5 Tips to Improve the Cover Letters You Receive

January 29, 2015

If you’re tired of receiving generic, unhelpful, lengthy cover letters, perhaps it’s time to step back and rethink what you’re asking for.

Here are five tips that can help you generate a higher caliber of cover letter – one that’s genuinely useful and will help you determine if you should bring the candidate in for an interview:

1. Spell out what you want in your job description.

Simply asking for “an accompanying cover letter” leaves the slate so blank that a candidate may end up guessing at what you’re really after. Instead, be as specific as you can in your job description about what you seek in a cover letter.  For example, do you want the candidate to address a specific set of criteria? List those questions.

2. Specify a length for the cover letter.

“Tell us in two paragraphs…” This encourages brevity in a candidate’s response, and removes the chance that candidates will deliver an unnecessary level of detail just to fill out a page.

3. Want creativity? Request it.

If you are expecting to see certain job-relevant skills come through in a cover letter, just say so. This is especially relevant in fields such as writing and communication. I came across a job description once where the hiring manager purposely peppered their listing with grammatical and spelling errors, asking candidates to return a revised version as part of their cover letter.  The position, of course, was for a copy editor.

4. Ensure candidates are paying attention.

Request in your job description that the body of a candidate’s cover letter incorporates a specific phrase or keyword that you provide, such as your company’s tagline. This way, you’ll know the candidate read your requirements thoroughly and is detail-oriented – while ensuring the cover letter is no longer generic, nor a template. This technique is often used on freelance-work websites, to separate out those jobseekers truly interested in the project from those who cut, paste and send their qualifications en masse.

5. Use cover-letter requirements to weed out less-motivated candidates.

If a candidate is turned off by your requests above – for brevity, specificity, creativity and attention to detail – they’re less likely to apply. In doing so, you’ve eliminated a candidate, up front, who’s not interested in making an effort to fulfil your needs. Voila – you have a better calibre of cover letters in your inbox already.

Now, here's a thought...

Let’s throw this out for discussion: perhaps the recruiting industry needs to say goodbye – entirely – to the cover letter.

Certainly, eliminating this requirement leaves out the step of having the candidate explain why they’re suited for your position, which the cover letter “covers."

This can be fulfilled in other ways. For example, by recruiting from a candidate’s LinkedIn profile, which should ideally include a concise headline and summary of what the candidate can deliver.

Try out the tips above and see if you generate cover letters that are more useful – and less generic. But, if you’re still finding yourself skimming over cover letters, or bypassing them altogether to get straight to the resume, perhaps it’s time to say sayonara altogether to this application component.

Job description tricks