The Mentorist

You Have 30 Seconds to Catch That Fish: Writing Good Cover Letters


The 30-something lawyer sitting across from me in Starbucks wanted a new job. Let me revise that to read “…really, really wanted….”

Asking for my critique, he proudly handed over a copy of his resume. All well and good.

But when I offered to review a copy of his accompanying cover letter, he looked back blankly: A career adviser had once told him that cover letters should be limited to two or three terse and neutral sentences – just enough to explain that the sender’s resume was attached. According to this adviser, a cover letter can never enhance your chances of being hired; rather, it can only hurt them.

I’ve not heard of a career adviser being sued for malpractice, but this person would make a terrific test case.

Cover letters can make or break your chances of getting a job interview. Think of them as the equivalent of walking onto the Apollo Theater’s stage on Amateur Night: If your cover letter doesn’t pique the reader’s interest in the first 30 seconds, “The Executioner” is going to sweep it — and your resume — into the trash bin.

I should know. Over the course of my career, I’ve hired hundreds of people –- and seen thousands of resumes. In a perfect world, I would have found a quiet place and devoted my full attention to reviewing each resume. But that’s not reality: Resumes hit desks as conference calls are starting, e-mails are flooding in and three people are lined up outside the office door.

In other words, your resume has about 30 seconds to sell me on you. The best way to do that is by attaching it to a cover letter that convinces me you might be just the person to help solve my company’s problems.

To write cover letters that will move your resume from the slush pile to the interview room, do the following:

1. Address your cover letter to a specific person

If the job specification doesn’t include the name of a person you should send your resume to, do some sleuthing. Look on the company’s website and LinkedIn for the name of the person who heads the department you’re applying to. (If it’s the company’s legal department, find out the general counsel’s name and address your letter to him.) Also send a copy of your letter (addressed specifically) to the person who heads the company’s human resources or hiring department.

2. Include a subject (“Re:”) line that names the position you’re applying for

Make it clear in your letter’s heading that you’re applying for a specific job Don’t make the reader spend any of your 30 seconds wondering why you wrote to him.

3. Err on the side of formality

Unless you have already met the person you’re writing to and are on a first-name basis, use “Mr. “ or “Ms.” in your letter’s salutation The U.S. has become an extremely informal culture, but don’t assume you can address your reader by first name. If you do, you risk coming across as impudent.

4. Write a first paragraph that convinces the reader you’re part of the solution

If you only take away one piece of advice from this blog post, it should be this: Your cover letter should not focus solely on your glorious past.  Rather, it needs to focus on convincing your reader of two things:

  • You understand the problem (or need) he has; and
  • You are the right person to fix that problem (or fill that need).

So, how do you figure out what that problem (or need) is?

  • Pay careful attention to what the job spec tells you about the value the company expects from this position; and

5. Spend the rest of the letter proving your point

Reading resumes is a drag.  Why?  They’re typically organized chronologically and don’t tidily synthesize all of the experience a person has had handling a certain type of work over the life of his career.

Use your cover letter to do some of that.  Look at the company’s job spec. Pick out a few of the most important types of experience the company is looking for.  Then “spoon feed” the reader a capsule summary of the experience you’ve had that fits each of those particular criteria.  In other words, spend the main body of your letter giving the reader “proof points” to convince him that you, indeed, are the right person for the job.

6. Make your cover letter visually pleasing – and reasonably short

Read ThisDon’t send a cover letter that’s a “sea of gray” type.  Include plenty of white space (in the margins, as spacing between paragraphs, etc).  To further increase the visual appeal of your letter – and make it look well organized — consider listing your “proof points” using bullets and topical side headings.

This “visual organizing” may make your letter longer than one page.  That’s okay, but stop at a page and a half.   Otherwise, the letter will become as daunting to read as your resume.

7. Close on an upbeat and confident note

Close by telling the reader you believe your background will allow you to make a valuable contribution to his company and that you look forward to an  opportunity to discuss the position further with him.

If your personal contact information (phone and e-mail) is not part of your cover letter’s letterhead, include it in this final paragraph.  (Don’t require the reader to flip to your resume for this.)

And, next, there’s your resume to polish.  Watch for a future blog post on this….


Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

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