For those just getting into the tech workforce, a solid cover letter is critical. A lack of experience on your résumé is a tough hurdle to overcome, but a carefully crafted cover letter can help earn you that interview.
But how do you write your best cover letter? There’s no clear path to victory; if there were, all cover letters would be the same, and that’s boring. You can stand out, though. Here’s how.
Don’t Rely on Templates... But Don’t Be Too Clever
Open an app such as Microsoft Word and you’ll be met with templates for cover letters, which we’re going to suggest you sidestep entirely, or edit heavily.
A good cover letter is, at least stylistically, the same as (or similar to) your résumé. You want both documents to be a cohesive unit, so use the same font, font size, colors, and header for each.
Using a pre-built cover letter template as your jumping-off point is fine, but don’t simply follow its prompts to fill in information. At the same time, don’t get too clever. You want to stand out, but not because you created your own stationery or styled your cover letter and résumé to look like a video-game load screen or Amazon product page. It’s a delicate balance between being unique and going overboard.
When a recruiter or hiring manager opens your cover letter, you want to grab their attention straight away. Don’t be sensational or make wild proclamations; just be clear and direct about why you want this job, and how it benefits everyone involved to consider you for the position.
It starts with the first line, which should always serve as an introduction to why you feel you’re a good fit. A bad example of an opening line for your cover letter would be something like this:
Hi, my name is Nate, and I am applying for your open Python Developer position I found on Dice.
Don’t state the obvious. Be clever, concise, and direct. Here’s a better option:
I’ve always been a big fan of [the company’s apps or services], so when I saw [company] was hiring a Python developer, my excitement was palpable.
You just told a recruiter or hiring manager that you know the company, their products, and want to be there. From there, your job is to frame your lack of experience as a positive.
Discuss Projects, Not Classes
Hey, cool, you took CS3341 with Dr. Who-Cares. It’s time to talk code, not test scores.
If you were an eager student, chances are your GitHub profile has a ton of projects and Gists. You likely turned what you learned into side projects, and contributed to others. We hope you did, because referencing them in your cover letter will come in handy.
But even if you didn’t, discuss what you did in school, even if they were just class projects. Hiring managers want to see what you’ve done, not hear about what you learned. Your potential employer wants someone who can turn ideas into products, and it’s your job to show them you have that skillset.
If you’ve worked on things relevant to the company’s products or services, lean into those projects hard within your cover letter. Making a direct correlation between your experience or work and the company’s needs will draw the most attention.
Don’t be Cocky
Whether you were an ‘A’ student with several successful apps or a ‘C’ student who barely got by, be humble.
Companies want great coders, sure, but they’re also hiring for culture. Some jumped-up greenhorn is likely going to make their existing developer team unhappy, and a good hiring manager knows that. A lazy graduate who doesn’t seem to grasp concepts is not going to get a second look.
You’ve always got something to learn, and companies want to interview open-minded learners more than braggarts. If you’ve over-achieved throughout school, discuss your projects proudly... but don’t act like you’re overqualified. Your work will probably land you interviews, but a great attitude will get you hired.
And if you didn’t have the drive to code all day and night in school, a cover letter is the best place to discuss your learning process and how you approach things such as working on a team. Don’t be afraid to discuss your team projects in school; you were still part of the process, and teamwork is critical to every tech company.
A Cover Letter: Always One Page
That’s a declarative statement. Don’t write a two-page cover letter. If you did, edit yourself down to one page.
You’ve begun your cover letter with a catchy opening line, and talking too much can make the recruiter or hiring manager discard it. Be concise, be clear, and don't get too prolix.
Say too much and you’ll come across as long-winded. Say too little, and the person reading it may think you don’t care about the job at all.
Keep in mind: Documents are digital, so don’t be afraid to add links to a cover letter. If there’s a particular project you worked on that excites you and is relevant to the job you’re applying for, discuss it briefly and add a link to your Github repo or blog post about how you made it. So long as your cover letter isn’t a listicle of links, sprinkling in a few shouldn’t be a problem.