Let it be known, I love cover letters. For applicants, they're the best way to express thoughtful excitement for a job. For recruiters like me, they're the best way to learn about the motivations and aspirations behind an application. But much to my dismay, these days, there's a common belief that cover letters are superfluous compared to the more practical resume or LinkedIn profile.
Visuals: courtesy of Chris Ancheta, Communication Designer, IDEO U, IDEO San Francisco
Practical is good. But when you are applying to your dream job, being practical is not enough. Cover letters may seem like an extra step, but for those of us on the other side, they're a way to cut through the noise. I might see 300 applicants for a single job. A cover letter helps me understand the people behind these pieces of paper, and who might really make a difference in the role.
Maybe candidates feel too much pressure to write the perfect cover letter, so they skip it. To that I say, don't let perfect be the enemy of great. And don't miss an opportunity to show a company who you are and what you bring with you.
Here are five tips to help you write a compelling, well-crafted cover letter, with excerpts from real letters that helped IDEOers get in the door.
1. Explain why this position makes sense for you now in your career
If you're shifting industries, or looking for a role with more responsibilities, your qualifications might not be obvious based on a resume or LinkedIn profile. Remember, this isn't about selling yourself; this is about sharing yourself.
Here's a good example:
I am interested in the recruiting coordinator role because I believe that I have the best skillset and mindset to navigate the different elements of this position, and I am very interested in growing in a career in HR.
My experience in office coordination and operations management has taught me that my workplace passion is in people operations and support. My favorite phrase to dish out is, "Don't worry about it, I got you." My goal always is to set people — employees, visitors, friends, strangers — up for success. Whether that means labeling which drawer has paper clips and which has paper towels, or directing questions to people who have the answers, or ensuring that new hires have all they need and more waiting for them on their first day. I strive to be a bridge between teams to help members get what they need to get the job done well, and I am passionate about finding ways in which we can improve that entire interaction. I geek out over creating, improving, and discussing process and ways we can make interactions more human.
Enter a caption (optional)
2. This is an introduction, not a manifesto
Aim for two paragraphs (if you end up with one or three it's okay). There is no rule that says cover letters need to be lengthy to lend insight into your background and your interest in the role. On the flip side, the two sentences that state the obvious—you're applying to such-and-such company and that you hope for an interview—aren't really cover letters. If this is your go-to move, ask yourself why you're applying to that role and if you are really interested in it or qualified for it? Because those are the same exact questions the recruiter is asking.
Here's a pithy explanation of who a candidate is, and what she wants out of a career:
I'm half Scottish, half Chinese and have lived and worked across seven cities in three continents in the past 10 years. I have the unique ability to imagine the world from multiple perspectives. I'm a leader, a dot connector, and a storyteller. I've been looking for an opportunity that combines my unique interests in design research and education, and would look forward to hearing more about the team and projects and share how I can contribute.
3. Show some personality in your writing
Try to strike the right balance between being sincere and being authentic. A sincere cover letter gets the reaction, "Wow, they really mean everything they say." An authentic cover letter gets the reaction, "Wow, they didn't hold anything back." Cover letters can have a blend of both—just remember that this is a first impression. When in doubt, stick with sincerity.
Here's how one successful applicant explained his background, and his values:
So as I sit here in the airport terminal waiting to board, I wonder about the question of my own destination. After honing my expertise in insight-led branding, I want to bring it to a greater range of projects for a company that would allow me to make a positive difference in the world. I feel like my experience with junior designers, my advocacy for design as language, and my commitment to collaboration would help me to be an asset for a brand that shares these goals. After all, that's what all of us are looking for, to invest our time in brands with which we share the same values.
Enter a caption (optional)
4. Keep it focused
Sharing a portfolio or summary of past work is not the same as a cover letter. If you want to get visual with images, graphics, charts, and artwork that's great, just make sure it is in service of communicating why this role, and why you.
This is the entirety of one successful cover letter:
I'm a scientist, a writer, an educator, an artist, and an avid autodidact. What makes me an effective educator is that I have a genuine and self-motivated thirst for learning and for sharing that information with others. My experiences create a design process that is equally as analytical as creative, as researched as inspired, and as concise as expressive. On my nightstand right now, I have The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, The Economist, and US! Weekly. It's a mixed bag, but it's the best way I can show you that very few things escape the reach of my curiosity. Welcome to my brain:
This image complemented the message of the above cover letter.
5. Address it to the correct company
Yes, this sounds basic, but—believe it or not—this mistake happens all the time. It's perfectly normal to have a cover letter template you enjoy using—just make sure to tailor your cover letter to the role and organization. And always proofread. (For the companies and roles you're most excited about, have two other people proofread.)
Here's how one applicant showed us—in an opening sentence—that they knew a lot about IDEO and the work we do. (Creative Confidence is a book written by David and Tom Kelley, partners at IDEO).
Dear IDEO hiring team,
I put down Creative Confidence on a cold, March Toronto day with a profoundly different perspective on what it means to do meaningful work.
These are all important points to fold into your cover letter, but remember, what matters most is that you show a little personality. After all, we want to hire you, not your resume.