Skip to content

Ask the Career Coach: Tips for Writing Cover Letters That Get Ignored (Or Advice You Want to IGNORE if You Want a Job!)

May 27, 2014

Today’s blog post comes from our “Ask the Career Coach” Column by Denise Riebman (AmeriCorps ’94), Director of Career Development and Alumni Services for the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University. Denise regularly takes questions from our LinkedIn Group and responds in our “Ask the Career Coach” column.  If you have a question for the AmeriCorps Alums “Ask the Career Coach” column, you can submit it here or learn more tips on her website: .

Don’t Personalize the Letter

Forget internet searching, ignore your network and don’t contact the organization if you want to blend in with all the other applicants by not finding out the correct person to address your cover letter to for the job.  However, if you do want to stand out and despite all your efforts, still can’t find the specific name, try “Dear Hiring Manager” rather than “To Whom It May Concern.”

A good cover letter makes sure your resume isn't just tossed out into a sea of applicants

A good cover letter separates your resume from a sea of applicants

Start the Letter with “My name is”  or “I’m applying for xx that I saw on”

Your opening paragraph is your virtual handshake and a chance to grab the reader’s attention so immediately tell them why you are a great fit for this position and your interest in this field. Here are a couple of examples:

“Cultivating stakeholder relationships for sustainable community projects is what I do best! With an accomplished background that includes overseeing the building of three school playgrounds and increasing local business donations by 30%, I would bring this aptitude and passion for play spaces to the Community Engagement Coordinator position at KaBOOM!

“After learning about the Program Manager position from your Director of Development, Jane Smith, who I served with through City Year’s AmeriCorps program, I knew that I wanted to apply for this opportunity with Year Up. As Jane and I discussed last week, my passion for supporting higher education access for young adults has been a theme throughout my career, from my national service experience to currently managing a new GED initiative for Upward Bound.”

Reiterate Your Resume

80% of HR staff and hiring managers read your resume first. If your resume doesn’t grab their attention, your cover letter will NEVER be read. So, by the time they are reading your letter, the last thing you want is to repeat your resume. Instead, in the body of your letter, tell stories and highlight relevant accomplishments that augment your resume like this:

“If you are looking for someone who can not only successfully plan and lead fundraising events but handle the unexpected with calm and good humor, I am the person for your organization! After months of long hours and hard work, our annual charity dinner was set to surpass the previous year’s fundraising goals when a hurricane hit and damaged the event location. With some quick thinking, I was able to leverage new community partnerships that I had recently fostered to not only find an alternative location but also gain media attention about our predicament. As a result, our event went off without a hitch and we raised an additional $7,500 as a result of the extra publicity!”

Fail to Do Your Homework

Don't forget to research the employer

Don’t forget to research the employer

Don’t research the company, read their latest research or discover when they have been in the news if you want to appear that you are not familiar with their work. If you communicate knowledge about the employer that other applicants fail to address, you stand out in their eyes as the type of employee who would be diligent and go the extra mile:

“After reviewing your 2013 Annual Report where I read about your organization’s upcoming women’s public health initiative in Haiti, I am confident that my background in women’s reproductive health and fluency in French would be an asset for the Project Associate position.”

Use Cliché Terms

If you want to be like everyone else, use vague, overused terms like, “I’m a great team player with strong communication skills and an ability to work independently.” Or, instead, you could stand out by using specific examples to highlight these capabilities:

“Within the first three months of my AmeriCorps service, I singlehandedly streamlined our communications outreach and created a new system that increased our e-newsletter open rate by 15%. As a result of this success, the Director asked that I work with other departments on their communications processes to integrate this approach through the organization.”

Undersell Your National Service Experience

If you want to underwhelm the reader, tell them that you were JUST a volunteer who ONLY did national service for one year and don’t highlight accomplishments that illustrate your capacity to do the job you’re applying for now. However, if you’d rather make the most of your experience, tell the story about the unique demands of a national service position which often require individuals to hit the ground running while maximizing minimal resources and integrating themselves quickly into the community.

“Due to staffing shortages, during my year of national service, I served as the interim Habitat for Humanity Volunteer Manager where I not only managed over 500 volunteers but also leveraged new corporate partnerships that factored in three homes being completed earlier than scheduled.”

Oversell Your National Service Experience

Unless you have other professional experience and/or academic training in addition to your year(s) of national service, saying that you’re an expert in community organizing, a health education specialist or authority on emergency preparedness puts you on the fast track to the “naïve candidate” trash bin. Remember that if you land an interview, you need to be able to back up, with specifics, whatever is included on your resume and cover letter.

Make It All about YOU

Begin a lot of sentences start with the word “I” and make the focus on what matters to YOU if you want the organization to not see how you would add value and how your experience is aligned with this specific position’s qualifications. While you may want to build your skills in this position, they care more about how you are going to contribute to their organization.

Highlight What You Don’t Have

Highlight the skills you have, not your weaknesses

Highlight the skills you have, NOT your weaknesses

If you want them to focus on your weaknesses, write sentences like, “Although I don’t have fundraising experience…” or “While my professional background in this area is limited…” If you’d rather they notice your transferable skills, here are some approaches:

“I’m looking forward to applying my project management success within a larger program development role…”

“My talents in engaging nonprofits through social media is directly applicable to this position’s broader communications strategy…”

Write a Looooong Letter

83% of HR Professionals take one minute or less to read your cover letter! So, if you’re hoping that your letter lands in the garbage, write a cover letter that is longer than one page with lengthy, wordy paragraphs. If you want it read, be concise and focused.

Write a Super Short/Generic Letter

Nothing says, “I don’t care,” more than an impersonal letter that feels like you just quickly threw it together.

Include Mistakes

Over 75% of HR Professionals will immediately discard your letter if there are typos or grammatical errors. Enough said.




2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2014 4:25 pm

    great guidance here! thanks for sharing this

  2. May 27, 2014 10:10 pm

    Great points; thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: