Cover letters that open doors


When you’re applying for jobs, you will have only a precious few opportunities to win over hiring managers. One way to make the most of them: Introduce each of your job applications with a concise, zesty cover letter that summarizes your most relevant credentials. This strategy offers wow power because:

Most of your competitors either won’t bother to write cover letters or will hastily zip off bad ones — approaches that scream of indifference.

By taking the time and trouble to customize a cover letter to your target opening, you will help prove to hiring managers that you are among the few applicants who are single-mindedly hell-bent on landing their job. Your apparent fire in the belly will help you stand out from the indifferent pack.

Your cover letter will frame your credentials for harried hiring managers, and thereby help them quickly review the rest of your application — and speed counts to hiring managers.

Your unique, stand-out cover letter will help keep your application memorable. Additionally, as hiring managers continue to whittle down the pile of contenders, your quick-read cover letter will quickly remind them why your application deserves to make the cut.

Tips for writing first-rate cover letters include:

  • Use conversational words and short sentences. Purge stilted and pompous words, acronyms and bureaucratese.
  • The tone of your letter should be friendly, efficient and show personality, but may also vary somewhat depending on your field. For example, cover letters for social media jobs may generally be crafted more creatively than those for legal positions.
  • Open with cliché-free, energetic sentences, such as: “I would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the mission of X as an ecologist. I offer a lifelong passion for ecology that is reflected in my educational and professional credentials.”
  • Identify your current title and employer’s name early in your letter.
  • Review the demands of your target job identified in its vacancy announcement. Your cover letter should provide a “big picture” overview of your academic and professional achievements that most closely parallel those demands. Emphasize your most recent achievements over ancient ones. Save details, less relevant credentials and older credentials for your resume.
  • You may enliven your letter and emphasize your dedication to your target organization by explaining why its mission is important to you and/or by mentioning some of your particularly relevant non-professional experiences. For example, an applicant for a National Park Service (NPS) job might refer to the many national parks he has visited and his desire to help protect them — a credential that would obviously be bizarrely out of place in letters to other employers.
  • Prominently identify your veterans’ preference or any special hiring authorities you are using and/or any security clearances you may have.
  • Direct hiring managers to an online portfolio of your work, if appropriate. You may also hyperlink your resume to online work products.
  • Explain any special circumstances, such as career gaps warranting brief explanations, or your willingness to relocate for the job.
  • Identify any references you have at your target agency.
  • Limit your cover letter to one page.
  • Solicit second opinions on your application and repeatedly proofread/spellcheck it.

Most federal online applications feature a window for uploading cover letters. Alternatively, upload your letter via an upload window for “other documents,” if that is your only option. Caution: It may be impossible to remove or replace mistakenly uploaded documents without special help. So be sure to upload the correct documents.

Beware: Tailoring each application to each target job takes time. But tailored applications are much more attention-grabbing than generic applications, which usually receive about as much attention from hiring managers as your junk mail receives from you.

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Ask your career questions by email to or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.


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