Cover letter definites and don’ts, plus 3 examples that landed me interviews

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Even in the digital era of professional websites, portfolios, social media and networking, some companies still require a cover letter with job applications. Along with a resume and portfolio, the three of these may comprise the “official” package for send-off to an HR recruiter or hiring manager (“official” because there are several other things that come into play like your online presence, social media, mutual connections, etc.) Each part of the package serves a different purpose for getting your foot in the door and landing an interview. The portfolio showcases your expertise and experience, and the approach you take in your work. The resume is a concise summary of your professional experience and skill set. The cover letter is an opportunity to tell your story – to succinctly and thoughtfully explain why you are interested in a particular company/role, make an argument for why you should be considered, and show how you can help solve a business problem. This means that it usually takes time and effort to write a good one.

As time consuming as it can be, it’s worth it. The more cover letters you write (and look at for ideas), the more you write in general, and the more experience you have, the better you get at cover letters. You eventually finding your cover letter voice – a style and approach that works for you.

Here’s a few useful pointers to start – I’m hoping people know at least some of these things already from browsing around on the web and using common sense, but I do believe some of them aren’t discussed as often as they should be.

Cover letter definites:

  • Convey your passion for your craft, and your enthusiasm for the job and company at hand
  • Approach the letter as a story rather than a list of items to regurgitate
  • Personalize it – no boiler plates, even if the roles you are applying for are the same – it’s easy to tell whether or not someone’s put effort into the writing, tone and showing they know something about the company
  • Communicate a sense of your professional self with a bit of personality – sound like a human being!
  • Address the main requirements of the position as outlined in the job description – especially helpful for HR folks who recruit for a wide variety of roles/teams
  • Say what the specific job is – include a reference number if there is one – especially important at large companies
  • For consistency, match the font style to the one on your resume
  • Follow directions – if you’re asked to address a specific question or topic in your cover letter, do it! Examples: Tell us about a great customer experience you had recently, tell us about an interesting project you worked on where you learned something surprising, tell us why you want to work here, etc.
  • Include project examples/achievements that are relevant to the job you want
  • Mention relevant connections – e.g., a current employee who referred you to the role
  • Save it as a PDF before sending

Cover letter don’ts:

  • Re-hash exactly what’s on your resume
  • Go beyond a single page unless you have to (e.g., they ask you to address something that requires more space)
  • Make it too salesy
  • Be afraid of singing your praises, but stay humble
  • Forget who your audience is/could be

Here are three cover letter examples from UX research jobs I applied to in the past couple years (click for PDFs).

cover letter example 1

In this letter, I mention the person who referred me to the company (a current employee) and the reason why I left my last job (lay-offs). Since this was a freelance researcher role on the agency side, I focused on industries I’ve worked in, clients I’ve worked for, and projects I’ve done to showcase versatility and variety.

cover letter example 2

This cover letter is two pages long because I had to address two specific questions in addition to including the regular stuff. I like this one for a few reasons: 1) I come right out and say why this organization stands out to me (hence, why I’m applying) in the first paragraph. 2) I take the opportunity to show that I’m well-versed in the various roles a UX researcher might play in an enterprise setting, from designing research to working with stakeholders to making recommendations. 3) My research approach and passion for user-centered design is strong and clear.

cover letter example 3

This one is essentially the second example, but without the additional information requested for the job application.

What would you add to the above list? What would you have done differently? Also, if you have any cover letter examples you would like to share, please do so, especially if they are related to user experience research/design.

4 thoughts on “Cover letter definites and don’ts, plus 3 examples that landed me interviews

  1. Great post. I will definitely share.

    The digital portfolio is an essential piece of a career building package today. Without question a link to a personal website that contains the portfolio should be included in any package of application materials. A reasonable assumption is that if one is short-listed for a job, the prospective employer will do a web search on the individual to see what is out there. However, as an employer, if an applicant makes the cut and ends up in the pile of possible good fits, a link to the digital portfolio – assuming the content is well-presented and of value – that link could immediately place the individual in the short-list.

    So, my inclination is to think that the link – which obviously should be brief and an owned domain – would best be woven into the content of the cover letter and then repeated on the resume. Thoughts?

  2. Good question, Robert. Some companies ask for a link to a personal website/portfolio right away (in an online application form), and use it as part of their initial evaluation. My guess is that many won’t even short list candidates without finding out about them via online search and review of whatever materials they have online. My recommendation to job seekers is to take a proactive approach, rather than wait for people to ask for additional info. Include a link to your website on both your resume and cover letter so people see it right away. In email/LinkedIn introductions, put your URL underneath your name at the bottom, or mention it in the body.

    Anywhere online where you have information about yourself is a potential way for prospective employers to find out about you, so why not make the process more efficient? Finding a job doesn’t always start with submitting an application – instead, you may be contacted by someone looking to fill a role because they were able to learn about you and see your work prior to contacting you. It’s about covering all the bases.

    Something else to consider is that portfolios can take many forms. For example, you might present case studies/summaries of projects you worked on on your website, limiting the detail you share for the sake of brevity and confidentiality. A good example is my friend Jenny Marx’s: http://www.bloomsoon.com/. For in-person interviews, it’s common to present 2 or 3 detailed case studies using Keynote/PowerPoint slides, showing your approach/process, deliverables and role, not to mention your ability to communicate. This can also be turned into a PDF to be shared via email (helpful if you don’t have a website, which you should) or posted on a password-protected page.

    In fields like design and user experience, applicants are expected to have a portfolio. It’s not as common for researchers, especially students coming right out of school and from disciplines that don’t prioritize this form of communication. Since designers are who I often end up working with/for, it became necessary for me to create one to even be taken seriously. It pushed me to get creative with how I talk about what I’ve done with concise writing, nicely designed slides, and interesting visualizations of research findings and frameworks. It’s challenging to create one from scratch, but worth the time and effort.

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