An employer’s guide to writing a cover letter

I have a post about the wonderful Write the Docs AU 2018 conference sitting expectantly in my drafts folder, like a puppy hoping it will taken out for a walk. Until I finish it, you can read all my live tweets collected here.

Today, though, I’m going to keep talking about job applications. Specifically: what I, an employer, would like to see in your cover letter.


There’s nothing like sifting through a pile of job applications to make me think about what a perfect cover letter would look like.

As an employer, I get a lot of applications – we had over 100 for the last job we advertised. And I would love to say we read each one carefully and multiple times. But we don’t. Chances are, I’m so busy during work hours covering for the vacancy, I can only read your applications at home on my personal time.

Which means your cover letter should give me clear, concise, compelling reasons to read the rest of your application instead of groaning in despair and flicking over to Netflix.

I want to fill my vacancy. I want YOU to be the perfect candidate to fill that position. I want us to have an amazing career working together.

Start that amazing collaboration right now by making it easy for me to choose you!

So — with the enormous caveat that this is purely my personal opinion — here’s an example of what I would like to see in a cover letter:

Dear Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry-

I am writing to apply for the role of ASSISTANT LIBRARY MANAGER that was advertised recently on

I love managing complex projects, I am passionate about helping teams reach their full potential, and I believe libraries play a vital role in education, so I believe I would be a great fit for this position.

I can offer you:
– 8 years experience in managing the IT Services department at MUSUL Inc.
– 13 months leading the Customer Support team at OCLC (ANZ)
– 22 years experience in IT, including problem solving and project management
– A BSc in Computer Science
– A Masters in Information Management (in progress)

In addition to my career and studies, I maintain the blog about libraries and information technology, I regularly participate in ALIA New Graduate and NewCardigan events, and I have moderated discussion panels at the Emerging Writers Festival and the Continuum science fiction and fantasy convention.

You may notice that my background is in IT, not library management. I am currently changing career direction to pursue my love of libraries. To that end, I am studying a Master of Information Management at RMIT University, I have taken a role at OCLC (ANZ) to increase my knowledge of the library sector, and I believe that my skills and experience in team leadership, project management, and budgeting and planning are directly transferable to this role.

Included in my application are:
– this cover letter
– my response to the selection criteria
– my resume

I hope to hear from you soon.
David Witteveen
[phone number]
[email address]

Let’s walk through that

THE SALUTATION: If the job ad lists a name, use that name. Otherwise use the company name. It’s not make or break, but “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom it may concern” sounds like you don’t know who you’re applying to, at which point I’m yearning for my Netflix playlist.

FIRST PARAGRAPH: Tell me which job you’re applying for. Put it in bold or all caps so I’m sure. Mention where you saw the add so I can tell if it’s worthwhile advertising there in the future.

SECOND PARAGRAPH: Tell me why you want the job. Mention two key duties and something about the broader importance of the role or industry – that’s enough to show me you understand what the job entails and why it matters.

Some people grumble about having to explain why they want they job. “I need the money!” they growl. So do all the applicants. If you can’t fake enthusiasm for the job in your cover letter, how are you going to fake it when the job gets hard?

THIRD PARAGRAPH: 3 to 5 highlights from your resume that show you’re qualified for the role. Dot points are fine. They make it easier to read.

FOURTH PARAGRAPH: A quick list of two or three relevant personal achievements that both show your interest in the field and help give me a feel for who you are as a person. Do you blog? Volunteer? Attend industry conferences or meet-ups? Have you run a relevant personal project? Try and list specific activities rather than vague, general statements such as “I really like books!”

FIFTH PARAGRAPH: Address any questions or concerns I might have after I’ve read your resume. Don’t try to hide things – if i have questions about your application, and no questions about someone else’s, I’ll interview that person instead.

So: identify the problem and explain the solution. Here’s some examples:

Q: Is this person under-qualified?
A: I am a fast learner and have all these transferable skills!

Q: Is this person overqualified?
A: I am looking to change career direction! Or improve my work-life balance! Or I just love what your company does so much that I would take a step down in my position!

Q: Why is there a large gap in this person’s resume?
A: I was raising a family! Or travelling the world! Or working on a personal art project! ( has some advice on discussing extended unemployment for medical reasons.)

Q: This person is in another city. Would they move?
A: I would love to move! Here are three reasons I would love to move specifically to your city!

SIXTH PARAGRAPH: A dot point list of attachments. This shows you’ve read the job ad and included everything they asked you to. (Read the job ad. Include everything they ask you to. It’s shocking how many people don’t. Get the advantage over them.)

END with your name, phone number and email so I can contact you. Don’t assume I have your email address from your email. HR often dump print outs of job applications on my desk.

Overall, this format tells me why you want the job, why you’d be good at it, addresses any doubts I might have, and then leads into the response to the selection criteria and resume for a more detailed exploration of your skills and qualifications.

Congratulations! You have made my task SO MUCH EASIER! I love you already! This is an excellent start to us working together!

And in case you’re wondering: I give you express permission to steal this format and use it in any and all job applications into the future.

Please do! You’ll be making my life easier.


About davidwitteveen

IT person. Zine Maker. Level 0 Library Nerd. Doctor Who fan.
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