Your Best Foot Forward: Writing An Effective Technical Cover Letter

Are you sure that your cover letter is doing its job?  How do you know if you’ve written an effective cover letter?  If you aren’t getting a call back on your application, your cover letter may be the problem.

How Cover Letters are Read

When I worked for my former employer, I had the opportunity to review and screen many applications.  Most of those applications were limited to simply a resume.  And, to be honest, most of those applications were garbage.  The resumes were poorly written for a variety of reasons, and most came without a cover letter.

To understand how to write an effective cover letter, you must first understand how your job application is going to be read.  In truth, job applications are rarely if ever read in their entirety.  Job applications, including resumes and cover letters, are scanned.  In large companies, the applications are digitized with text-recognition software and searched for keywords.  Without the right keywords, your name may never make it past the first line of computers to a human’s eyes.  Once in front of a real person, your information will be scanned again, and an opinion will be formed very quickly as to whether or not you may be qualified.  In some cases, I would decide that a person was no longer worth my time within 15 seconds. 

Getting Past the Initial Scan

So, how does someone get past the initial scanning?  Whether your application is scanned by a computer or a human, keywords are critical.  Be sure to include a section for keywords in the experience section of your resume.  Also, be sure to include the most important keywords in your cover letter itself.

The most important question to ask yourself when writing your cover letter is, “why would my intended audience read this longer than five or ten seconds?”  If you can’t answer that question clearly, then your cover letter stinks.

Remember that the first person to read your application may have zero experience in your field.  This could easily be a human resources worker or a recruiter that has little knowledge of the actual meaning behind the content of the job description.

Have a Purpose

Usually, a cover letter is placed with an application for a job with a published job description.  This is known as an application letter.  Other types of cover letters include the prospecting letter to inquire about possible positions and the networking letter to garner assistance in a job search.  Regardless of which type of cover letter you are writing, you must know the exact purpose for writing and focus all of your writing toward that purpose.  In this post, I am referring to the application letter specifically.  For more information about other cover letters, see the links section below.

Start With a Brief Summary

If you are experienced and the job description is specifically looking for experience, be sure that the first sentence includes the word “experienced.”  Use your most important keywords in the first few sentences.  Be sure that the very first sentence gives the reader good reason to continue reading.

Connect the Dots

In the body of the letter, connect the dots between the job description and your resume.  You have already modified your resume to fit the job description, right?  If not, do so.  Immediately.

If you set down a copy of the job description next to a copy of your resume, you should be able to draw lines from the requirements and desires in the job description to the experience, skills, and education in your resume.  First, make those connections as obvious and easy as possible directly in your resume.

However, remember that your application will be getting scanned rather than read in depth.  This is where your cover letter can shine.  The application cover letter should clearly and concisely draw the connection between the job description and your qualifications listed in your resume.  Call out specific points in the job description and then explain how you meet those qualifications. 

Do not leave anything for the reader to deduce, figure out, or otherwise determine for himself.  Assume the read has no idea who you are and that you have fifteen seconds at most to get them to listen to you.  Someone from outside your industry should be able to set your cover letter down next to the job description and determine that you have enough qualifications to make it to an interview.  If the job description requires, “experience with Java web frameworks,” then your cover letter should include those exact words.  Here’s an example:

I have experience with Java web frameworks including Struts, Tapestry and Wicket.

Leave nothing to chance here.

Follow Up

Be sure to let your audience know how they can contact you.  Request a next step.  Usually, this is a request for an interview to discuss how your qualifications fit with the position you are applying for.

Finish your cover letter indicating how and when you will follow up with your application.  This could be a call or some other form of subsequent contact.  At a minimum, be sure to make the follow up contact within the time frame you’ve listed and be certain that they have received your application.

Be sure to indicate other attachments including your resume and any references that you have provided.  The standard, “references are available upon request.” is usually adequate unless the job application specifically requires that references be submitted.

More Reading has a decent guide including sample cover letters.

Virginia Tech Career Services also seems to have a nice guide.

About Eric Anderson

Eric has 6 years experience in software development with the last 3 being in Agile shops. He is now spreading the Agile love as a Senior Consultant with Headspring Systems in Austin, TX. Eric loves to share his passion for software development, especially Test-Driven Design, with anyone that will listen. Eric is also a Hudson Continuous Integration fanboy. He recently published “Hudson Continuous Integration Server” in the May/Jun ‘09 issue of C.O.D.E. magazine to help .Net’ers get started with Hudson. Outside of software, Eric’s passions include his family (wife, son, 2 daughters), fixing things around the house, and volunteering with various local churches and organizations.
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One Response to Your Best Foot Forward: Writing An Effective Technical Cover Letter

  1. corey coogan says:

    Interesting article. I was a Developer Manager for about 5 years and had to do a fair amount of hiring. When jobs were posted and the resumes started coming in, I almost never did more than a 2 second glance at a cover letter. The same is true for a resume’s “objective” section, which is usually fluffy BS.

    I admit that very occasionally, I would be so impressed with a resume that I would scan, or maybe even read, the cover letter. But if I was that impressed with the resume, I would schedule a phone screen whether or not a cover letter existed. Same with the objective. Who reads those? “To gain a position at a responsible company that offers challenging work blah blah blah”. If I’ve read one, I’ve read them all.

    It’s my opinion that spending the time and energy to write a cover letter is a waste. In my case, I was just too busy to read them and learned early enough that I would get what I needed from the person during the phone screen. A cover letter was never the difference between a follow-up call and the circular file.

    As a job applicant, I quit writing cover letters a long time ago, and it never stopped me from getting calls on the jobs I was really interested in. This may not be the case for those with less experience, but I wonder what the percentage is of hiring managers that actually take the time to read them? Obviously you do, so I won’t make the blanket statement that “nobody reads them”, but I would venture to guess that the absence of a cover letter on an intriguing resume wouldn’t prevent you from taking the next step?


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