If you’ve ever applied for a job before, you’ve likely written a general cover letter — and it probably wasn’t a pleasant experience.
I hear from job seekers all the time who tell me that trying to sum up their relevant qualifications and skills into a few brief paragraphs feels tedious and overwhelming. Most of them have seen advice from online job boards about making a good first impression and how everything has to be exactly perfect.
Paired with the (often) unrealistic requirements that go into an application in the first place, aiming for perfect when crafting a cover letter only adds to the pressure.
So, today, we’re going to tackle cover letters in a more practical sense. We’re going to talk about the realities around cover letters, how to write them quickly, and why spending too much time on them is a waste.
Before we do that, you might be asking yourself why you should listen to me, a freelance writer who runs his own business.
- I did a fair amount of hiring during my time in the corporate world. I’ve seen thousands of résumés and cover letters.
- These days, I submit a lot of letters of introduction and cover letters to acquaint myself with new clients. A powerful cover letter is one major component in my introduction process.
- I regularly write cover letters for individuals at all skill levels who are currently seeking to switch roles, change jobs, or elevate their careers.
All that to say: I’m pretty familiar with both sides of the process. Now, with that out of the way, here’s what you need to know about writing your next cover letter:
1. People don’t read. They skim.
The most important thing to understand about the recruiters and hiring managers is, like most people, they don’t like to read. On the day they look at your résumé, they’ll have about a thousand other things that they need to get done.
Why do I point that out?
Because knowing your audience is the first step toward excellent communication skills! Understanding the headspace that your potential employer will be in when they review your application materials can give you some great insight into how you should create your application letter.
When writing your cover letter, keep this in mind. Do everything you can to make keep your application straightforward and simple. Use any of the following formatting techniques to move the reader through the content:
- Bullet points — Use these to highlight your valuable skills.
- Brief paragraphs — Big blocks of text scare people.
- A concise overview — A high-level summary of your candidacy.
Here are the facts: most companies receive anywhere between 28 and 34 applications per open position. Of those, they only interview between 11 and 14 percent of applications, and the process usually takes between 35 and 41 days, according to Jobvite’s 2019 Recruiting Benchmark Report.
But that actually brings me to the next big point:
2. Your most valuable asset is time.
This is a hard truth that most job seekers don’t want to hear: There’s only one job, and there are usually a lot of candidates.
If you’re actively applying for jobs, I’m not saying you won’t be interviewed or hired. But it’s never a great idea to hang your success on a single job application. Chances of success are inherently slim, and may even be nonexistent despite your relevant accomplishments and qualifications — because nepotism and network connections could be at play behind the scenes.
This all equates to one thing: Your most valuable asset is time.
Sure, you need a cover letter that does everything a cover letter should, but that doesn’t mean that you need to spend time writing out a new cover letter for every single job application. No matter what career path you choose, many job functions are similar across all lines of work, and it’s easy to provide concrete examples of work you’ve done that fits the job description. Rewriting a generic letter from scratch each time you want to apply to a position is a huge time sink.
That’s where a general cover letter comes in.
3. A general cover letter is purposefully nonspecific.
A generic or general cover letter isn’t written. It’s built as a template, which makes it easy to cycle from one job to the next with minimal changes.
Think of it as a form letter for your job application.
If that sounds super-impersonal, that’s because it is — at first. These letters are meant to be tweaked slightly before submission, but the majority of the text within the body stays the same. Here’s an example of the opening paragraph for a generic letter like this:
My name is Steve. I’m a repair technician specializing in [Item/Service] and [Item / Service]. I saw your call for a [Job Title], and I’m happy to submit my candidacy.
Pretty generic greeting, right? But here’s what this would look like after customization:
My name is Steve. I’m a repair technician specializing in home appliances and lawn equipment. I saw your call for an On-Duty Service Technician, and I’m happy to submit my candidacy.
A general cover letter like this gives job seekers a ton of flexibility. In the example above, Steve can submit to any job he’s qualified for by changing three or four words in the introductory paragraph.
If Steve also knows how to repair farming equipment, that’s great. This job might not call for it, but the next one might. With a generic letter, all you need to do is plug-and-play.
4. Be an ideal candidate, not a perfect candidate.
Despite the strive for perfection in today’s society, you don’t actually have to be perfect to get a job. Even if you were, your application letter usually isn’t the determining factor in whether or not you get hired.
There are a few exceptions. You’ll get employers who automatically reject applicants who “didn’t take the time to write a cover letter” despite the fact that 45% of job seekers don’t bother.
But you shouldn’t be in that 45%. Write a cover letter if for no other reason than it increases your opportunity to stand out from the crowd. It’s a little short term effort for a potential long term payoff somewhere down the road.
Remember while you’re writing that this entire process isn’t about perfection. It’s about being an ideal candidate. Show off your relevant experience and job-related skills. Include relevant qualifications where necessary, and get rid of any grammatical errors inside the document!
Just don’t pressure yourself into perfection. That’s a big ask and a ton of pressure, and it doesn’t serve any real purpose.
5. Optimize your general cover letter around transferable skills.
Here’s a quick tip when writing generic cover letters: Don’t optimize them around jobs or existing employment opportunities. Instead, build your cover letters around transferable skills that exist beyond the job board.
The jobs on offer today will change tomorrow, but if you build your cover letter around the skills you have, most of your application materials will stay in style for a longer period of time.
A recent CareerBuilder survey points out that 82% of hiring managers say that they view candidate experience as very or extremely important.
The experience needs to meet the criteria for the role, but trying to precision-tailor the language to every single application is unlikely to get you anywhere. Plus, you don’t have the space to write a full novel about everything you’ve ever done.
A targeted, brief description, which highlights your related skills either as bullet points or in a simple paragraph format is probably enough.
Build a Generic Cover Letter Template
Despite what you sometimes hear, most employers aren’t expecting you to know every single thing about how to do their job when you sign on. In fact, 86% of new graduates expect their employer to provide formal training when they sign on.
résumés and cover letters are there to show managers that you’ve got the relevant qualifications and experience for the role and that you’ve got a foundation that the team can work with to achieve good results.
That’s why generic cover letters are so valuable. They’re effective time savers, regardless of whether you’re applying to multiple positions or whether you’re using a different résumé for each job (something you actually should do in many cases).
Here’s a link to a generic cover letter template that you can use. Pay close attention to how the content is organized and read the instructions carefully before you use it.
Be sure to include all relevant contact information (address, zip code, phone number, etc.) where applicable, but you can leave most of that out of the letter if you’re submitting electronically.
As always, if you need help with a specialized cover letter or if you’re looking to build a stronger résumé, please don’t hesitate to connect with me.