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by Vault Careers | January 21, 2011


In a blog called "The Best Cover Letter I Ever Received," the Harvard Business Review's David Silverman offers the following nugget of advice:

"There are really only a few times to use a cover letter:

1.When you know the name of the person hiring
2.When you know something about the job requirement
3.When you've been personally referred (which might include 1 and 2)"

While he covers a key point about the job search process, and hints at the reason for it, Silverman's message is worth spelling out explicitly: most cover letters are ineffectual because job seekers don't take the time to do them properly.

Here are the chief sins of the under-cooked letter, and what you can do to overcome them:

  1. It's impersonal. In a world dominated by social media, it shouldn't be too difficult to find out the name of the person you're likely to be reporting to if you get the job. Can't find the right contact on LinkedIn? Call the company and ask someone. Give a fake name if you're worried about appearing overeager. But go the extra mile: if you find someone in a hiring position who is put off by a candidate showing initiative and determination, you've found someone you probably don't want to be working for anyway.
  2. It's vague Think you'd be a perfect fit for a job or company? So does every other candidate—and they'll be blindly stating it in their letter too. If you can't craft a compelling reason why you’re the best person for the position in a cover letter, what chance do you think you would stand in an interview?
  3. It shows your ignorance. Okay, so this is essentially an extension of the previous point, but it's an important one. Too many candidates apply blind for any position they see that has something even approaching the right job title. But if you're not taking the time to find out a little more about the job, you're just wasting whatever effort and resources you are putting into the application—not to mention the time of the person responsible for reading the cover letter.

With all of those points in mind, it's probably a good time to consider what makes a good letter. In discussing the "best cover letter" the title of his piece promises, Silverman sums the requirements perfectly:

"It’s short. It sums up the resumé as it relates to the job. It asks for the job."

"The writer of this letter took the time to think through what would be relevant to me."

"The writer isn't just showing me skills related to the job, he's showing me he'll be the kind of employee who offers up solutions—instead of just laying problems on my desk."

Take the time to go back and revisit the last few cover letters you sent out, keeping Silverman's critique in mind. If you can't honestly say that yours meet those criteria, it's time to start rethinking what you're doing—starting with your research.

Read More:
The Harvard Business Review: The Best Cover Letter I Ever Received

--Phil Stott,