You're applying for a new job. You feel a range of emotions, from sheer giddiness and excitement to dread and nervousness with everything in between (and maybe everything at once). You attach your resume and then basically fill out your resume in a form all over again. You include your portfolio and link to your LinkedIn profile. You check all the boxes and make sure all the information is correct. Right before you get to the bottom, you see it: Cover letter (optional).
The cover letter is one of the most confusing parts of an application. It's one of those optional sections that causes the question of, "is the cover letter really optional?" What happens if you don't put one? What happens if you do, and it sucks? When should you include a cover letter? What is a cover letter?
This cover letter adds a layer of stress to an already apprehensive and tense experience. So, what should we do with it?
What is (the point of) a cover letter?
It is hard to pick the best candidate for a job. As hiring managers, we rely on pieces of paper to make the initial decisions of whether to start the interviewing process. Pieces of paper! It's often stressful and challenging to understand what a candidate's resume means about that person and how they would approach our organization's problems.
That's where cover letters come in. These letters give us an extra layer to consider when determining whether to move forward with a candidate. Your cover letter can be the determining factor in whether you hear nothing from an employer or whether you get called for an interview. That's because you are more than just your work experience, and cover letters give us hiring managers a peek into your sparkling personality.
However, a cover letter won't guarantee you a job (or getting to the next step). That is why cover letters get so confusing. No one knows if employers read cover letters and how much weight they get.
Do I need one?
The simple (and infuriating) answer is "it depends." The first question I would ask you is, "do you care about the job you are applying to?" Yes, I know we shouldn't just do a massive job application session blindly, but, hey, sometimes we have to. If you don't mind, and the job is one of one hundred, and there are other roles you are more interested in, don't worry about it.
If you care about the job and genuinely want the employer to consider you, you should write a cover letter. In a sea of similarly qualified candidates, a great cover letter can be what pushes an employer to pull your resume out of the stack and reach out. The cover letter goes beyond skills and experience and shows us personal traits, communication skills, people skills, knowledge, passion, and enthusiasm for the job. It is hard to illustrate these concepts in a resume and portfolio, so that's where your cover letter becomes essential.
However, the biggest problem with cover letters is that they aren't very compelling or filled with personality. Sometimes they can be boring and cause the eyes-to-glaze-over response. I've written cover letters I'm sure to have caused hiring managers to want a nap after.
But you can write a fun and stellar cover letter. It will just take a bit of work.
How to write a cover letter
There are a few best practices to follow when trying to write a strong cover letter. Check out a few methods I use when both writing and assessing cover letters.
- Don't summarize your resume. Your cover letter is an opportunity to say something different about yourself. You get a small chance to grab attention in your application, and you should use every opportunity! If you repeat the content of your resume, you're doing yourself an enormous disservice.
- Include unique information. Your cover letter should talk about things outside work experience that make you especially well-suited for the job. For example, if you're applying for a job that requires organization skills, talk about how you track your finances in a detailed, color-coded spreadsheet. We want to know how you embody traits outside of work because it says something about what you'd bring to the job. Or maybe your last boss told you that you were the best workshop facilitator she'd ever seen or relied on you as her usability testing go-to person. Maybe your co-workers called you "generative research expert" because of your skill in being able to interview anyone about anything. These stories illustrate what you bring to the job differently from your resume.
- Show, don't tell. This phrase is used all the time in storytelling, and it can help strengthen your cover letter. Try to avoid just copying and pasting the job requirements and that you have those skills. Instead, show you have those skills. For example: "I have exceptional attention to detail and communication skills. I can prioritize and break down complex projects." These sentences don't tell me anything and do not convince me that you are detail-oriented, a good communicator, and skilled at prioritization.
Instead, try, "I am fantastic when it comes to details, especially when it comes to running workshops. In a recent workshop, I coordinated between 15 schedules, created an aligned agenda, formatted the resources needed, followed-up with detailed next steps, and planned the workshop down to the minute (with a spreadsheet!). The result? A successful workshop that allowed all parties to understand the purpose and expected outcome. Also, we created three successful innovative products to test. I believe in applying this same attention to detail to tasks as big as cross-functional presentations to making sure my calendar and capacity spreadsheets are up-to-date." Big difference! This demonstration convinces me this person is, in fact, detail-oriented.
- Address any question marks. Your cover letter is your chance to provide context for any question marks that might come up for hiring managers. You can answer any questions about if you're overqualified, underqualified, all your experience being from a different field, a considerable gap in work experience, or if you were let go from a role. Use the cover letter to talk about why something occurred and how your experience will translate.
- Customize the letter. Avoid sending the same cover letter to each job you're applying for (that's why we only send cover letters to jobs we care about). You don't have to write a new letter each time, but you should do your research and write about this particular position's specifics. The hiring manager should not doubt that you wrote to them because you're excited about this company and role, not wonder if they've received the same cover letter you sent to other jobs.
- Aim for one page. Unfortunately, as hiring managers, we have limited time to look over your application. If your cover letter is over one page, you are writing too much and running the hiring manager's risk of not finishing the letter. However, if you are only writing a paragraph, you likely aren't making a compelling case for yourself. Give it about a page!
- Include small details, but don't stress. If you can find the hiring manager's name, include it. If not, don't worry. Some small things you can do are renaming the file to have the company's name and your full name, making sure you customize the letter, and always thanking the person reading for their time.
If you're unsure about what a cover letter should be like, imagine you are writing an email to a friend about why you qualify for the job. You wouldn't go too far pitching yourself or being sales-y, but you'd be conversational about your skills and why you'd be a good fit. That tone is precisely what you want for your cover letter.
To make it more concrete, I will share an example (but not a template). Just keep in mind:
- I am using my voice and style of writing, which is likely not yours. Always write in your voice and style and be you, or it will seem forced and disingenuous.
- There is no perfect cover letter for every role, but this example uses many tips from above.
- This letter works because it is customized, so copying and pasting this won't work for you. Use this example as inspiration and a demonstration of the above, rather than an exact template.
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am excited to apply for the Senior User Researcher role at your organization. My background includes extensive user research experiences, from the end-to-end research process, reporting to all levels of stakeholders, and working with a large variety of departments. I love to dive into my role to empathize with users and understand how I can support and enable product teams to make better decisions.
One of my favorite elements of my previous jobs has been pulling together the correct type and amount of qualitative and quantitative data to create a snapshot that's easy for my audience to understand. I make everything from a monthly user research newsletter to highlight significant high-level themes to very in-depth reports that focus on a particular product or team's goals. To ensure the teams are getting the insights to answer their questions, I meet with stakeholders to define the process and clarify the information they need.
To ensure we are doing the proper research for the user and the organization, I love the opportunity to flex my prioritization and strategic muscles. In my current role, part of this manifests setting the strategy for the research team. I have a $$ budget allocated per year, where I plan out the type of research we will do and how it aligns with the company's strategic direction. Also, I am part of the quarterly roadmap planning with teams. I engage with them to make sure they are dedicated 20% of the roadmap to discovery research and dedicate 20% of each sprint to fixing the most critical usability issues found in our research.
I worked through the entire end-to-end process of user research both with and without external tools for help in my previous roles. I have worked closely with account managers and customer support to recruit hard-to-reach participants. Working closely with product teams, I intake their requests and engage them throughout the process with daily research summaries, gifs of pain points, updates through our messenger software, and fun shareouts that include role-playing. I love collaborating with others and have even managed to help a sales team refine their pitch to speak to customer needs and pain points.
While the current pandemic has required many complex adjustments with remote research and collaboration, I'm excited to host successful and engaging sessions and workshops.
I look forward to speaking with you to learn more about your organization, the career opportunities it offers me, and how my skills can help The Organization succeed. Thank you for your consideration.
(name, contact info)
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.