Writing a Good Tech Cover Letter

Simon Brand from Simon Brand

I review a lot of job applications at Codeplay and most of them make me sad.

For every application I look at, I make a list of plus points and minus points as I read through the candidate’s documents and code. Invariably the first thing I look at is the cover letter, and I would estimate that 90% of them get an instant minus point in my review feedback. As an alternative to ranting about this on the internet, I’ve written some advice on writing a cover letter for a tech job. All advice is from the viewpoint of a small-medium sized tech company and all, well, you know, just like, my opinion, man.

A good job application answers two questions: why the candidate is right for the company and why the company is right for the candidate. The best place to answer these questions is in your cover letter. In fact, with the best cover letters, I even forget to read the CV. If you can’t answer both of these questions on a single side of A4, you probably don’t know the answers.

Step 1 to writing a good cover letter is to actually write a cover letter. If the job advertisement asks for a cover letter, write a cover letter. If it doesn’t ask for a cover letter, write one anyway! Without a concise, targeted description of why you should be considered for a job, your CV needs to work five times as hard for you, as the reviewer needs to try and extract the necessary information from a list of competencies and experience rather than an explicit argument for why the candidate fits the position.

Do not copy-paste a generic cover letter which you send everywhere. Anyone who has reviewed a bunch can spot them instantly, and they make it look like you don’t care about the job enough to actually write something targeted to the company and position.

If the job advert lists criteria for applicants, reference it. Show why you fulfil (or, even better, exceed) the expectations and provide evidence. The best cover letters I’ve seen have gone through all of the required and desired skills and provided short descriptions of experience in the area with links to proof of this experience. And, yes, you can do this on one sheet of paper and still have space for a how-do-you-do.

Don’t spout vague buzzwords. Every time I read about a “team player who is eager to learn” my eyes roll back in my head so hard I lose them. If things like being a team player or eager to learn are in the criteria, fine, but (again) provide evidence.

Let your character and enthusiasm show. These don’t come across in a CV, so show me who you are and why I should want to work with you. Of course, this is much more apparent when it actually comes to interviews, but being enthusiastic about the position and giving some colour to your writing can make the difference between actually getting that interview or not.

If the advert asks for links to your work, provide good ones. Of course, if most of your work is confidential and you don’t work on hobby projects then you may not have any; that’s fine, just justify it. But many applicants link to a Stack Overflow profile with two closed questions on std::vector and send a code sample they wrote ten years ago with using namespace std; in all the headers. Don’t.

Spell-check your letter. English might not be your first language, and whoever is reviewing your application should be sensitive to that, but maeking shoor ur letter doesnt look lyk this can be done by your word processor. This advice should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many applications I review are riddled with typos. Bad spelling looks lazy. You should put effort into your cover letter, and it should show.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t assume you’re not good enough. An understanding of the gaps in your knowledge, an honest desire to learn the field and evidence that you’re trying goes a really long way.