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Eliot Sanford
Eliot Sanford

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How I write cover letters for developer roles

A friend who's job searching for developer jobs asked me recently:

"What points do you try to cover in your cover letters?"

Here are some of my main objectives with the cover letter.

What's the goal of it?

First, understand what the cover letter is doing for you.

Its goal is not to land you the job. Its purpose is to get you an interview. Approach writing one with that angle.

Network

Before even laying hands to the keyboard to write a cover letter at all, think of the number of ways that you can get an interview. One major way is through someone's referral, so ,firstly, seek to network with someone to get a referral.

Probably 9 times out of 10, I don't need to write one because my referral or recruiter is my cover letter.

When seeking a referral

Make sure that:

  1. They have a positive reputation (and some respect, gravity, and influence at the company never hurts)
  2. They know enough about you to vouch for you (reach out to them for a quick call if you don't know them that well yet or haven't spoken with them in a while to talk about how you are qualified)

It's still usually a good idea to have a person to reference in the first section that you spoke to about the position. Having a positive existing relationship with someone that they know is a positive step to get what you want from the cover letter anyway—your foot in the door for an interview.

Plus, they referred you, so you want them to be contacted and given credit for a kickback when you're hired. That's a great way to say "Thank you!", indirectly.

You're applying, so write a cover letter

If given the option to write the cover letter, write one. Unless you do some of the things I suggest not doing, then it can't hurt you.

I've heard that some screeners or hiring managers might not read it, but someone might think you're a classy person for taking that extra step. A low percentage of candidates take those steps, so if you're writing one you stand out.

In the end, your qualifications are the most important thing to getting you in the door, but it can demonstrate attention to detail much better than merely listing attention to detail on a resume. It gives them one more reason to call you in.

Having a clean resume and a well-written optional cover letter is at a minimum like wearing a belt and suspenders. The suspenders aren't that necessary but certainly give you confidence.

Plus, a short and sweet letter linking why you're a fit in at least three main ways, could help you, especially in the absence of a referral.

Things I do:

  • Match the title and contact info header from your resume (consistency shines)

  • Address the person by name (I like to show personality, so I use a waving emoji with my "Hey" but I understand if you want it to be professional)

NB A little hack I learned: call the HR contact person to find out who by full name reads the cover letters, find out insider information about the position, and let them know that you'll be applying. I cannot overstate this, but making contact with a human at the company and knowing them by full name, again, it increases your chances of getting your foot in the door.

  • Mention your referral early in your letter as I detailed above

  • Explicitly mention the full title of the position with job id number if used and known (including whether its listing has a location, hybrid, or remote)

  • Tailor your letter for this specific role (a rubber-stamped template is just a recipe for mistakes or including irrelevant information for that role)

  • Pick either a paragraph or a bulleted list to demonstrate that you meet most if not all the qualifications, laser-focusing on including things not already stated in your resume

NB If at this point, you realize that you've only got 40 percent or fewer qualifications for the role, then it's unlikely you'll get the interview. Your chances for successfully getting the interview go way up after you've hit the threshold of at least 60% of the qualifications. Demonstrating an interest to learn the remaining percentage is typically enough to get your foot in the door.

  • If you opted for a paragraph, include at least one to three sentences about why you want that specific role and/or why you're a good fit for the role with the value you bring to the company or specific team if known

  • Or if using bullets for your qualifications, have a line that says "Here's my qualifications:"

  • Then, use 3-7 bullets after that colon that goes line by line down the job description and tells them the number of years experience that you have with it, your passion for learning something, or a detailed explanation of how you are qualified

  • Say thank you with a salutation

NB I've also literally stopped saying "Looking forward to talking with you soon". Instead, I have been referencing this article for months now, 7 Clever Alternatives to “I Look Forward to Hearing from You”.

  • Add a P.S. if you have space that says "I'd welcome an opportunity to talk about what you have in mind for filling this position at [company name]. If you wish to schedule a video interview, I'm free at 3 p.m. Central each weekday the next couple of weeks and please email me at [your email]."

  • Keep it short and concise

  • Triple check for typos and grammar

  • Ask a friend or family member to read it

  • Save the letter as a PDF to fix the formatting in place

Things I don't do:

  • Continue to apply without at least researching the company

  • Not even trying to speak with someone about the company

  • Forget to validate that it's a real position, at a real company, and that it's still open (how deflating to work up a cover letter and the role is closed)

  • Reference the wrong job title and/or job id (spell check can't fix that)

  • Using the same cover letter for every role (be careful because it can lead to the next mistake)

  • Misspell someone's name or the company's name—even worse using the same cover letter format and including the wrong person or company's name (guilty).

  • Fail to demonstrate that you want the role with reasons

  • Fail to thank them

  • Have large blocks of text—few will want to read that so bullets help here

  • Use long confusing sentences

  • Include too much information

  • Forget to proofread

  • Use an unprofessional sounding or off brand email

  • Send a word document (Only send those to your 3rd party recruiter)

Hope this helps you. I offer this entirely as my opinion from my experience, and I'm open to others thoughts, especially hiring managers or recruiters. Please leave a comment with your feedback.

Discussion (2)

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jonrandy profile image
Jon Randy • Edited on

I didn't even know this was a thing when applying... is it unique to the US? The only time (in 26 years of being a professional developer) I've ever used a cover letter was when I did a cold mailshot to all tech-related companies I could find in my area, to see if they were interested in hiring me. If you're replying to a job ad or posting, a cover letter seems entirely superfluous

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techieeliot profile image
Eliot Sanford Author

Yes, certainly at least an option in many job application portals for U.S. developer roles.

It's debatable whether it's relevant in 2021, but if executed well, can't hurt.