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Ask HN: Writing cover letters for tech jobs
265 points by scabarott 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 123 comments
I really hate writing cover letters as I never know what to write or if anyone is even going to read them. I see a lot of sites offering advice on how to write generic cover letters, but most all of them don’t seem appropriate (at least to me) for tech jobs - more for formal sales, business jobs. I'm interested to know what HN’ers with experience on either or both sides have to say by way of advice - What do you usually write/expect, is it even really a requirement?. Do you attach a separate document or just write an informal email. What tone do you take - formal, familiar. Do you summarize your skills experience or just include a link to Github etc.



Cover letters might get lost in the HR departments of larger companies, but they're incredibly useful to me when sorting through applications at a small company.

Especially for entry level positions, a well-written cover letter is a much stronger positive signal than a bullet point style resume. Far too often the resume is a regurgitation of university class projects and career center templates.

Think of it like a pre-interview, but you get to choose the questions. Since most entry-level resumes look the same, this is your chance to explain why you stand out. (a passion for the industry, strong open-source contributions, etc)

If the position isn't entry level, my advice is the same. Use the opportunity to stand out and score the interview ( which is where the actual decisions will get made). At a small company, someone will read it.


I find it funny that we have completely reversed methodologies on hiring. If someone gave me a resume with bullet point skills as the first thing on the resume, I would be impressed. Though you can't have too much or too little of any of these elements.

That is interesting. We are seeking the best way to do something, but we are forgetting that people, the interviewers are all different, looking for arbitrarily (but defendable) different things..

Far as new grads. When I got my first job, I did list my class projects, but I focused more on the internships I had had (3 by that point), as well as my freelancing, and the work with open source 3d printers. If a new grad only has projects that would be a red flag.


I like the compromise. A clear definition of background + what they want out of a new role. If they are specifically targeting my company, I want to know that and why ("In a prior role I was a financial analyst. I then went to college to study computer science" will get a very different level of interest for specific roles from me than "I went to college and studied computer science").


These are my feelings exactly. I run a small, all-remote web company with six developers. When I'm hiring, I'm looking at least 80% at cover letter, 20% at resume. And even that 20 is mostly just to make sure they have the basic competence to put together a resume, and to check experience and education to get an idea of salary range. Most of the decision to interview is based on cover letter and the answer to our fizzbuzz-style application question. (And then all of the decision on whether to hire is based on a series of realistic coding assignments, designed to mimic the kind of work that would be done on the job, each graded against a defined rubric.)

Regarding cover letter advice, the main thing I would suggest is to try and demonstrate that you're aware of what the company does, and specifically interested in that position. Cover letters where you've just copy/pasted the name of the company and the position, then inserted a few relevant points, are painfully easy to spot. Far more effective is a letter that is really focused around your fit for that specific position. And, at least for me, it's a plus if you also clearly acknowledge anything that would be considered a weakness (lack of specific experience for instance,) and then make the case for why you would be a good choice regardless. Once again, this demonstrates you've thought about the company's specific needs and how you will address them.

Finally, be aware of who you're writing to. If possible, try to get a sense of the company culture before writing the letter, and tailor your style to fit. If you know the company you're applying to is small and/or relatively informal (and possibly even regardless), you can stand out from all the generic letters by allowing a bit of personality to come through.


Granted I just talked down cover letters in a sibling post but I completely agree with your second paragraph. When I apply I do create a cover letter but that letter is completely bespoke and totally oriented at that specific position. If I don't know enough about the company or position to do this, that's a sign that I shouldn't be applying in the first place.


I agree. I want the resume to be bullet lists but the cover letter to explain why they are a match.

I also see it as a filter on effort. If the applicant doesn’t care enough to make sure I know why they are a good fit, do they really care about the job?

In my experience, only checking off checkboxes rarely leads to the correct match.


I review a lot of resumes and I see very few cover letters. Early on when I'd get one it'd get me excited and I'd make sure to read it. Then I realized that 99% of the few cover letters I received were so paint by numbers that it just wasn't worth my time. So now I don't read them. I understand that there's some tiny fraction of applications with a genuine, heartfelt, quality cover letter that I'm missing, but that's such a small number I'm ok with it.


When I spot a resume I like, I then read/look for the cover letter. I imagine you do the same. So there is probably some value in writing a decent cover letter at the very least.


Resume writer here that also writes cover letters for clients, converted to writing after 20 years in tech recruiting. Almost any time that a client asks for a cover letter, my response is "Here it is, and I hope you never have to use it".

If you're using a cover letter to apply for a job, it means you have no human inside the company that is advocating on your behalf. Your friend wouldn't ask you for a cover letter (in most cases) if he/she was going to refer you internally. So when you are required to use a cover letter, it usually means you're applying to a job 100% 'cold' as an outsider.

Unfortunately that may be the case sometimes. If a cover letter is required, there are a few key elements

1 - prove to the reader that you actually paid a bit of attention to the job requirement. I spent 20 years in recruiting, and generic cover letters that clearly weren't written for me ("Dear Esteemed Employer") never got my attention. I want to know what interested you in this opportunity, or briefly what you know about the company (could be lots of things).

2 - Talk a bit about what you're interested in from a work perspective. What kind of work do you want to be doing (and hopefully that is the work we're offering).

3 - Maybe check off a few boxes from the job spec. If they require a degree and n years with Python, a few sentences to check off those boxes will make it easy for the reader (often a recruiter or admin with little experience and limited knowledge of the domain) to say yes to you as a candidate.

Semi-formal tone. You can link to GitHub, but usually I link GitHub and LinkedIn on a resume.


>Almost any time that a client asks for a cover letter, my response is "Here it is, and I hope you never have to use it".

That seems kind of absolute. If I were applying to, say, an auto manufacturer, the cover letter might be the obvious place to state why I'm interested in working there. And why I'm a good choice. Like, "I've always been a car nut. I even wrote an open source library to access CAN bus data here: http://whatever "

Basically to say that a personalized, per-company, cover letter might have significant value. A generic one, perhaps not.


If you're going to throw in links, I would do them as footnotes.

... I even wrote an open source library to access CAN bus data [1]...

Thank you, Name

[1] http://whatever


I wouldn't. A pain on stream of consciousness.


Well that assumes someone reads it. Unfortunately that seems pretty unlikely. I used to personalize stuff like that but I got worse results than when I just used a cookie-cutter template and mass fired. Anecdotal of course


Were they proportionally worse? As in, did you have a higher success ratio or more successful responses in total because you were able to send out a higher amount of applications?


> applying to a job 100% 'cold' as an outsider.

I really wish that weren't such a problem.

It's difficult for many of us to get a foot in the door, and that is exasperated by the one-size-fits-all solutions that everyone seems to point to, that really aren't the best fit for many of us.


I almost never need to write my own cover letter. The closest I get to a cover letter is if I have an opportunity to send an email to a company I like, and I know the email will go to someone not in HR. If I have no choice but to interact with HR, either I'll see it as a red flag and won't bother applying or I'll apply with no cover letter. Yes, this does mean I won't get interviews at most companies.

Writing cover letters that go to HR is like writing a custom message for every attractive person on a dating site. Everyone says that's what they want, but your extra effort will go unappreciated 95% of the time while the goofball who just sent "sup?" actually got some dates. When it comes to searching for a job, best to not waste cumulative hours of your life writing material that won't be appreciated.


> When it comes to searching for a job, best to not waste cumulative hours of your life writing material that won't be appreciated.

Cover letters aside, this includes take home assignments in particular.


We recently tried a take home assignment between the phone interview and in person interview for our latest round of interns.

We judged the take home to be less than 1 hour and removed the “white boarding code” portion of the in person. The goal was to remove the nervous factor when whiteboarding code and allowing candidates to write code in a format, language, ide that they are comfortable in. We then discussed their code during the interview.

We think this lead to shorter in person interview durations and a less stressful experience for the candidates.

We’re going to try this for a few cycles of internships and see what happens.

I agree though about take home work before the first interviews.


Having had to go through public interview processes (i.e. not being approached by the company or referred) recently for the first time in a while I can't agree more. Take home assignments are fine _after_ an interview. Companies that send you a take home assignment before they want to talk to you are a waste of time and quite frankly, it's rude and shows a lack of respect. The ultimate insult being not getting back to you even though you scored the maximum on their silly CS undergrad tests.


> The ultimate insult being not getting back to you even though you scored the maximum on their silly CS undergrad tests.

The score is always too low and there are always some tests failing. Just submit the tasks blank or with dummy code. This way they waste time and money for the license - that's the only thing one can do in defence.


I find it more insulting when the rejection letter is poorly written and fill of grammar and spelling errors.


I can somewhat agree with that sentiment. When we've interviewed for developer positions at my work, a take-home assignment is optional and requires no specific language or tools besides the web. The alternative is to demo some work you've already done personally or professionally. I think that's fair because not everyone should be expected to produce code from a previous job or have side-projects. I used to have the opposite opinion until I learned the hard way that having side projects, even for their own sake, is a drain on one's life-force.


Don't send a blank cover letter if there is one requested. Just write a single line of text to say that you are a X with N years of experience and you can help them.

Too many companies will reject applications with a blank cover letter.


I agree. If your options are to apply to 20 jobs with blank cover letters, or apply to 4 jobs with custom letters, it’s obvious which one has a better chance of working out.


Personally I have never really seen the point in writing one. My resume has all my abilities and even a bit about me. The recruiter is going to scan the resume and let the computer decide if I get the interview. That said the smarter thing you can do is copy the job posting, attach it to the end of your resume. I usually do it in micro print and white, as it's just for the machines.

Speaking as someone that has interviewed a lot of senior level engineers in the last 2 years. The fastest way to get a black mark is to hand me an 6 page resume. Frankly as a lead, with 10 resumes on my desk.. most of whom don't have the right skill set. The last thing you want to do is make me hunt to see if you can do the job. Cover letters in the rare case I got them, I didn't read at all. If your resume interests me I'll look at your linkedin.

That said, I am a senior / lead android dev. So I don't exactly hurt on the job front.. I have noticed the smaller the company the more they want you to know about them. Especially start ups (the more obscure and small the higher the expectation)


> That said the smarter thing you can do is copy the job posting, attach it to the end of your resume. I usually do it in micro print and white, as it's just for the machines.

That's an interesting hack. And I suppose if I discovered an applicant was trying to game the system in this way, my distaste would be outweighed by my admiration.


This sounds like a brilliant idea, but if any recruiter ever found the text, it might be a red flag for the employer. Have you ever had it come up in an interview process?


Can you not manage time sufficiently to spend 2 minutes reading a 6 page resume and hopefully spending a good 15+ minutes thinking about what u just read?


  minutes = 20; // 2 + 15+
  n = resumes.size(); // 6
  Time t = contemplateResume(minutes, n);

  // If you manage time sufficiently,
  // you'll not be spending that much time looking at only the first indication of a candidate's fit for a role


Spend more time on your people then. They're your exponentials.


I repeat parts of their job description and explain why I fulfill it.

Example: Job ad says "we look for a proactive and self-reliant person" then my cover letter says "to successfully finish my PhD, being proactive and self-reliant was important". This technique works even better for the technical parts.

I'm not sure if it was worth the effort. In the german job market, employers are quite desperate these days. A friend sent out simple template letters and got interviews just as easily.

I always sent a PDF. If sent by email, I duplicated the cover letter in the email. My experience is that many had a print out at the interview and PDF works best to ensure a good print.


I second this approach.

Many job ads will have a bulleted list of what they are looking for and responsibilities. Just copy-paste that list and then re-write the bullet points in a way that shows how you have that skill. EXP:

- Candidate must have 5 years experience with FooBar

- Candidate must have good knowledge of ZooCar

Turns into:

- Via my 5 years at class/volunteering/job at McEnroeCorp I used FooBar and made FooBarApp with it.

- I have used ZooCar for class/job/side-project and got-a-B/made-$$$-for-company/went-to-FGH-conference

Just go down the list and put in whatever you can.

ProTip for 'shyer' people: Don't worry if you only have 3 years and they need 5, apply anyway. Also, if you only have ~40% of the listed requirements, apply anyway. Hell, if you think the logo is kinda cool and you have an inkling that you can code and fog a mirro, apply anyway.


I completely agree about applying even if you don't match all of their criteria. A lot of these job postings are a wishlist for candidates and you have no idea what the pool of actual applications look like.


I used to paste the job posting into a text editor, splitting it up into bullet-points if needed. Then -- I know you think I'm gonna say I'd paste stuff from there into the cover letter, but no -- I'd keep the window up while working on the cover letter in another window. And I'd make sure to address all those bullet-points if possible, or as many as I could. Imagining myself reading it, if I found myself wanting to shout "BULLSHIT!" at something, I'd take that part out or rework it.

If my letter didn't succeed in addressing at least 3/4 of the bullet-points in the text file, I would scrap the application.


Sounds a good idea for an app lol, you fill out a little section for each skill, feed it job listings and it spits back out your sentences that match the buzzwords of the day that HR drones are looking for. It could even sort to present the sentences in order matching their appearance in the job ad and maybe intermix some non buzzword specific sentences to make it seem more real.


Great point on attaching an emailed cover letter as a PDF. Never thought about that, thanks!


Don't write one. I quit using them after in interview where the HR didn't bother to provide it to the interviewer who complained about how sparse my resume was. It was on purpose because the letter had much more background content. I've also never received a cover letter for candidates I've interviewed.

You have zero control over the distribution of two separate documents. ATS systems are geared toward something they can run keyword matches on and the extra fluff of a cover letter gets cast aside if they are even supported at all. Just work the meat of the cover letter into your resume and let that stand on its own.

Of course, outside of tech, where soft skills may need to be displayed a cover letter has more merit.


Generally I think the importance of a cover letter correlates inversely with log(company headcount). At a couple of places, I have had people remark positively regarding my cover letter. In those cases I was particularly able to show good technical fit and experience with the product space. But the biggest company where that has happened had 200 employees.


Always write a cover letter from scratch. It's better to invest time in five most relevant positions and apply with a complementing cover letter (and resume), than to apply for fifty positions without any background research (AKA generic cover letter/resume.)

If you are applying online to a big tech company, it almost always goes into an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). The ATS scans your resume and cover letter for keywords, and matches it with the keywords in the job description or specific keywords as asked my the hiring manager. (You can get through ATS just by copy-pasting the job description in your cover letter. Don't do it). Once you pass through the ATS filter, the recruiter don't seem to care much about the content of your cover letter, but it makes a huge difference when it goes to the hiring manager.

Apart from convincing why you are a perfect fit for the role, share interesting stuff about you like a link to your website (highly recommend this for new grads in tech roles), github profile, previous internship experiences and what excites you about this role.

PS - The most effective way to get a call is to network.(and avoid the whole ATS blackhole).


+10 on the networking. Use LinkedIn, leverage any/all connections. Reach out to people, let them know you are looking.

+1 on the ATS. They are a waste of your time, generally. If you see an interesting position, try to find an "in" to the company via your network, 1st or 2nd order. See if you can reach the hiring manager directly. HR/ATS get in the way of that. They are supposed to be a service, but as often as not, they are a bottleneck of dubious value. Think of this as engineering your way around the bottlenecks.

+1 on writing a personalized cover letter for each application (e.g. resume submission). I spent quite a bit of time reading/listening to what people thought were good cover letters. What it comes down to is, be real, be yourself. Explain what excites you and how this position does this.

After I did all of this, I found myself a) applying to fewer positions (this was early this year), and b) getting a far higher response rate (60+%). This culminated in multiple interesting offers.

YMMV, but good cover letters help you stand out. Show you are a human being that they want on their team.


Didn't even think of the ATS angle. Yikes, so if a cover letter doesn't have enough related keywords it might not even make it past machine filters? That makes me even more anxious - most postings, actually virtually every posting I see, the overlap btw required skills posted and my skills is rarely more than 50% or 60%.


Sucks for dyslexics even high performing dyslexics like myself find writing cover letters hard and I would only do that for some very specific and life changing jobs - some run of the mill startup not so much.


If they require a cover letter then that is because they want you to think of them in the former category...

That said I've found cover letters to be pretty much a waste of my time so far.


As a hiring manager I appreciate a cover letter that suggests you have read the job description, a bit about the company, and thought a bit about what skills you bring to the table. So for managers like me, getting one gives the candidate a slight edge over those who don't write cover letters.

That said, just like boiler plate recruiter emails that try to interest me in a job that I'm clearly not going to be interested in based on where I am in my career, a cover letter that is clearly just boiler plate can be a slight negative.

Bottom line, bad cover letter (-1), no cover letter (0), good cover letter (+1) in terms of impact. Regret minimization says you are always safe not sending one, but min/maxers would have you tailor it to the job to give you that extra edge :-).


Imagine you were a character in a video game. Why would I want to pick you? What are your strengths, special moves, etc and how can that help with my playstyle? That's all I want to know as someone interviewing people. You wouldn't focus on Ryu as graduating from Kyoto Martial Arts academy, placing first in the uppercut tournament. Tell me what Ryu is good at. Tell me that you have a good hadoken that's better than other people's projectiles, and I can use you in sitautions where projectiles are useful.


I can't speak to every hiring manager, but I definitely read cover letters and value non-generic ones. (And in fact my job ad instructs you to include one. So I still look at resumes that come in without one, but it doesn't speak well to your attention to detail.)

The tone doesn't matter that much, but I would avoid the extremes of very informal or very formal. It should be the first thing that I read, so if you're applying by email it should be the body of the email.

A cover letter is an opportunity for you to tell me why you're interested in this job/company specifically and to highlight things that might not be readily apparent by reading your resume. Some of the best cover letters call out specific achievements that are relevant to the job you're applying for, or preemptively address concerns that someone reading only your resume might have. Even just including enough information to show that you did some research on the job/company before applying already puts you above most cover letters. A generic cover letter makes me wonder if you're just applying to every job ad.


I second this. A cover letter, for me, is the opportunity to write a short thing about why you’re interested in the specific position. You aren’t expected to edit your resume for each job posting, but I expect to receive a cover letter that explains why you’re interested in the job you’re applying for. People who don’t include a cover letter (or an email, or some writing of any type) about why they want the job get devalued significantly when I’m evaluating applications.

Cover letters have helped me get jobs in the past, and have led me to get interviews (and to interview people).

It doesn’t have to be long, in fact, it really shouldn’t be. But if you’re up for writing a well phrased comment on HN, you should be up for writing a well phrased explanation of why you’re a good fit for the role.


Oth. If I don't include a cover letter and you want to find out more about me you have to interview me...


This is not good idea.


Write whatever fits in with the company's hiring process. If that includes a cover letter, write a SHORT one. A traditional (formal) one might be something like:

> Dear Sir/Madam,

> My name is scabarott and I am a Something Engineer with N years of experience. As shown in my CV I my strenghs are [something impressive, don't be boring]. I think this will make me a good fit with your team and am looking forward to your reply.

> Yours Faithfully, > scabarott

Once I saw a tech company trying to be hip by saying don't send a cover letter, but then later asking for a short description of what makes you great. I thought it was silly, because that description just was the cover letter. But it was also wise because it set expectations well, and prevented people bloating out their letters.

P.S: The informal e-mail you my attach a CV to and the dead-tree cover letter are really the same thing, just tweaked sighlty for different technologies and traditions.


Last time I applied to jobs, and got calls from recruiters, I asked what stood out. It was always the resume. I asked if the cover letter helped. Response was usually "You submitted a cover letter? Let me check. Oh hey, I see you submitted one."

My advice is the opposite of another comment: Write one only if you have a "direct pass" that avoids the HR/recruiter filter. Recruiters don't seem to look at them, and HR folks usually don't know enough about the job to value them.


This is a good comment, but see my other post in this thread - at least with me, the cover letter itself gives you a "direct pass" for one of my vacancies. That's not advertised in the posting or anything, but I'm betting I'm not entirely unique in doing that.

At the very least, a cover letter can't hurt, so write one for a position you're really interested in!


I’m 18 years and 5 companies into my career. I was beginning to think I was alone here in never having written a cover letter.


I wish it were suitable to just submit a resume along with a message "Reply 'YES' for a cover letter," before I take the time to draft a nice, custom cover letter. Because too many times, applications including a nice, custom cover letter apparently do not even warrant an acknowledgement of receipt.

Honestly, it feels like a bit of a power imbalance.


My own cover letter consists of two sentences plus a little informal or formal fluff around it:

1. Who am I, short description of career so far.

2. Why I think hiring me would be good for your company. This is essentially a sales pitch, based on prior research on the company I'm applying for.

It is also what I like to see when being on the other side. It helps filtering out people that have an actual interest vs the ones that send mass mails, and also it already gives a first personal impression about a candidate.


I hire data scientists, machine learning specialists, and the like, and I definitely value cover letters. Hiring is an intrinsically noisy process, and any additional information I can get helps me make better decisions.

I don't particularly care about tone, though. I'm looking to see if the applicants can string thoughts together, and if they understand what sort of position they're applying for.


As a hiring manager, I always like to see at least a few short sentences. At a minimum you should share a point or two of why you are a good fit for the role. It doesn't need to be overly formal and could just be along the lines of:

"Hello, I noticed that you have a position open using [tech]. I am very familiar with [tech] and have been using it for [x] years. I saw on your website that your company is building a solution to [business model], [show your interest in business model]."

A longer letter is OK, but I don't really value a generic long-form letter any more than a short note showing you are paying attention and have real interest in a role at the company.


I would write one and keep it short. Nobody wants to read a huge block of text. For startups, I've always kept it informal and sent it as an email.

  Hi Team,

  I'm a software engineer in [LOCATION] looking for new opportunities. I have experience with your stack and would love to hear more about the company and openings.

  You can see more from me here:
  [WEBSITE/GITHUB LINK]

  Please have a glance at my resume and see if my skills and experience could be useful.

  Thanks,
  [FIRST LAST NAME]


That’s also how I always did it and it works well for startup jobs. A lot of people are too formal or list too many things that the person on the other end doesn’t care about.

It’s also important to reference something from the company website / job offer in my opinion. I recently had to wade through a bunch of applications we got through Indeed and 100% of them had irrelevant generic cover letters / intro text that could apply to a startup or an enterprise at the same time. Spending your time on that instead of formatting your CV goes a long way.


My company wrote a blog post a while back with some tips for a good cover letter -- it's not specific to engineering but I think it's super helpful anyway: https://blog.aha.io/the-best-cover-letters-that-ceos-love-to...

Two key takeaways (in my opinion):

- If you care about the job, do a little bit of research about the company. What does the job posting focus on and how do you align with that? What's their engineering stack and when have you worked with those technologies? This isn't "required" (i.e. you can certainly find jobs by mass-sending the same generic intro) but investing a little time in finding out about the company goes a long way towards telling them that they should take the time to find out about you in return. I also think this helps with the question of tone -- you probably won't go wrong matching the tone of the job posting itself.

- Make it easy for them to see if they want to hire you. Include your resume and make it easy to read (a short, well-formatted PDF is great). Include a direct link to your GitHub/portfolio/etc. If you don't have any public work, just say so and give them a Cliff's notes instead -- "Most of my recent GitHub contributions are private, but for the past six months I've lead a team of four developers in developing a new widget using React, Redux, and ES6, which I see is a close match to your tech stack."


I find them tedious but I really enjoy it. I know some employers also take the effort to read every word, especially when the recruiter is also the founder. But companies like Google and Facebook don't even let you send them. Maybe there's some correlation that the smaller the company, the more important the cover letter is?

The purpose of a cover letter is to just bring up things that aren't in your resume. If you have nothing to say, make it as brief as possible, maybe even one paragraph. Most employers will open the resume anyway.

Don't try to fake passion, that just makes you sound like a teenager desperate to get laid.

My format:

First paragraph, say what you are applying for if it's not in the title header.

Second paragraph, tell them how you meet the requirements. This is where you make it clear you have read the job ad and aren't resume blasting.

Third, explain other unique skillsets you bring. I like to emphasize my entrepreneurship and product development experience or that I can do full stack, if applicable.

Fourth, why you want to work for this company specifically.

Each paragraph would ideally be 1-2 sentences. The shorter the better. If not applicable, don't write it.


You should never 'apply for a job' in the traditional sense unless it is an hourly job at a mall or something like that.

For professional jobs, the pattern is as follows:

1. Locate professionals at the company you would like to work at.

2. Email them through a friend if that is possible, and if not, cold email them and say you are interested in learning more about XYZ company. Ask if they can grab a coffee or do a quick call.

3. During the coffee, ask them good questions to learn more and if you think you would still be interested, ask them if they have any advice on how to apply.

4. Do their advice, which typically means giving them just your resume and having them insert you in to the HR recruiting process.

Any other strategy is a gigantic waste of time.


> Any other strategy is a gigantic waste of time.

Sounds like you value networking but I wouldn't call other strategies a waste of time. I got a lot of jobs in my career by simply writing a cover letter and directly applying.


This is great advice in the right context, but it's not a universal context. If it's a big tech company in SV, for example, or really any company > 100 people in a crowded and desirable industry to be in, cold emailing people isn't going to make a good impression. Or if it does yield a positive response from someone, that's either not going to be a good company to work for, or not a good person to use as a contact at that company. Pushiness for the sake of pushiness isn't a foolproof solution, in both careers and dating.

OTOH, in smaller and more close-knit communities of employers (for a completely random example, "architecture firms based in Des Moines", or "health-focused startups in SF"), where there's a relatively small group of smallish companies with a lot of cross-pollination between employees, this might be an effective strategy.

It probably feels better than dropping a resume in some online drop box, because you are personally taking action rather than sitting around and waiting for callbacks that are probably not going to call back, but just because something feels better doesn't mean it's more effective.

FWIW, I myself and plenty of other people I know have gotten really good jobs at big tech companies simply by making sure that any company of interest has a copy of one's resume in their vast database of resumes. It doesn't take any time at all to do that, so no time wasted, and it's one more way in which a potential employer can find it. Even it's just an additional 5% chance to get hired, that's a 5% chance that didn't exist before and doesn't cost time or money.

Ultimately the only advice I can give anyone is to consider all avenues. Nothing's a gigantic waste of time if you're unemployed or unhappy at your current job. If you know people at the company, great. If there's someplace you can send in a resume or even apply for a specific position, great. If you have a non-stalkery means of making contact with people at the company (maybe going to meet ups or relevant conferences or whatever), also great. None of these approaches are mutually exclusive and most complement one another.


> Any other strategy is a gigantic waste of time.

I got the job I'm out now (since 2011) and applied in a traditional sense. I was also in a foreign country at the time. It was painless and quick. Hardly a waste of time.


Maybe I'm just antisocial but I don't envy the person on either side of that situation.

Also, if this is such an established pattern for professional jobs, why even bother having proper channels for applications? Are online applications just a honeypot to blacklist me from actually getting hired?


Here’s the thing, sometimes it seems like the HR department’s job is to weed out exceptional people. If you can avoid going through the front door (HR) it’s often to your advantage.

As an aside, it may seem unfair to the less socially outgoing that others don’t use an existing process that might be in place. Take dating for instance - just because a girl is on a dating site doesn’t mean that the dating site is the only way to ask her out on a date. Finding a job is similar to dating in some ways.


As a hiring manager, the cover letter was the most important part of the packet that I was given. The resume was pretty meaningless since I've seen plenty of bad candidates with good-looking resumes and vice versa. But the cover letter was a much more reliable signal of a quality candidate.

For me, there were two important goals that a cover letter was supposed to accomplish. The first was that the cover letter should prove to me that the applicant read the job posting. I took time to write an engaging job posting that wasn't just a list of job functions and qualifications. The cover letter should explain why the applicant is the person I'm looking for by essentially regurgitating everything that I've asked for in the job posting and citing relevant experience, skills or traits of the applicant.

The second is to prove to me that you invested some amount of time into applying. If I choose to schedule a phone interview and possibly an in-person interview that may include airfare and hotel, I'm going to be investing a non-trivial amount of resources into you as a potential hire and I'd like to believe that you're willing to kick in the 10 minutes or so it takes to write the cover letter. I'd like to be one of a handful of places you're applying and not one of 50 or so. A customized cover letter is like a proof-of-work system that prevents resume spam. It may seem tedious, but that's the point. It should be hard to automate and if I believe that you're using the same cover letter for multiple companies, I'll pass.

As an applicant, the formula I follow when writing them is to start by talking about why the company's product or mission is compelling to me. If I have difficulty writing this, I rethink applying in the first place since it's really hard to enjoy working for a company with goals that don't excite me in some way. After I've talked about why the company is appealing, I pick the two or three most-emphasized things from the job posting that I feel describe me and write why I believe that. I save linking to Github for the top of my resume.

But that's me, and by some of the responses here, I gather others feel differently.


Writing a cover letter doesn't ever take 10 minutes, unless you're sending it in bulk. For me, it takes hours, even days to be happy with the final result and to send it along. Due to this, it really annoys me when I get back a one liner "thanks, but no thanks" reply, but I do understand it's not reasonable to expect more than that from people and I'm grateful when people do bother to send a reply, even if it's just a brief rejection note.

I think people who claim this process takes "10 minutes" haven't needed to write many cover letters...


I've used cover letters in the past when applying to a job directly without a warm-introduction from someone. It's been a while.

I had three or four standard cover letter templates I rotated through with a couple of places to add research I'd done about the company and why I would be a good fit for them. Often stuff based on what stack they use, who is on their team, etc.

I think applying to jobs directly is worse than networking and worse than working with a recruiter, in that order. If you do decide to go that route and write a cover letter, only include in it what is directly targeted to that company and the person reading it.


As a job candidate, I found cover letters helpful. They gave me a chance to explain exactly how my past work experiences and skills would be beneficial to the company.

Now as someone involved in evaluating tech candidates for my company, I find cover letters helpful. First off, it shows that the candidate took additional time to research the company rather than just looking for any job.

Second, I get a better sense of how the candidate's skills fit into the job we are filling. Bullet points on a resume are helpful but leave a lot unexplained. A cover letter can fill that gap.

Third, communication skills are incredibly important on my team. Even in tech jobs, we need to write documentation, email customers, and explain our thought process. Reading a cover letter helps me understand the candidate's writing style better.

Overall, if you are given the change to write a cover letter, write one.

The basic format for a cover letter should be:

- Letter head with your name and contact information

- Date you are applying

- Company's address

- Salutation to the specific hiring manager

- First paragraph explains how you heard about the company, which position you are applying for, and why you are a good fit

- Second paragraph elaborates on a specific tech project that demonstrates that you can do the job well

- Third paragraph explains another reason why you are a good fit for the job. It could be a past tech project you completed, a side project, or something that demonstrates industry knowledge

- Closing paragraph explains how they can contact you and thanks them for reading

- Valediction with your signature and name

There is a good example of a cover letter here: https://www.careerperfect.com/examples/letters/ceo-cover-sam.... (I have no relation to that site and only found it on a Google search now. Trust anything else on that site with a grain of salt.)

Good luck!


I review about ~100-200 CVs per week in bulk, for Data Science.

I actually treat a cover letter as a negative signal. Who has time to write one, and why you do think anybody cares? Show where you worked, what you did, link to some interesting stuff, all this in the regular CV structure, and that's it. I have about 10-20 seconds per CV, reading a cover letter is out of the question. The only thing the CV is for is to (i) send some signals to pick out the 5% of applicants that make it to the first screening round, and (ii) at later stages, to quickly open it to recall who the applicant is.


> Who has time to write one, and why you do think anybody cares?

How did you get your current job, and what is your opinion about the summary or cover letter space in almost every job application form? Assuming of course that you don't have an alternative means into the company.


Last 2 jobs I was headhunted. But that's because I'm "old" in this industry (10+ yrs of experience) and have the right signals on my Linkedin = worked at good companies (Prezi, Facebook). The biggest signal is what company you worked at, second biggest what school you went to (if it's a big one).

I guess there's some segments where cover letters are a thing, eg. academia. But I've never seen anybody care about cover letters at tech companies.


Your job sounds like it will cease to exist within a year or two, if all you are doing is scoring a standard document against standard criteria.


Yes, this whole process could be automated with ML, I don't know why no startup has done this yet in a good product. I'd definitely pay for it. HR is actually not my job, I'm hiring Data Scientists for my team; the reason I'm doing the screening is because I'm doing a gig in the Middle East and the HR people here don't know much about DS or how to screen for it (plus, looking at all these CVs is quite the cultural experience). It has occurred to me several times in the last 1-2 years to take some time out and work on this. Friends at Google told me Google has this internally; I wish the guys doing it would spin off a startup!


Something similar is already in private beta : https://cloud.google.com/job-discovery/


A cover letter is your sales pitch. I've never understood why there is so much instruction in them when all you're doing is trying to sell yourself. Write them a sales letter hyping YOU the programmer.


To a lot of people, selling in general is not second nature, and promoting oneself runs against deeply ingrained social strictures about modesty.

How DOES one hype oneself without being boastful? How DOES one sell without coming across as fake? What things about oneself WOULD the hiring manager find appealing?

These are all questions whose answers are far from obvious to probably the majority of job applicants.


As someone who is currently applying to jobs, this is a very important question and the answers are, unfortunately, exactly what I expected: everyone's experience and suggestions are totally different.

Which sucks, because I really wanted to figure out what I'm doing wrong. I'm still fairly new to the field, and I don't have a vast network to tap into (which is what it seems like most people here prefer to do).

So here I am, thinking that my resume/CV is actually starting to look nice (PhD in a hard science where I spent the whole time doing/writing Monte Carlo simulations and analyzing data, plus 1.5 years at a tech startup doing backend and Android dev, plus proficiency in many languages, SQL, etc), and I'm getting almost no interest in my applications. I had one local guy contact me and one corporate job that made me take an SAT-style online test and a "personality test" that I guess I failed because I haven't heard back after that.

I think I've sent out nearly 30 applications in the last couple of months. I've been mostly sending them out via Indeed and WeWorkRemotely.com. Is this field really that competitive? I'm not even getting to the "perform like a trained monkey" interview questions- I don't get any responses at all!

I can't imagine that my cover letters are all _that_ bad. I mean, I try to customize them to each job. I try to keep them brief.

It's just all really, really discouraging.


Where do you live? Would you mind to tell more about you?

If you do heavy maths like what you appear to do, I'd suggest you go for a finance company to become a quant.


Well, my location is definitely a limiting factor. I live in Florida- and not even Miami. That's why I've been mostly trying to find remote postings. I'm a great remote worker- my PhD work was as part of an international collaboration where I mostly worked with a few people in California and Texas, and my current job is remote.

Finding a quant position is probably what I need to do. Any suggestions on how to break into that?


First thing first. It's time for you to consider moving to a larger city. There are only a few places in the world that have companies in need of these skills.

I'd recommend you try to get in touch with finance companies through either your university network, job fair or acquaintance. If not possible, try to go through recruiters or apply directly.


I recommend you try to remove the PhD from your qualification and apply for some jobs. I know a friend who concealed that he has a PhD. He wouldn't get a job because he is overqualified for most of them (and companies think they have to pay him a lot). Just give it a try.


The request of cover letters in certain fields are to me a red flag.

It seems very useful in some fields which require the skills a cover letter shows off and could substitute for a screen or casual interview.

In many technical fields however, requesting cover letters usually suggests to me a lower quality in their hiring process. This undoubtedly bleeds over to my perception of the management, namely more into checking boxes than results.


Cover letters are largely a waste of time UNLESS you come for a notably unusual background. For example - you have a PhD in Sociology and looking to get a job as a software engineer.

General rules for resumes - no more than 10 years experience listed - no more than 1 page listing job experience - if you have another page, it should only include things like talks given and/or published papers


From the perspective of a professional resume editor/writer...make sure to have a boilerplate version and then match each CL against the job description. The "art" of the process is to provide just enough enticement, the appetizer in other words, to make the reader want to move onto the resume. Also try to be more creative in your writing so that you don't say the exact words from the job description unless it is a highly specialized role. You want to stand out from the crowd of applicants.

Try at all possible to find out if a cover letter is even necessary. Many employers don't ask for them, don't want them, ignore or throw them away. I have know individuals who have spent hours on theirs unnecessarily.

Regrettable the "rules" are all over the place because different employers require different things. Try to do some legwork before hand by inquiring with HR or referring employees.

HTH,

Vince Fulco, CFA, CAIA vfulco[@]weisisheng.cn


Understand that applying to jobs where there are many other applicants is a bit like playing the lottery: only a few will be picked up from the pile of applicants.

Now say that you get past this round and that your application gets picked up by someone in HR or the Hiring Manager. They have a pile of others they need to look at as well. What would they prefer to read? This is a bit subjective: some would like you to not waste their time - keep it short and sweet. Others would like to read a love letter.

So, what do you do? I'd say keep it short and sweet for most jobs that you apply to. Two, maybe three paragraphs with two to four sentences each with the last paragraph being an invitation to read the resume and get in touch with you for a meeting. One in ten.. maybe one in twenty jobs get a love letter. It has to be a job that you feel strongly about. But even the love letter - don't waste words - edit it well.

Good luck!


I might be a little odd on this one, but I've been in large non-tech companies for a long time, hiring tech (mostly finance technology and data engineering), so here's my take -

I like cover letters. They're an opportunity for you to tell me how your skills transfer to the position, why you're interested in it, and that you can communicate clearly in writing.

The transferability piece is important because it's rare a candidate has all of the bullets in the description, but we all know critical thinking and tech skills are broadly applicable - or at least I know that, but I need to know that you're looking at it that way. It also helps you avoid the HR filter with me (more on that in a bit).

Your interest is important because I think there's a lot of flexibility between tech skills and subject matter/domains. The issue is, we all like some and all hate some, so tell me why you like this one. This is sometimes a tough one because HR job descriptions sometimes are generic and don't explicitly provide this info. In that case, take a broad view and tell me what domains are interesting to you. If it doesn't align with your interests, you may get rejected, but do you really want to end up in a role working with subject matter you can't stand?

The cover letter as a writing sample is also great for me because we email a lot. We write user stories. We document testing. We IM. I don't necessarily need to hire Shakespeare, but I'd love for you to be able to communicate your thoughts clearly and with an appropriate level of polish.

Now, on that HR filter, I don't know how common this is but I ask my recruiter to pass through any application that includes a cover letter. So at least for my vacancies, a cover letter guarantees the hiring manager will directly review your materials. I think that provides an opportunity to candidates who don't check all of the boxes, but might have some transferable skills to consider.


I only use recruiters and I have never written a cover letter. I also never submit a resume blind through job boards or ATS systems.

As a person hiring, I would ignore them. I only care does the candidate have the minimum skill set to be worth taking time to phone screen. I'll find out everything else I think is relevant then.


Don't waste your time on generic cover letters. If you're going to bother, write a custom letter. Generic rewordings of your resume just waste everyone's time.

In my experience, odds are good your cover letter won't get read or even make it to the right person. So I don't spend too much time writing them. However, a well written cover letter will help you and could be the difference in getting a callback.

My recipe for a cover letter; rewrite their job description with your work experience. Take each bullet point and tie it to something you've done. It shows how your skills fit their needs in a way resumes don't. Bonus if you do some research on the company (something not mentioned in the job description) and also match that to your skills or interest. Also, keep it to less than 1 page.


My usual cover letter:

Dear Sir/Madam, in reply for Your job offer placed at <website> I would like to apply for a <position>.

I'm <someone> with <x> years of experience. I <do stuff> and <do other stuff>.

My current tech-stack is: <my tech stack>

I've included my CV as an attachment for this message.

Looking forward for a reply from You.

Best regards,

<me>

Enjoy ;)


It literally doesn't matter. Every place and every person has their own opinion, and because of that, the worst thing you can do is cater to any one individual besides yourself.

I'm not joking. I haven't even read the comments here, but I'm willing to bet people find them useful/useless. I bet people found it helped them/hurt them. I bet people will talk about how they don't read them/read them, expect them/ignore them, etc.

Personally, I'd write a generic one and submit it myself, and then I'll just bring it with me (along with resume) to the interview to provide as necessary. But that's me.


I don't really customise my CV to a particular job, so I just use the cover letter as a brief summary of why I'd be great for {advertised role}.

Not that this is advice. I have no idea either and would like to hear what other folk do.


I think in our industry a cover letter might send a negative signal. In other fields a cover letter is a sign that you’re a “go-getter”. A good software engineer is two things: in high demand, and a professional problem solver. A cover letter sends the signal that you are the type of person who works harder not smarter. I’d be much more impressed if you LinkedIn stalked me and sent me a quick two sentence message about why you would be jazzed to work at my company (I.e problem space and why or culture fit and why).

On the whole it doesn’t really matter though.


I always use the cover letter to sell myself to stand out with extra details directly related to the position, or company. The resume doesn't give a lot of detail at all.


Cover letter is email body, resume is role description and bulleted list of accomplishments/value added in each role. I found a way to work languages used in each role in without using a vertical list.

For the "cover letter" I try to match tone of whoever wrote job description and convey excitement and cultural fit. I believe this to be very important in hearing back when reaching out and will iterate until I get more responses; though each is taylored.


I agree! If you're including a cover letter, don't add it as an attachment to your email, put the contents of the cover letter into the email body.

I think email messages are especially important if you're trying to preemptively explain resume issues like career switches, geographical relocation, taken a gap-year, etc


I suppose my initial email outreach for my current gig (How-To Geek) could qualify as a cover letter. It was in reply to a Stack Overflow Careers post. Like some of the commenters here have said, just kept it light and mentioned a couple things in the job posting that I really connected with. Happy to share the full text if there's interest.


Thanks. Please do share


Full text below

"Your posting caught my eye because I've been a reader of How-To Geek for years. In fact, I discovered your site through the article you wrote about setting up a Raspberry Pi as an always-on downloading box. Thanks to that article, I've now got 3 Pis sitting around my apartment doing various jobs.

I'm currently a Technical Architect with doejo, a digital agency specializing in WordPress development and one of only 13 WordPress.com VIP partners worldwide. What that basically means is that we work on enterprise-scale WordPress. (See also a talk I gave at a local meetup detailing some important considerations for large WordPress sites https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TB_e7yZ4MCM)

I wanted to reach out because the position that you and How-To Geek are in sounds like the position that Investor's Business Daily, one of our former clients, was in a couple years ago.

When we were brought on with IBD, they were deploying code to production late at night or on weekends because they were scared their deploys would break. There were pieces of the site that just plain didn't work. And there was technical debt all over the place that kept their developers from doing their jobs effectively.

I led the team that took WordPress and bent it to our will to produce one of the most custom digital publishing workflows I've ever seen. After migrating 100k+ pieces of legacy content and completing and documenting the new WordPress build, we handed it off to their internal development team and got to work on their DevOps situation. I helped their operations team architect and deploy staging environments so they didn't have to be scared of production deploys anymore. We helped them replace their out-of-date source control with Git and put in place processes that worked with them instead of processes they had to work around.

This whole re-launch and re-build resulted in a site that loaded 25% faster and brought in a ton more traffic. Couple that with the fact that they now trusted their developers and felt comfortable pushing changes to production in the middle of the day, and it was a win all around.

As far as tech stack, I exclusively use Nginx these days and I've never looked back. Javascript and jQuery are squarely in my wheelhouse. I know WordPress actions and filters like the back of my hand and I'm not afraid to use them or trace through someone else's use of them to get things back on track.

To sum up, I'm really impressed you've grown How-To Geek as far as you have while still deploying to production from your laptop. I think it's great that you see the challenges you have when it comes to infrastructure and technical debt. I'm excited by these challenges and look forward to taking them off your plate so you can get back to running and growing one of the best tech sites online today.

I would love to talk more about the position and answer any questions you may have for me.

(And yes, I won't pull punches when I see some particularly terrible code. I have a library of facepalm GIFs at the ready.)

Talk soon, Keanan"


major tl;dr


I think the most important thing in a cover letter is stating your motivation in relation to the company you are applying to.


No one is interested in reading a generic cover letter, they can be extremely helpful if you "keep it real".

I always write very short cover letters that say who I am and what are my interests (e.g: ML, Distributed systems) Then I write why I think I would be a great fit for this position (e.g: I worked on something very similar)


Do it! You've got nothing to lose. Write stuff that wouldn't be appropriate in a CV. Such as, why you want to work for them in particular. Have a look at their job spec, try and understand their key motivation in wanting someone to fill that role, and sell that you can do that.


I've been laughed at by HR at one startup where I mentioned I did it for every job whenever possible.

I usually use it to explain my background, and how it relates to the position.

However...I find myself not having to do it much anymore since usually it is the companies that are seeking me out, or I have referrals.


Why did they laugh? Often the job posting even asks for one...


I've couple catch all cover letter variations, built with interchangeable paragraphs unless I really, really like the posting.

Never ever worked however. Found all my job trough networking except one employee that found me randomly trough a social network and just decided to send me a contract.


I look at a lot of cover letters. The best explain why you want to work there. The resume will show the experience and background. Show some passion. Say if you use the product. What you admire about it. It is a chance to speak beyond the resume and show how you stand out.


I use cover letters to share a short brief on myself, why I am interested and ask questions about position. Asking questions is important. Think of this process as both sides negotiating what works for each, instead of one sided application for a position.


When appropriate I'll write a _concise_ but friendly intro and bottom quote a few key parts of the job description with questions, ideas, or an anecdote.

Try thinking about what could peak the curiosity of the reader and interest them in talking to you on the phone.


So few resumes indicate why the candidate applied. When triaging resumes, I really appreciate a paragraph explaining motivation. I rarely read past paragraph one of a long cover letter unless the resume itself is compelling. Then I’ll read it in full.


They apply because they need a new job.


In your cover letter write 1 or 2 sentences about why you are a good match for that specific position.

Obviously, your cover letter should be adjusted to that specific position.

That also allows you to attach the same unchanged resume to [somewhat] different jobs.


One important queue is they demonstrate the candidate can communicate clearly and effectively (assuming they wrote it themselves and one can often gleen if this is true after reading).

For my company, effective communication is very important.


To be honest, I go straight to your CV's experience section. I don't care what you're into or what school you went to, I just want to know if you're able to do what we need you to do.


Google's application form has a section for a cover letter. It says something to the effect of `We think your experience speaks for itself. A cover letter is not required.`


It’s an excuse to get more information about you in front of an employer. At worst it’s a minor waste of time, at best it provides a hook for someone.


I only include a cover letter if the way I found out about the job opening /isnt/ through personal recommendations


Here's my two cents. I usually write a cover letter when applying for jobs and expect one when interviewing. As once a recruiter told me, think of cover letter as an extended resume and mention those points that you think are worth elaborating.

Instead of writing a long email, turn it into a document (cover letter) and talk about your skills (add github link) and what makes you passionate about the job. I keep it formal but not to an extend where it wastes my time.


I've never written a cover letter


I don't write cover letters. HR people just look for keywords, afaik.


I think the best cover letter explains what you can do on day one, in three months, six months, and 1 year for the company that may potentially hire you.

Attach the cover letter as a separate document. If you can, get the email of the hiring manager and let them know that you've applied through the standard HR interface. Tone should always be professional and cordial. If you can craft this cover letter well enough you will stand out from others who don't customize their cover letters. Do your research on the company and find where your strengths can play to their business objectives and communicate why you are the one they should choose (then you can link to GitHub projects accordingly). Good luck.




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