Four Tips to Writing Cover Letters That Work

 Mangers Corner - Masthead  

“Manager’s Corner” is an occasional feature column on issues of leadership and personnel management, written by NASFAA President Justin Draeger. 

Given the hundreds - maybe thousands - of cover letters and resumes I’ve reviewed at NASFAA over the last five years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most applicants need a little help in producing the cover letter that’s going to get them to the next level. I’ve seen individuals put an enormous amount of energy into a resume, but then quickly throw together a cover letter. Used correctly, cover letters can easily be a gateway to your next dream job. Here’s four steps to better using the cover letter. 

1. Don’t Write to Get the Job: I can’t think of a single time that I’ve hired anyone - from a department head to the person who mows my lawn - when I didn’t interview them first. The goal of a cover letter (and resume for that matter) is not to land a job, but rather to have the hiring manager (or the HR gatekeeper) take you from the “applicant pile” and put you in the “moving forward” pile. Your main objective is to demonstrate as clearly and concisely as possible how you meet the requirements of the position for which you’re applying. 

2. More Bullets, Less Text on the Cover Page: Make the gatekeeper’s job as easy as possible by clearly detailing with bullets how you meet the minimum requirements of the job. One of my favorite tactics (and one that I rarely see) is someone who actually creates two columns indicating the organization’s requirements in one column and their qualifications in the next. For example, the first column should list the requirements spelled out in the job description (this need not be exhaustive; try to pick out the top four to six). The second column then lists how you meet those requirements.

This approach immediately tells me two things: (1) whether you understand what we’re looking for in the position and (2) whether you meet those minimum requirements. If the hiring manager’s interest is piqued, he or she will dig deeper into your resume. One other point worth mentioning: most managers are looking for someone who can distill complex issues into salient points. Now I recognize that not every topic can be distilled into simple bullets (I do work in financial aid!), but failure to do so on a cover letter is a pretty good indicator that you’re not going to be able to do it in other areas of your work. If you’re wondering whether you have too much text, you probably do. 

3. Your Language Should Match the Company Culture: A few years ago I received a cover letter that started out as outlandishly silly, telling me why I shouldn’t hire him. It was a cute introduction and it broke up the monotony of my afternoon swim into a pool of otherwise text-heavy applications, but the antics continued through the rest of the letter. If he was applying for an ad agency, I imagine he might have landed an interview. But this is a pretty conservative (business-wise) culture and while some risk is okay, too much over-the-top proclamations, exclamation points, and nontraditional rhetoric adds up to too many strikes. He didn’t make it to the interview stage. 

4. Feel Free to Acknowledge Blatant Weaknesses in the Cover Letter… Briefly: If the job calls for 10 years worth of experience, and you have eight, I wouldn’t sweat it. But if you only have five years, it’s likely going to count against you. In instances where you meet most of the position requirements or you come up just shy of a few requirements, it’s probably not worth mentioning; your limited verbiage should instead focus on your strengths.  But in instances where it is blatantly obvious that you’re coming up short in a major requirement of the position, I think it’s worth making that known in the cover note very briefly and providing evidence why that shouldn’t count against you. 

Continuing with our experience example, you might write: “While the position calls for 10 years worth of experience, my resume shows that I’ve been given opportunities (and capitalized on those opportunities) not normally afforded to others with my tenure.” 

Cover letters are often your first chance to make an impression. Making sure your cover letter represents you - while still giving the hiring manager the information he or she needs to move you to the next level is time very well spent.


Publication Date: 2/27/2014

Jacqueline D | 4/7/2014 10:43:34 AM

The two columns idea- BRILLIANT! Great tip!

Bruce D | 2/27/2014 8:1:00 PM

And then there are the 20 page upper administration and faculty letters and resumes...

Maria B | 2/27/2014 4:24:55 PM

I am in wholehearted agreement with everything here except the bullets. While the cover letter should be concise, I look for the qualifications matching the position requirements to be reflected in the resume (where I get plenty of bullets). It doesn't take that much effort to tweak a well done resume to reflect what the company is looking for. I see the cover letter as a bridge between the resume and the interview, a way for the applicant to share their particular strengths and talents that set them apart from other applicants that are difficult to convey via bullets in a resume. When an applicant can effectively and directly communicate what make them a true asset, they're at the top of my pile.

Eileen B | 2/27/2014 2:3:27 PM

Great advice. Looking forward to future installments of this column!

Tim D | 2/27/2014 11:10:23 AM

Great article, thanks for sharing! I have done my share of hiring in the past and this is spot on. Too many applicants get way too "wordy" on resumes and cover letters. I always hated seeing a resume that was more than one page when it was for an entry level position.

Janet N | 2/27/2014 11:3:07 AM

Thanks for the insight and recommendations. This is great information, especially knowing that you have been the gatekeeper and have reviewed so many cover letters and resumes. I will pass this on to my son-in-law who is in the application process for a new job. Thanks again Justin!

You must be logged in to comment on this page.

Comments Disclaimer: NASFAA welcomes and encourages readers to comment and engage in respectful conversation about the content posted here. We value thoughtful, polite, and concise comments that reflect a variety of views. Comments are not moderated by NASFAA but are reviewed periodically by staff. Users should not expect real-time responses from NASFAA. To learn more, please view NASFAA’s complete Comments Policy.
View Desktop Version