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Ask HN: Cover letter techniques for software development positions.
116 points by Nemisis7654 on Oct 12, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 64 comments
I am a senior in college and am applying for many positions that interest me so that I can get a job when I graduate. Now, I know there are plenty of resources online about how to write a cover letter, but I was wondering if the community here at Hacker News could give me insight on things that recruiters/companies look for in a cover letter when they are hiring software developers. Thanks!

   1. Write like you speak, as if told over coffee or beer.
   2. Informal, but not too casual.
   3. Right to the point; the first sentence is your summary.
   4. No bullshit, you'll go straight to the garbage.
   5. If it sounds like bullshit, it is.
   6. Short.  One minute good.  Thirty seconds better.
   7. Tightly targeted!  It's about them as much as you.
   8. Perfict speling and grammer.
   9. Highlight what's important to them.  (Do your homework.)
  10. Enthusiastic without sounding phony.
  11. Have friends read it.  Get feedback.
  12. Does it sound like a good quick description of you?
  13. Have at least one differentiator.  What makes you so special?
  14. Strong finish with a call to action.

7. Tightly targeted! It's about them as much as you.

I think that's a great point. It's easy to frame your application from the perspective of, "I want a job", or "I want this job", or "I need a job", or "I need money". All of those statements may be true, but that shouldn't be your focus as you present yourself for a job.

Instead, put the focus on what you can and would do for your employer. They are (probably) not looking to fill a job just for the sake of filling a job; they need work to be done in order to advance their business. How can you help them get that work done? How can you help them grow their business? How can you help them to be of better service to their customers?

Be the answer to their problem; fill their need.

Curiously enough, most of these also work for essays.

I think it's because all of the points relate to saving time of the reader. If something can be said in less and clearer words, do so.

People who read a lot eventually hit texts that could have been way shorter and clearer, and develop a bullshit-detector to avoid such time wasters again. The reverse of this is that texts with high "signal to noise" are highly appreciated.

I think people who write typical academic papers actively break almost every one of those rules.

Perhaps because academia isn't motivated by profit and the 'time = money' mantra. At least not so directly.

Great list of tips.

> 11. Have friends read it. Get feedback.

But make sure their advice doesn't conflict with the other 13 points!

The sad thing about typical hiring processes in most large companies is, the cover letter that is appropriate for the first level of the hiring process (HR) is entirely inappropriate for the 2nd level, the people that actually want you to do some work.

You'd think we would have reformed HR by now, what with all the workshops they go to on process improvement, but from what I've seen the problem is just as bad as ever.

8. Perfict speling and grammer.

This was probably intentional, but perfect is misspelled.

Downvotes? Interestingly, when scanning this list, I only noticed "grammer" was spelled wrong, when almost the entire sentence was spelled wrong. It's very easy for most people to miss spelling mistakes in your own writing.

Based on my experience, if your cover letter is free from obvious spelling or grammatical errors and shows you actually read the job description, you're easily in the top 5% of applicants.

Also, and maybe this is just a pet peeve, but the cover letter should be the body of your email. Lots of young applicants write this strangely informal email and attach a completely generic cover letter that doesn't even have my name in it.

I discovered not long ago this method is actually taught at some MBA schools (in the UK anyway).

As with yourself, nothing annoys me more :P

As a hiring manager, I can vouch for this. Just having a cover letter at all (whether in the email or as a separate document) is surprisingly unusual. Having one tailored to the position? Vanishingly rare. If the candidate describes how their experience is a fit for the position, they're almost always going to get at least a phone screen from me.

The problem is if you save the CV to pass on to someone else, then you lose the cover letter. I think keeping them together is the best way to do it, for this reason. You can print them all out, and review the cover letter and CV at the same time.

Job sites here (Australia) and the software used by larger employers usually has the option of "write here," attach or both. It seems like attachment is recommended.

> Lots of young applicants write this strangely informal email and attach a completely generic cover letter that doesn't even have my name in it.

As a Word document?


It's like they think the cover letter is supposed to be a writing sample to prove they speak English, rather than an introduction.

And often they come from a template that sounds nothing like what a real person would write. I see so many that they all start to look like each other. A good, personal one really stands out.

As someone who has hired many junior devs right out of college a cover letter gives you the ability to do 2 things.

1. Tell me the reasons I should hire you that I won't find in your resume. Those side projects you did that you found really challenging. What subjects you found really interesting in school that apply to the position. Why you find the businesses subject fascinating. This is your chance to tell me on your own terms why you're a good fit.

2. Why are you applying for this job. What makes you fit this position. I'm not always looking here for direct domain experience, but something in your background or interests which fit with the role I'm hiring for.

I had a cover letter template that I would use but would always tailor cover letters to the specific job and organization I'm applying for. Only maybe 40% of the content of the letter came from my template.

"Only maybe 40% of the content of the letter came from my template"

This cannot be stressed enough, tailor each cover letter for the job, do not copy and paste.

Good point. The last time I was updating my cover letter, I invented the following workflow:

-copy/paste in the last email template I had used

-start editing sections that are relevant (intro, relevant experience, why I am interested in this position)

-read the entire email as a whole, look for inconsistencies

-touch up any sections that don't make sense, or are weak

-walk away for an hour, do something else

-come back, read it over again, tidy up any sentences, or add any gems I had come up with.

-optionally have a friend read it.

By the end of the process I usually had changed at least 50% of the format, and found that my cover letter was rapidly evolving, until I found out what worked. Sharing cover letters with friends in the industry also helped to root out some weak sections that I hadn't seen myself.

The main disadvantage of this method is that if you're not careful when reading, you can miss a reference to company name you had previously applied to, or include the wrong url. Always, always, always double check any links, names, or other identifying language.

Excellent advice. I've been reading through many applications lately and find the most interesting cover letters go into some detail about aspects of the candidate that are not covered in detail on the resume. Good cover letters need to generate interest.

Tailor your style for the size of company you're dealing with (with the implied "do a bunch of research on the companies you're serious about first").

Applying for a position at a bank/multinational/"big" company with a full HR department and a contract with Taleo to track job applicants? Be a bit more formal. Remember that the first person who reads your letter is likely an HR professional with little connection to the people who will actually make the hire/no-hire call. They'll be working from a job requirement form, and their goal is to answer the question "Is there enough of a chance that this candidate has the right skills that I should forward their file on to the right hiring manager?" What makes this even more "fun" is that there's a good chance that they have a very small - if any - technical background, and may not know (for example) the connection between jQuery, Javascript, and "AJAX". For companies like this, a little buzzword bingo in there is an important ingredient that gets your file sent on to the technical guy, who will actually know what he's looking for.

On the other hand, you've got small/medium-sized companies in which the engineers you'd end up working with will be much closer to the incoming stream of applications. These companies may have a designated HR guy, but the role is often filled by someone else wearing the HR hat for one day a week. Here, the initial person reading your letter is someone you'll probably end up working with to some degree or another, which complicates their goal in the first screening. Now, the question becomes "Does this person sound like the kind of person I'd like to work with, and if so, does (s)he sound smart/interesting enough that I should disturb Steve over there to get him to look at this letter?"

Bottom line: if you're applying to somewhere that has an HR department you need to get through first, write the letter for them (and assume the actual hiring managers won't read it). If you're applying to somewhere where the HR guy is a potential colleague, write the letter as if everyone will read it and they're judging your fit as a person, not only technically.

A specific cover letter targeted to the company is much better than a generic one. You can have common paragraphs in all of your cover letters, but I would recommend sections that particularly target the needs of the company you're applying to. For example, if they say in their job description that using technology FOO is a bonus, mention that project you did with technology FOO and why you were really excited about it.

Otherwise, you lump yourself in with every other person out there. You need to make yourself stand out without lying or going over the top. If you can make it clear that you are really interested in THEM and not just the job, that's a positive from the employer's perspective.

People love to read about themselves -- this includes hiring managers at companies. Find unique and recent news about the company to discuss in your cover letter, and why it interests you.

Use FB/LinkedIn/Twitter, etc to find out info about people at the company, and try to send a note to a specific person, rather than just responding to jobs@bigcorp.com which is often a big black hole.

If you send a personal note to employee Z at the company, make it personal (don't attach your CV, but include details about employee Z or Z's company you find interesting) and ask if Z knows anything about position X you want to apply for -- your chances are much better if you can get your info to a specific person.

Oh, very nice. I never even thought about using FB/Twitter/LinkedIn. Thanks!

Yeah, it's a gold mine, especially on interviews. If I know who I am being interviewed by, I can usually find the person's profile/email/blog, and see what they've written, their areas of expertise, likes/dislikes, etc.

Here's some quick advice that has worked very well for me - in reverse order of importance.



Respect that the time of the person reading your letter is valuable. Three paragraphs maximum. These should be: 1) Where you saw the advert and why you are interested. 2) Specific details that make you stand out. 3) An invitation to read your CV and schedule an interview. The goal of the cover letter should be to get people to read your CV. The goal of your CV should be to get an interview. The goal of the interview should be to find out if you and the company are a good fit.


Keep it to three points maximum. Focus on how you match the job description.


Don't harp on about yourself. Highlight the benefits that you can bring to the company. If you're starting too many sentences with "I like..." or "I want..." then you're doing it wrong.


Here are some examples from my sent mail folder, all of which got me interviews - and job offers.



Dear [contact],

Re: [job-title] [link-to-job-advert]

The post above was mentioned to me by your colleague [X] and I am very interested in it. Please find my CV attached for your consideration.

For this particular post I would like to highlight a couple of points from my CV that might be of interest to you:

- experience of system administration in an academic environment

- very strong Linux and programming skills

- experience in an international environment

I do hope very much we can meet to discuss your requirements in more detail.

With best regards, [name]



Dear [contact-name],

Thank you for taking time to speak to me on [date]. The [X] project sounds very interesting and I would very much like to discuss how I can help. I have attached my CV in French and also a direct English translation.

I would like to highlight two points that I believe are particularly relevant to [company-name]:

- I have previous experience of embedded systems programming: during my year out I developed the software for a precision testing machine (20 000 lines of C in 6 months). I worked closely with a team of electronic and mechanical engineers during the project, which was completed on time and on budget.

- I am a developer for [Y] Linux, a distribution which is being increasing used for embedded systems. If you are considering using Linux either in your phones or in-house I can offer specific expertise.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need further information, and I look forward to discussing your requirements in more detail in the near future.

Yours sincerely, [name]



Dear [company-name],

I'm very interested in the Back-end Developer job at [company-name] advertised on [job-site-name] and on your website.

In particular, I can offer [company-name]:

- very experienced developer, including many years of PHP, JavaScript and MySQL experience

- expert in Linux, including Apache and system administration

- experience of building successful communities - I've been instrumental in evolving [sports-website] into the most popular website for [participants] in the world with over [X] thousand members

Please find my CV attached for your consideration. You can find code from my personal projects, many including PHP, AJAX, XML and geographical services, at: [link-to-my-github-page]

I do hope that we meet to discuss your requirements in more detail.

Yours faithfully,

This is exactly right.

The job ad is about the company. Your resume is about you. The cover letter is supposed to highlight how one matches the other. These examples are fabulous.

A generic cover letter is worse than useless.

Thanks for that.

Advice is great, but I can rarely get much from it without examples. Even reading "expert advice" on job sites and such is usually pretty flat. Saying "formal but not too stiff" means very little without an explanation.

Wow, this is really concise. I'll try adopting this somehow.

Wow, thank you for that response. Very helpful.

Be You Be You Be You Be You BE YOU.

These people will spend most of your waking life with you. If they don't want YOU, the real person, you don't want THEM, the uptight company.

The cover letter is obligatory, not because they want it, but because YOU need it to do anything other then be a set of keywords.

Talk about why you're a good fit for the role they're asking. Look at their company site and see what culture they claim to have, and write to it. Write how it will make you productive and encourage you to bring value.

Best of luck. If you become a startup guru, hire me, I'm hard working and a good lateral thinker...

Haha, I'll keep that in mind.

Thanks for the advice. It makes a lot of sense.

No worries, let me know when you're successful ^_^

this is what I came here to say. Exactly this.

Whatever you do, don't wait until your inhibitions are down before sending the cover letter and resume. If you can't help but hem and haw over the cover letter, you're not going to submit anything until late in the day. Then it will be near bedtime, and you'll be more likely to put stupid obnoxious-sounding things in the cover letter. If you have this problem, it might help to make a game out of writing a simple, mediocre, polite cover letter, instead of trying to make a good cover letter. My response rate went from 0% to 100% when I did this. If you're not a naturally obnoxious person, maybe you won't have this problem.

My wife, who hires people, complains about this point all the time. Unless you've been a serial entrepreneur since age 10, keep your resume to one page. You're too young to have a resume longer than a page.

And if it does not fit, don't reduce whitespace. A light two page layout is better than a dense one pager. And cutting the less interesting parts to get down to one page should be even better.

Thanks for the advice. Luckily, mine is only one page.

You probably know this already.. but #1 advice for someone your age, I find, is: don't list "reading" or "swimming" (etc) as an interest to fill space :)

more: http://www.errant.me.uk/blog/2010/05/how-to-write-a-good-cv/

Writing a good cover letter is like writing a good sales letter. Show the prospect that you know who they are, you have looked at the situation (you absolutely must convince them of this), and that you have the solution.

I suggest reading about Leonardo da Vinci's resume for a good example: http://www.theladders.com/career-newsletters/leonardo-da-vin...

Something else to keep in mind, the interview process is not always about winning/losing--it's about finding the best candidate. You might be extremely qualified for a position but not come across as what the company is looking for. For example, the last time I was interviewing people, I was looking for someone who would follow my instructions. My top five applicants were extremely qualified (overqualified even). I went, not with the most overqualified candidate, but rather the one who I knew I could mold into what I needed.

Remember, you're involved in a transaction. You're selling your time. Make sure you know what you want to sell and realize that not everyone is buying exactly that.

> the interview process is not always about winning/losing--it's about finding the best candidate.

Exactly, and this has many variations. On one of my recent interviews for a contract position, about 3/4 of the way through when we were discussing technical details in more depth, I realized I didn't have the proper background for the project, so I said that I would recommend they contact the headhunter to see if they had someone with more experience in this particular technology. They asked me if I was interested in learning it (they seemed to be looking for a reason to hire me), and I said sure, I'd love to, but in my opinion it was in their best interests to hire someone that already knew the technology well.

If I wanted to I could have taken the job, learned a new technology, and got overpaid for it. But I believe being brutally honest will pay off in the long run - some people will remember you some day, and you will reap the benefits.

I recently went through the song and dance of job searching, and I'll soon be happily employed with a great company in SF. My resume isn't spectacular, but it's good (decent GPA at a good school). To my surprise, some amazing companies granted me interviews, and I believe it had a lot to do with my cover letters (like I said, not a spectacular resume).

Understand that my opinion is that of a junior engineer (1 year of experience).

A strong cover letter ought to be engaging, to the point, clear, and genuine. My general strategy leveraged casual language, an honest portrayal of myself and my desires, and dollop of self-deprecating humor. I got some friends to review my cover letters, and made sure that they laughed. I figured, if the recruiter enjoys my cover letter, my application won't get dumped immediately.

YMMV. This might be awful advice, but it worked for me. Good luck!

Recruiters and companies are looking for different things. The best thing that you can do when applying direct to a company, is to show what you know, show your enthusiasm (perhaps through one or two choice free software projects, but not so many that you'd look overstretched) and what you learned at college.

For recruiters, you need to look at what the job description is after and try to match your CV as closely to it as reasonable without looking like you're lying (btw don't lie, you will get caught out). Stress your strengths where they're relevant to the role, but your cover letter is likely to be ignored by a recruiter, or rather not entered into the database so I'd keep it short and sweet and focus on matching acronyms and technologies to your experience in your CV.

Better yet, avoid recruiters completely - especially right out of college.

Thank you. I appreciate the advice.

Anyone who sends me a cover letter or resume typeset with LaTeX moves to the head of the line.

I like to think that the things that will get me hired at a company are the pet projects that I choose to work on (rather than a degree, or "notable" classes I've taken).

What's worked best for me is just emailing startups I genuinely want to work for with a one-sentence description of me, and a question (wanna meet up? is a summer internship a possibility?). I also include a sentence describing the coolest thing I've worked on (inspired by the SuS application).

It's worked so far (and I'm only a freshman, I'm sure you have way more to talk about!).

It depends on the company but here's a few things I've come across that have paid off. (several of these have been said):

Be genuine. Don't bullshit. Tell them why you want to work for THEIR company. Discuss why you'll benefit them or what you'll bring to the table. Mention your skills. Be conversational and convey a little personality. If the company is a laid-back startup type, don't be afraid to show your quirky side. Show enthusiasm. Tell them why you're different.

Adopted from What Color is Your Parachute's "real questions behind every interviewer". A cover letter with one paragraph per point has got me an interview every time (before becoming independent of work.)

  1. why them?
  2. are you competent?
  3. are you special?
  4. will you fit in?
  5. can they afford you?    // I leave this one out for a cover letter :-)
It's not a bad template for marketing anything.

Make it short, sweet, and simple.

Show me you took 10 minutes seeing who are are and what we're about, and that you didn't just spam your cover letter and resume to every job posting you could find.

Talk to me like I'm a human and not some robot checking our mail box, checking off that you've done 6 years of whatever-it-is.

Show me you have passion and you give a damn, and that you're not afraid of hard work, but still carry a sense of humor about you.

It easier to write a good cover letter, if you have a good reason to write it, or for the recipient to read it.

To give a boring example: If you want a software development position, experience with software development is a plus. If you can tell in your cover letter (and resume) that you have already worked on, say, an open source project, they are more likely to be interested in you.

Thanks. That is why I am really trying to find the time from school to contribute to an Open Source project. I would love to put something like that on my resume.

Just choose any project you like, and ask for pointers. There's usually a list with easy things to get started. Like fixing typos, easy bugs, removing warnings. Even just doing trivial things can count as `contributed to an open source project', and we be more than you (and most other people) did so far. Also it will ease you into doing more interesting things later on.

Honestly, I've never written nor received a cover letter. Are you sure it's necessary?

I wrote a few early in my career, but not since then. I don't think I've ever seen one for any candidates I've interviewed - just resumes.

In a lot of the positions I am applying for, they say they are mandatory.

* Be Honest. Show what you are. * Provide links to your work which you think are Best. * Don't write crap, they can easily make it out. They were also student once. * Don't make grammatical mistakes. * Keep it short and to the point.

View your cover letter as another opportunity to sell yourself and get a call back. A resume has many details, but lacks personality. The cover letter is your chance to differentiate yourself from other candidates.

Express passion for what the company does and how they do it within the context of the position being applied for.

Think of it combined with your resume as a marketing plan. Why you as opposed to someone else and address anything that stick out better or worse in your resume.

These days, to me "cover letter" means what's in the body of the email, and the resume is attached, ideally as a PDF. I prefer "cover letters" that are short (one paragraph) and don't read like it was copy-pasted. Honestly, I've grown tired of reading that a person is a "hard worker" or a "great problem solver", stuff like that... just tell me why you find the company interesting enough to ask for a job there, to put 40+ hours per week of your life into indefinitely. Perhaps this doesn't work for emails that are going to an HR person or destined for a database but I know this is what I look for personally, as a software engineer interested in hiring quality software engineers.

Also, the resume should be concrete about experience. I don't like reading about what your team did, instead talk about what you did. I don't like reading that a project that "made stuff better", I want to know by how much exactly. I don't like reading projects that sound like they were accomplished with magic fairy dust, I like to see specific tools, techniques, programming languages, and so on. My resume in fact used to be more generic, but the feedback I got on it from my friends made it a lot better (they were also former coworkers so they knew some of the stuff and even remembered some projects I'd worked on that I had forgotten). I said what I did, what tools I used, what goals I hit personally.

I would like to briefly add to this excellent point. It is very valuable to highlight a time when you have actually built something (include a link to the project if possible). Demonstrate that you will be able to deliver software, not just think about it (as the case may be).

So, would you suggest I convert my resume to PDF? I have always sent it as a word doc...

It completely depends on who you're sending it to whether Word is an acceptable format, but PDFs are pretty much universally okay. If your Word doc is forwarded to someone who uses OpenOffice, your formatting may get all messed up. They might not have the right fonts, etc. PDFs are the safest choice.

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