie on their cover letters which is why job seekers usually use “self-validation” strategies. These self-validation strategies are meant to not only describe the applicant and their abilities but convince the reader that the claims are true.
In other words, self-validation strategies are rhetorical tactics that job seekers use to enhance the likelihood that their claimed merits will be believed by hiring managers.
A large scale 2002 study published in the journal Advances in Qualitative Organizational Research identified 6 key self-validation strategies and described how the use of those self-validation strategies on cover letters affected the chances of getting a callback for an interview.
The 6 key self-validation strategies they identified were:
- Self-report: Simply stating your qualifications (ex. “I am qualified for the position due to my communication skills, technical knowledge, and professional attitude.”)
- Important others: Referring to the judgment of important individuals (ex. “My references can confirm and provide more details about my work experience and qualifications.”)
- External indicators: An important organization can back up your claims. (ex. I have scored highly in tests meant to assess the quality of candidates for similar positions.”
- Evidence of achievement: Providing evidence of successes and accomplishments meant to demonstrate your merit. (ex. “After a 2-year stint as project coordinator, I was promoted to a senior manager at company X.”
- Previous roles: Describing similar roles to the position that you have had in the past. (ex. I have 5 years of experience working in software engineering and have worked in positions X, Y, Z.)
- Similar situations: Describing tasks you have completed that are similar to the ones you’d be performing in the position. (ex. “I was a family counselor which requires a large amount of compassion and understanding, similar to the position advertised.”
These 6 key strategies were identified from a pool of over 400 applications submitted for a company in Israel looking to fill positions in sales, marketing, and administrative assistance.
Next, the researchers took the key strategies they identified and tested the efficacy of their use for another position that was different from the initial position.
The researchers had 3 key findings from their study: 1) applications that used any of these self-validation strategies were more likely to get an interview, 2) applications that made frequent and creative use of theses strategies (using multiple strategies in one part of the text) were much more likely to get an interview, and 3), the strategy of appealing to multiple entities as proof (e.g. the previous roles and similar situations strategies) seemed to be the most significant factors that affected interview callback rates.
To put the findings in plain English, the study implies that you should frequently and creatively use these 6 self-validation strategies in cover letters.
Also, the study implies that the most important ones you should use are previous roles you have filled and how you have performed in similar situations.
This matches up with what hiring managers think of the matter; that previous work experience and skillset are the most important things to look for in candidates.
15. Women Who Emphasize Their “Feminine” Qualities in Cover Letters Are More Likely to Get Hired
There is a laundry list of research on gender bias and how those biases affect hiring.
The general gist of this research tells us that qualified women are often looked over for positions in male-dominated fields and that hiring managers are more likely to judge women as unfit for a position due to their gender than they are for men.
A 2019 article from researchers at the University of Toronto performed a 4 part study to answer 2 primary questions: “do women modify their gendered language in cover letters when applying for male-dominated fields and female-dominated fields?” and “Are women who downplay their feminine qualities when applying for male-dominated fields more likely to be hired or rejected?”
The study found that of the 25% of women who claimed they modified their language in a cover letter for male and female-dominated fields, the majority said they changed their language for male-dominated fields.
Responses from males indicated that only 7% of men change their language when applying for male-dominated and female-dominated fields.
Further, the study also found, contrary to the researchers’ initial hypothesis, that women who downplayed their feminine qualities when applying to male-dominated positions were actually less likely to get the job compared to women who used more language perceived as feminine.
In other words, the research found that women who deemphasize their feminine qualities to increase the chances of being hired in male-dominated fields were actually penalized for doing so.
The researchers take their findings as confirmation that women are penalized in the job search for not adhering to traditional normative gender roles.
To be clear, we are not saying that women should bear the responsibility for circumventing bias in the hiring process by changing how they present themselves to hiring managers in male-dominated fields.
Changing the hiring system is a structural issue that requires eliminating the bias from the hiring process, not expecting women and other minorities who are discriminated against during the hiring process to overcome these biases. The only way this can happen is with social awareness and advocacy.
However, the fact still stands that when women emphasize their feminine qualities in cover letters and resumes, they are more likely to get the position. Whether or not this is a good thing is another matter entirely.
However, if we are being strict pragmatists about the matter, then it stands to reason that women who emphasize feminine qualities have a leg up on the competition.
We know it’s not fair and women should not be penalized for not adhering to stereotypes about gender, however, the reality of the system means that this is a viable strategy for getting a job.
So if you are a woman, do not feel pressured to downplay your feminine qualities in your cover letter and resume.
16. 44% of Hiring Managers Say They Will Reject a Cover Letter or Resume If It Appears to Duplicate the Job Posting
Plagiarism bothers everyone especially hiring managers who have their job posting copied. According to survey data, 44% of hiring managers said they would reject a cover letter or resume if it appeared to have copied sections from the job description .
To be clear this does not mean using language and key phrases found in the job description, that can actually help you.
Copy means copied and pasted from the job description. Hiring managers feel that plagiarizing a job description reflects poorly on a candidate’s integrity, motivation, and honesty.
So while you should use keywords and phrases from the job description, make sure the cover letter is your own voice, not directly copied.
Common keywords identified by the same survey were:
- Problem-solving and decision making
- Performance and productivity
- Team-building (we’ll come back to this one)
- Customer retention
- Strategic Planning
17. Half of Hiring Managers Said They Would Automatically Dismiss an Application If It Contained Spelling or Grammatical Errors
If there is one thing hiring managers hate it is acting as a proofreader on submitted resumes and cover letters.
Nearly half (49%) of surveyed hiring managers said that they would automatically reject a cover letter if it contained any grammatical errors or spelling mistakes .
Some of the more common spelling and grammar mistakes seen on cover letters include:
- Misspelling the employer’s name or title in the address
- Using “there”, “their”, and “they’re” improperly
- Forgetting to change the company name from a previous application
- Misspelling or incorrectly naming the position or job title
- Incorrect agreement between singular nouns and plural verbs (e.g “She were” instead of “she was.”)
- Forgetting apostrophes “e.g. “the companys” instead of “the company’s”)
Make sure that you do not entirely rely on an electronic spell checker either. Those only look for typographical errors but won’t catch it if you use the incorrect word in the sentence.
See the difference between “My team was responsible for ruining the whole project” and “My team was responsible for running the whole project.”
Make sure you have another human being look over your cover letter for any improper word choices that spellcheck would miss.
Also, while we are on the subject of grammar, try not to use contractions (“I’ve” or ”didn’t”) on your cover letter or resume.
The general consensus is that contractions are too informal and should not be used in professional writing, which a cover letter is .
18. 66% of Large Companies Use Automated Systems to Vet Reject Cover Letters and Resumes
Since the average job posting gets around 250 applications, hiring managers don’t have time to go through every application by hand.
Approximately 66% of large companies rely on applicant tracking systems (ATS) to automate the selection process .
These programs comb through cover letters and resumes and reject any that do not have certain keywords and phrases related to work experience, education, or skills.
Unfortunately, this means that it is entirely possible that you send in a cover letter and it never is looked at by a human.
So, you have to hack your cover letter to get past the robo-censors. One way you can do that is to mimic the language in the job posting.
Be careful to not lift exact sections from the posting (see tip #16) or else you run the risk of being rejected for plagiarizing. Instead, pepper your cover letter with keywords from the posting and strong action verbs (see tip #11).
Don’t overdo it though. Too many keywords and your cover letter may sound artificial and insincere, so recruiters might start to think you’re the robot.
The ideal method is to use a keyword from the posting every 3-5 sentences. Otherwise, make sure your cover letter for each position is unique as a generic copy and pasted on will get caught by the system.
Here are some other things you can do to get past the robots:
- Use long-form and acronym versions of keywords like“Master of Public Health (MPH)” so there is a better chance the bot will pick up on it.
- Leave out tables and columns. These kinds of formats are almost always parsed incorrectly by the ATS so your information can get garbled or deleted.
- Don’t use headers or footers for the same reason.
- Don’t use weird fonts. If the ATS doesn’t recognize the font you use it may translate it into meaningless blank boxes called “tofu” that render when the font doesn’t register. Stick to traditional ones like Times New Roman, Arial, Calibri, or Helvetica Neutral. And please, whatever you do, avoid Comic Sans .
- Use standard formatting with section headings like “Work Experience” and “Professional Skills.”
- Submit your cover letter as a .docx or .pdf file. There are the most common cover letter formats. PDF files are especially useful as they preserve the original structure of the text and won’t get mangled by some automated software.
19. 58% of Hiring Managers Have Caught a Lie on a Cover Letter or Resume
Hiring managers are a perceptive bunch. Most hiring managers have a few years of experience under their belt, so it is pretty easy for them to spot when a candidate is obviously full of it or embellishing their achievements and qualifications.
According to a survey, 58% of hiring managers say they have caught someone lying on a cover letter or resume, and 33% say that they have noticed more embellishments on applications post-recession .
The most commonly reported fabrications were:
- Embellishing their skillset (57%)
- Embellishing responsibilities (55%)
- Dates of employment (42%)
- Job title (34%)
- Academic degree (33%)
- Accolades/awards (18%)
Moreover, over half (51%) of employers said that they would automatically reject an application if they caught a lie on a cover letter or resume while 40% said that it depended on what the lie was about. Only 7% said that they would be willing to overlook a lie if they felt that the candidate was qualified.
That last statistic is interesting, as it hints that most hiring managers care a great deal about integrity and honesty.
The majority of hiring managers said they would not overlook a lie on a cover letter, even if they felt the applicant was a good fit for the position.
Their thinking might be, “If you’re willing to lie about yourself to get the position, then what would you lie about when you have the position?”
So don’t try to lie on your resume, even if you are tempted. It’s just not worth the risk of being rejected. There is nothing wrong with portraying your accomplishments in a flattering light, but there is a distinct difference between self-promotion and straight up making stuff up.
20. Serif Fonts Are Perceived as More Formal Than Sans Serif Fonts, but Sans Serif Fonts Are Easier to Read
Serif fonts are fonts that have small embellishes on the typeface like the word Hello. The small tails on the tops and bottoms of the letters are called serifs.
Conversely, the font used in this article is sans serif, it does not have the embellishments.
There is a solid body of research indicating that serif fonts are generally perceived as more formal, elegant, and rational. For example, some studies  show that people rate scientific texts more favorably when they are written in a serif font and others have shown that serif fonts seem more elegant and beautiful .
On the other hand, sans serif fonts have been found to be more readable. One study showed that of 12 different serifs and sans serifs fonts between font sizes 6.0 to 9.75, people rated the larger sans serif fonts highest in terms of reading speed, comprehension, accuracy, and preference, though the researchers found that larger serif fonts also perform well in terms of readability.
The same study also found that font sizes under 7.5 decreased readability by almost a third. So the implications are clear.
If you want to sound more formal and elegant, use a serif typeface but make sure it is a large enough font. Otherwise, you should try to stick to a larger sans serif font. Hiring managers care more about whether they can quickly skim your cover letter rather than whether the font looks pretty.
So there you have it, 20 science-backed facts and tips that will help you craft the perfect cover letter that recruiters will remember.
Obviously, a cover letter is just one of the important parts of job applications, there is also your resume and interview as well.
Even though the cover letter seems to be on its way out, it’s not dead yet. A good chunk of hiring managers say they still want to seem them and you never know if your application will fall into one of their hands. So make sure you submit a cover letter with job applications unless the posting explicitly says you can’t.
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