6 things to look for when reviewing cover letters

Last updated:
November 14, 2022
November 14, 2022
min read
Richard Grant
Linkbuilder.io
reviewing cover letters
Table of contents

A great cover letter can grab a recruiter’s attention and set an applicant apart from the pile of resumes they have to browse through. So, no wonder people interested in getting the job will put a lot of effort into creating the perfect cover letter.

But what does this mean from a recruiter’s point of view? In most cases, it means you must follow a few well-tested guidelines and trust your experience to find the elements that separate a genuine cover letter from one only designed to stand out. 

But how do you sift through the many well-polished letters and find the gems? 

HR professionals have a few tips and tricks up their sleeves, and we used their experience and advice to create a list of the most common things to look for when reviewing cover letters.

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1. Specificity to the position they apply for

According to a study by ResumeLab, a well-written cover letter must first focus on the list of job requirements published by your company. By doing so, the candidate shows they’ve read and understood the requirements and have the right skills for the position.

Big bonus points if the format of the letter is concise, on-point, and easy to browse. At first glance, you should know why the applicant feels they’re a good fit and how they can contribute should they get the job.

Also, look for facts and figures that support the skills they claim to have. For instance, between “good sales skills” and “I helped boost product x’s sales by 15% in 5 months,” the latter is a lot more convincing. 

2. Past accomplishments

People should be proud of their past accomplishments, but it’s also a way for the recruiter to gauge the applicant’s contributions and value with former employees and teams. Plus, someone who is proud of their past accomplishments shows confidence and passion for their work.

Look for cover letters that include specific examples of projects and the type of accomplishment that was achieved. Also, look for quantitative data such as “doubled the company’s social media following” or “increased revenue by 5%.”

Another way to identify valuable candidates is to look for awards, prizes, competitions (solo or with a team), willingness to participate in educational training, and so on. People who list these accomplishments are usually curious and interested in growing with the company.

Of course, it’s equally important to perform reference checks and see if the person’s claims are true. 

3. Why does the candidate want to join your company?

As Lensa explains in its blog, the purpose of a cover letter is to present the applicant as a memorable candidate with the right skills and experience for the job.

However, if you look closely and learn to read between the lines, you should also be able to identify why they want to join your company.

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Examples:

Examples:

  • Are they interested in a better-paid position?
  • Do they want to advance their career?
  • Are they looking for a company that’s more flexible with the work schedule?
  • Are they looking for a less stressful work environment?

Pay extra attention if the candidate is changing industries (from marketing to IT, for instance). If they are serious about this change, their prior experience can become a powerful asset in future projects, but it can also be a disrupting factor.

4. It’s easy to read

No one likes a wall of text or disorganized sentences. This is a glaring red flag, especially in a cover letter, and shouldn’t be ignored. It shows a lack of attention to detail and possibly some communication issues.

A well-designed cover letter is well-formatted and uses paragraphs, breaks, lists, and other elements to bring out the essence. But, more importantly, pay attention to the introduction. An introduction that cuts right to the chase denotes a no-nonsense person with good written communication skills.

Also, to make it easier for the person reading it, candidates use key phrases from the job description to describe skills, training, and experience. Of course, the overuse of such key phrases is also a red flag since it shows a desire to stand out without a real base.

Overall, a well-written cover letter encompasses several unique selling points that make you (the recruiter) want to read the person’s resume.

5. Enthusiasm vs. authenticity

Enthusiasm is good, but it’s not always sincere. Look for signs of fake flattery and a desire to overcompensate (which are often easy to identify).

For instance, if you’re the hiring manager for a well-known company, it’s normal to receive enthusiastic cover letters from people who want to bask in the light of a powerful brand. 

In this case, look for people who’ve done their research. Why are they so happy about the position they’re applying for? Do they know the company's history and understand the role they’ll be playing?

Also, you may find that some candidates will address the cover letter directly to you, the hiring manager. This is a good sign, as it shows they took the time to search for the information (unless it was already provided). 

Bonus points if they end the letter by leaving their contact details and asking for an interview (enthusiasm and confidence go well together). 

6. Grammatical and spelling mistakes

A flowy, well-written cover letter denotes attention to detail, but it also shows that the candidate took the time to ask for feedback. Minor errors are easy to miss when you’ve been working on the same text for hours, as the brain glosses over them. 

Sometimes, you miss a few pesky spelling errors, even when you proofread a text several times. This is why fresh eyes are important, and a person who is not afraid to ask for feedback is a good candidate for any company

You can also assume that a fluent cover letter that’s easy to summarize and has a well-built story has gone through several proofreading and feedback sessions. Of course, the person might just be that good at expressing themselves in writing (which is still a win). 

But what do you do when you discover a few spelling or grammatical errors? Should you toss the letter away at the first sign of negligence?

It depends; if the letter is good based on all the other criteria mentioned on this list and you get a good vibe from it, you may want to see how they are fairing during the interview (for a better context).

Key takeaways

In a nutshell, a good cover letter is well-written (fluent, grammatically correct, easy to read), includes past accomplishments, and lets the recruiter know why the candidate wants the job. Also, it’s specific to the job requirements and contains a healthy dose of authentic enthusiasm. 

The right cover letter makes you want to know more about the candidate, their skillset, and their plans for the future as an employee of the company.

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