Tips for Writing Cover Letters: The Four F*cks

Imagine you’re sitting at your desk at work on a Monday morning, and you have 218 unread emails in your inbox. You are part of a team at work, and so you have multiple people in multiple roles that you interact with each day: supervisors, team leaders, colleagues, customers, administrators, clients, members of the public, bureaucrats, etc. Your job entails that you yourself fulfill diverse roles throughout the day and week–you not only fulfill your main job duties,but you might serve on committees, take phone calls from frustrated clients or curious would-be customers, take and give advice from co-workers, and any other of the myriad, complex tasks and roles we perform at work that are in some ways intangible and invisible, but make up what we call our “job.”

Now, imagine that in the midst of all this, you get an email with an attachment from an unknown sender named “resumedraft1.docx” and the message in the email was “see attached.”  If you didn’t delete this email right away, you might have some questions. Questions like:

  1. What the f*ck is this?
  2. Who the f*ck sent this?
  3. Why the f*ck am I reading this?
  4. What the f*ck am I supposed to do with this?

Cover letters are important documents that accompany other kinds of documents: resumes, reports, proposals, etc. A cover letter provide background and context for the document they are accompanying. Cover letters can come in many forms, ranging from formal to informal (letters, emails, short messages, etc.) and can accompany many different types of documents.

To understand how to write an effective cover letter, you need to understand the perspective of the person who is reading it, like in the scenario above. The important thing is not to strictly follow some generic set of rules, but to imagine the situation in which your reader is interacting with your document.

No matter what form they take or what kind of document they are “covering,” the job of a cover letter boils down to 4 main points: the four “f*cks”:

  1. What the f*ck is the document the cover letter is “covering.”. That is, a cover letter introduces the accompanying document, provides some brief background and explains the purpose of the accompanying document.
  2. Who the f*ck sent it. Cover letters also introduce the person, or group, who is sending the document, provides some basic background about those people, and provides contact information for them as well.
  3. Why the f*ck I’m reading it. This is the “why should I care” question. Cover letters help to bridge the purpose of the sender with the purpose of the receiver. You can also think of this as “pointing out the obvious” : you need to tell the reader why this matters to them.
  4. What the f*ck I’m supposed to do with it. The cover letter not only explains the accompanying document,why it was sent and who sent it, but leaves the reader with an indication of what action they are supposed to take, or what action the sender hopes the reader will take. Again, this might seem obvious to the sender, who has only one main purpose in mind when preparing and sending the attachment. However, for the busy reader, it is not obvious.

So, let’s apply the four “f*cks” to the above scenario to illustrate the importance of having a cover letter for your resume (which, by the way, you should never name something as generic as “resumedraft”). Your cover letter should:

  1.  Explain that the attached document is your resume, which you are sending because you are responding to a job posting and want to be considered for that particular job.
  2. Introduces you to someone you don’t know and provides necessary information about you and summarizes  your main qualifications and interest in the job. The cover letter is a chance to convey your personality. It also provides your contact information.
  3. The company in question may have several jobs open at the moment. The cover letter indicates which specific job posting you are responding to and what to be considered for. This is important because you don’t want to submit your resume for a graphic design job if your area of expertise is landscaping. Also, that company might have several different people involved in the process of interviewing and hiring potential candidates and you might have mistakenly sent your resume to the wrong person. If you provide enough context in your cover letter, you have a better shot of it making it to the right person because the reader will know what the f*ck to do with it.
  4. The cover letter always ends with an invitation for the reader to call the sender in for an interview. Your resume might have an email address, physical address, and multiple phone numbers listed. Here in the cover letter, the call to action indicates the best way of contacting you.

So cover letters are really important and serve multiple functions. There’s one other main function of a cover letter: to demonstrate your communication ability. Since the cover letter is written in “long form” with complete sentences, paragraphs, and designed as a letter, it gives the reader an opportunity to get an idea of how you write and how closely you pay attention to detail. Unfortunately, in my experience people take less time working on their cover letters than on their resumes.

So remember the next time you’re applying for a job, remember the importance of the cover letter: because no one will give a f*ck unless you do, too.