Writing A Good Cover Letter - Do's and Don'ts

Writing A Good Cover Letter - Do's and Don'ts

Covers Letters: From generic to personalized

By Amanda Frank
Monster Contributing Writer
Writing a great cover letter doesn’t happen by accident. Somebody takes the time to do their research, thinks of something meaningful and relevant to say in a few well-worded sentences.  Somebody conveys this quickly and clearly enough so the HR person sifting through resume clutter puts it in the ‘call back’ pile.

The purpose of a cover letter is to narrate your resume in your own voice. Your resume is a dense, concise, bullet pointed document of dates and facts. It’s a dry run-through of your skills. It is unfriendly and unfeeling. Your cover letter is there to contextualize your resume for a specific job with real-world references and examples of your experience.

Do Not Breach Job Hunting Protocol

Job-hunting protocol dictates that you must not skip this step of the application process. If ever there was time and place to be acquiescent and compliant it’s now, which granted is a time-consuming pain in the neck.

A lot of the time there’s no way around it. Many companies make you jump through hoops forcing you through a long online application process to be allowed a place in their hallowed database. You’re asked to upload two documents, cover letter and resume. It’s rather conspicuous if you don’t include the cover letter. Sometimes you’re asked to fill in mandatory text boxes that would contain most of the reasoning you would give in a cover letter to justify your qualifications for the position.
If you don’t go through the bother, you’re sending a message. You’re setting the bar low, alerting them to expect the least from you. You beg them to question on what merit should they select you over someone willing to go the extra (required) length and write a cover letter. They’re much more likely to ignore your submission.

Personalized vs. Generic Cover Letter

Or more accurately, the art of personalizing a generic cover letter. Once you write a master copy of the generic sections of your letter, you won’t need to redraft those paragraphs. The personalization becomes an exercise in editing each time. Much less daunting. Much more effective than the generic faux pas, which I’ve been guilty of committing myself when I canvassed for donations for this year’s Ride to Conquer Cancer. My lesson in getting what you want via email communications, such as cover letters, translates well.
In my first round of canvassing for donations to the Ride to Conquer Cancer I sent out a generic bulk email. I wrote one ultra generic message and sent it to a large mailing list in BCC, which is much lazier than sending a hundred emails of the same generic message. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I felt justified in my half-baked approach because I didn’t want to be pushy, even if it meant my fundraising would suffer. That translates into a lack of confidence, not something you want to convey when you’re applying for a job!

Of course I caught flack from my mentor, a photographer and media guy (a generally successful business person and human being) who gives me contract work and knows this behavior is beneath me.

He responded to my mass email with: “Whom are you addressing this email to? Is this a bulk email? I am part of a bulk? Are you asking for cash to the bulk or to your "dear" friend(s)? You have to personalize those emails. It’s the least you can do when asking for contributions. A little detail that can translate into some MULA!! :)”

Luckily enough generous people on my list know me and love me anyway, including my mentor.  Job-hunting is far less forgiving. It’s a numbers game. Play more strategically and it makes sense that you’re response rate will improve. You know this and yet, you know darn well you will reuse whatever text you can get away with. Just don’t cut too many corners. Take the time and effort to make it personal. If you don’t, I’m pretty sure you won’t have a nice HR person reply to your efforts by giving you gentle corrections as I experienced.

It’ll take more than swapping out the company name to make your cover feel like you’ve put in more than just ‘some’ thought. You need to convey that although you scanned many job postings, this particular one jumped out at you because of the obvious match of your compatibility. Here are a few pointers.

Don’t make it all about you

As fascinating as you are to your mother, this venue is not about you - it’s about what you can do for the company. A much tougher audience. Become knowledgeable by reading up on the company. Consider the line items in the job description and how each one applies to examples of your real world experience. And namedrop if you’re applying with an internal company reference.

Research your recipient. Instead of sending it to Whom it may Concern, use a business tool such as LinkedIn to figure out the name of the HR person or hiring manager.

Cover Letter Format: Keep it one page

Don’t be superfluous with your words. Write like you appreciate the volume of cover letters and resumes the average recruiter reads on a given day. Don’t exceed one page of text. If you’re worried about your writing skills read up some principles and try to apply them.

Cover Letter Presentation

Stick with a standard business letter format even if you’re sending your cover letter in the body of an email. The medium is incidental. Same like if you had a job interview scheduled on a Friday, you wouldn’t skip the suit and show up in Casual Friday jeans. Absurd!


Don’t make sloppy spelling mistakes. It’s the one thing your prospective employer won’t forgive. I’m sure you agree it’s a huge waste of time to go through the trouble of crafting a worthy letter only to read it back too little too late (after you hit send) and find a stupid typo. Sometimes it’s tough to catch your own mistakes after you’ve been staring at the same text for a while. Try to enlist the help of a fresh pair of eyes for proofreading.

For more on cover letters, have a look at Monster.ca’s cover letter examples.