Best Cover Letter Ever Harvard

Let’s face it: A job search is, typically, anything but fun.

It’s almost as if it carries its own stages of grief. At first, there’s denial of its demoralizing nature. Then comes the anger over either radio silence or rejection from prospective employers. Of course, there’s bargaining -- “I promise to never complain about work again, if I can find a new job!” That’s often followed by depression, and the idea that one is simply just unhireable. Then, there’s acceptance: “This is awful, but I have to keep trying, anyway.”

But we have good news. It is possible to have a little fun with your job search -- and maybe even make yourself a better candidate in the process. The magic, it turns out, could be in your cover letter.

It may be true that 63% of recruiters have deemed cover letters "unimportant," but that doesn't mean yours has to contribute to that statistic. In fact, it might be that cover letters are deemed insignificant because so few of them stand out. Here's an opportunity for you to exercise your creativity at the earliest stage of the recruitment process. Personalization, after all, goes beyond replacing the title and company name in each letter you send to recruiters. 

What does that look like in practice, and how can you make your cover letter stand out? We found six examples from job seekers who decided to do things a bit differently.

Note: Some of these contain NSFW language.

6 Cover Letter Examples That Nailed It

1) The Short-and-Sweet Model

In 2009, David Silverman penned an article for Harvard Business Review titled, “The Best Cover Letter I Ever Received.” That letter contained three complete sentences, as follows:

Source: Harvard Business Review

One might argue that this particular letter is less than outstanding. It’s brief, to say the least, and the author doesn’t go into a ton of detail about what makes him or her qualified for the job in question. But that’s what Silverman likes about it -- the fact that the applicant only included the pieces of information that would matter the most to the recipient.

“The writer of this letter took the time to think through what would be relevant to me,” writes Silverman. “Instead of scattering lots of facts in hopes that one was relevant, the candidate offered up an opinion as to which experiences I should focus on.”

When you apply for a job, start by determining two things:

  1. Who might oversee the role -- that’s often included in the description, under “reports to.” Address your letter to that individual.
  2. Figure out what problems this role is meant to solve for that person. Then, concisely phrase in your cover letter how and why your experience can and will resolve those problems.

The key here is research -- by looking into who you’ll be reporting to and learning more about that person’s leadership style, you’ll be better prepared to tailor your cover letter to focus on how you provide solutions for her. Not sure how to learn more about a leader’s personality? Check out any content she shares on social media, or use Growthbot’s Personality Profile feature.

2) The Brutally Honest Approach

Then, there are the occasions when your future boss might appreciate honesty -- in its purest form. Livestream CEO Jesse Hertzberg, by his own admission, is one of those people, which might be why he called this example “the best cover letter” (which he received while he was with Squarespace):

Source: Title Needed

As Hertzberg says in the blog post elaborating on this excerpt -- it’s not appropriate for every job or company. But if you happen to be sure that the corporate culture of this prospective employer gets a kick out of a complete lack of filter, then there’s a chance that the hiring manager might appreciate your candor.

“Remember that I'm reading these all day long,” Hertzberg writes. “You need to quickly convince me I should keep reading. You need to stand out.”

3) The One That Says "Why," Not Just "How"

We’ve already covered the importance of addressing how you’ll best execute a certain role in your cover letter. But there’s another question you might want to answer: Why the heck do you want to work here?

The Muse, a career guidance site, says that it’s often best to lead with the why -- especially if it makes a good story. We advise against blathering on and on, but a brief tale that illuminates your desire to work for that particular employer can really make you stand out.

Source: The Muse

Here’s another instance of the power of personalization. The author of this cover letter clearly has a passion for this prospective employer -- the Chicago Cubs -- and if she’s lying about it, well, that probably would eventually be revealed in an interview. Make sure your story is nonfiction, and relatable according to each job. While we love a good tale of childhood baseball games, an introduction like this one probably wouldn’t be fitting in a cover letter for, say, a software company. But a story of how the hours you spent playing with DOS games as a kid led to your passion for coding? Sure, we’d find that fitting.

If you’re really passionate about a particular job opening, think about where that deep interest is rooted. Then, tell your hiring manager about it in a few sentences.

4) The Straw (Wo)man

When I was in the throes of my own job search and reached one of the later stages, a friend said to me, “For the next job you apply for, you should just submit a picture of yourself a stick figure that somehow represents you working there.”

Et voilà:

I never did end up working for the recipient of this particular piece of art, but it did result in an interview. Again, be careful where you send a cover letter like this one -- if it doesn’t match the company’s culture, it might be interpreted as you not taking the opportunity seriously. Be sure to pair it with a little bit of explanatory text, too. For example, when I submitted this picture-as-a-cover letter, I also wrote, “Perhaps I took the ‘sense of humor’ alluded to in your job description a bit too seriously.”

5) The Exercise in Overconfidence

I’ll admit that I considered leaving out this example. It’s rife with profanity, vanity, and arrogance. But maybe, in some settings, that’s the right way to do a cover letter.

A few years ago, Huffington Post published this note as an example of how to “get noticed” and “get hired for your dream job”:

Source: Huffington Post

Here’s the thing -- if the Aviary cited in this letter is the same Aviary I researched upon discovering it, then, well, I’m not sure this tone was the best approach. I read the company’s blog and looked at the careers site, and neither one indicates that the culture encourages ... this.

However, Aviary was acquired by Adobe in 2014, and this letter was written in 2011. So while it’s possible that the brand was a bit more relaxed at that time, we wouldn’t suggest submitting a letter with that tone to the company today. That’s not to say it would go unappreciated elsewhere -- Doug Kessler frequently discusses the marketers and brands that value colorful language, for example.

The point is, this example further illustrates the importance of research. Make sure you understand the culture of the company to which you’re applying before you send a completely unfiltered cover letter -- if you don’t, there’s a good chance it’ll completely miss the mark.

6) The Interactive Cover Letter

When designer Rachel McBee applied for a job with the Denver Broncos, she didn’t just write a personalized cover letter -- she designed an entire digital, interactive microsite:

Source: Rachel McBee

This cover letter -- if you can even call it that -- checks off all of the boxes we’ve discussed here, in a remarkably unique way. It concisely addresses and organizes what many hiring managers hope to see in any cover letter: how her skills lend themselves to the role, why she wants the job, and how to contact her. She even includes a “traditional” body of text at the bottom, with a form that allows the reader to easily get in touch with her.

Take Cover

We’d like to add a sixth stage to the job search: Experimentation.

In today’s competitive landscape, it’s so easy to feel defeated, less-than-good-enough, or like giving up your job search. But don’t let the process become so monotonous. Have fun discovering the qualitative data we’ve discussed here -- then, have even more by getting creative with your cover letter composition.

We certainly can’t guarantee that every prospective employer will respond positively -- or at all -- to even the most unique, compelling cover letter. But the one that’s right for you will. That’s why it’s important not to copy these examples. That defeats the purpose of personalization.

So get creative. And, by the way -- we’re hiring.

What are some of the best cover letters you’ve seen? Let us know in the comments.

Checklist

  1. Name the exact position. Reference the requisition number if available.
  2. State why you are interested in the position.
  3. Show how you think you and the organization are a good match.
  4. Make it clear that you expect to hear back.
  5. Keep the cover letter to 1 page, with an optional second page for a list of publications/presentations or a list of references.
  6. Make sure the cover letter has no spelling or grammatical mistakes.

Purpose

Ideally, a cover letter is the cherry on top of long process of networking and research about the job opportunity. In the best case scenario:

  • you know exactly who will read the letter,
  • you know what they are excited to see in candidates, and
  • you are acquainted with the person who will be reading your letter (or you know someone who knows that person) so that the reader knows to pay special attention to your letter.

Your cover letter and resume are the first parts of your job application that will be evaluated. Your cover letter may be the only part anyone reads. If the hiring manager (or selection committee or whatever) doesn’t like what they see in your cover letter, your application might go directly into the “no” pile. You need to quickly assure the reader that the rest of your application is worth looking at.

If you make it over this first hurdle, the cover letter can serve as an overview for your resume. The cover letter and resume are closely related in terms of their purpose and tone, so you might also want to read our guide to writing a resume.

Analyze Your Audience

Get a feeling for the personality of your target employer or organization. Read the job posting and the rest of the employer’s website carefully. A group that describes itself as “a young and dynamic startup” will be looking for a different applicant than “an established industry leader”. Customize the formality and content of your application to match the employer’s self-image. The more you know about your potential employer, the stronger your cover letter can be.

We have demonstrated how to analyze a job posting in the Authentic Annotated Example (AAE) section. We have provided an example job posting, and highlighted the key traits the employer desires to see in an ideal candidate.

Skills

Write a different cover letter for every application

A cover letter should show a match between you and the position for which you are applying. To be a fit for a position, you need to also be a fit for the organization. Do your homework! What goals and opportunities excite you about the organization? What makes it a good place for you to work and advance your career? Which of your skills and accomplishments match those requested in the job posting?

You’ll be a more exciting candidate if you demonstrate that you understand and are enthusiastic about the organization’s mission. Find specific words or phrases that the organization uses to describe its own values (e.g, “transforming the landscape of renewable energy,” “fast-moving and dynamic”). Echo these ideas in your letter. Highlight experiences and interests of yours that correspond to these values.

In the AAE section, we have provided an example cover letter that was tailored to the example job posting, and was written to demonstrate how the candidate matches the employer’s desired traits.

Structure of a Cover Letter

Cover letters follow a very specific structure which helps the reader quickly ascertain the candidate’s contact information, interest, and qualifications. Most readers have well-defined expectations for a cover letter. They are reading many cover letters at once and want to quickly decide if you go in the “yes” or “no” pile. A cover letter is not a place for creative structure or excessive flair. See the example structure of a cover letter, below.

Letterhead. Give your name and contact information. List the date and the organization to which you are sending the cover letter.

  • Don’t make your name too big. This isn’t a Steven King novel.
  • Your telephone number and email are enough. Use your professional or collegiate email address. Include your address if you are local and you think they are looking for local job candidates.

Salutation. Greet the reader of the cover letter.

  • If you are addressing a specific person, make sure to spell their name correctly.
  • If you don’t know to whom to address the cover letter, use a generic greeting such as, “To Whom it May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” etc.

Brief Introduction. Name the position. Include job numbers or job posting locations. This paragraph is one or maybe two sentences. Explain why the position interests you, in the context of previous work or education, or other skills that demonstrate your familiarity with the topic.

  • “I am writing to express interest in position X…”
  • “I am interested in the position because…”

Make it clear that you know what this job will entail. Reference specific examples, such as mentioning certain protocols, software tools, or soft skills such as project management.

Scientific Achievements. Briefly list the organizations and advisors with whom you received your degrees. Describe your overall training.

  • “I earned my Ph.D. in ______ at University X…”

Motivation and Impact. Show why you and this organization are a good match for each other.

  • “I think this opportunity may be a great match for me because…”
  • Why do they need you and exactly you? List specific examples of what you can add to the position

Wrap Up. Make it clear that you expect to hear back.

  • “I look forward to hearing your response.”
  • Also make sure to thank them for their consideration of your application.

Make concrete claims

Back up any claims about your abilities or qualifications with concrete accomplishments. If possible, quantify your accomplishments. For example, to show that you have “independence and an innovative research spirit”, describe the scope and outcomes of research projects you’ve led or carried out on your own.

Start a conversation

Your cover letter is designed to get you an interview, and successful interviews usually turn into conversations. Start the conversation early. Be humble and curious. A claim like “I know I’m a perfect match because XYZ” can make you sound naive: how would you know that this is true? A claim like “I’m excited to explore this opportunity because XYZ” is more professional and more likely to initiate a conversation.

Make no mistakes

A single spelling or grammar error can be enough to make a recruiter think you’re sloppy. Don’t let a little mistake keep you from this job.

If you’ve found a specific person to whom to address your letter, be absolutely sure you’ve spelled their name correctly. A misspelled name comes across as annoying and unprofessional.

 

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