What is a good cover letter

5 commandments for a good cover letter

Curriculum vitae

A contribution by Gitte Härter

I learned how to "apply" in school over twenty years ago. Back then it was still the case that the technical aspect was in the foreground: It was far more common to stay in the apprenticeship profession - it was about remaining as seamless and straightforward as possible, and the cover letter was accordingly more technically oriented.

A lot has happened since then! The number of applicants has increased, not only when the job market is tight and more people are looking, but also because lateral entry has become much more common.

And: The personality of the employees has become much more relevant. The conviction has prevailed that, as a rule, it is easy to convey specialist knowledge, but if the personal characteristics and character do not suit the job profile, it becomes more difficult. In addition, the way employees appear and thus represent the company to the outside world has come to the fore. And of course: the integration into existing teams.

All of these changes are very significant and of course also have an impact on the written application. And yet I can tell you that even today most applicants still apply as they did two decades ago. Partly because, unfortunately, it is often still propagated. Partly because many applicants do not get information, but simply proceed as they learned to do in school (where unfortunately a very outdated, superficial and impersonal application is still taught today).

The cover letter in particular offers you as an applicant practically the only real opportunity to make yourself personally tangible and thus to make the written documents a real substitute for you and to express your professional and personal trump cards individually.

90% of all applications that I have seen in the past as a personnel decision maker and in the last few years as a coach show the same errors or remain far below their possibilities.

1. You shouldn't squeeze!
Because you always read that a cover letter should definitely not be longer than one page, many applicants squeeze far too much text onto one page. Also gladly taken: to set the font size to 10 or 9 points. Not only does it look bad, it is extremely tedious to read.

The first preselection when viewing application documents is usually accompanied by a quick "scan" of the cover letter and résumé. That is why - in addition to the unfavorable layout - it is downright counterproductive if you kill the reader with a huge desert of lead.

Therefore: The font size should always be legible (11 or 12 point). Leave space for your content. Feel free to include a list. And if you have more to say, feel free to add a second page - provided your content is really relevant to this particular application.

Tip: Read your draft cover letter a second time with the aim of shortening everything that is unnecessary. You almost always get into rambling or repeating information.

2. You shouldn't be meaningless!
Most cover letters consist more or less of this: "I think your ad is interesting, that's why I'm applying." Then a bit is quoted from the résumé. "I am flexible, communicative and able to work in a team. If you are interested, I would be happy to receive an invitation to speak with you."

We are also happy to point out that

  • one fits the requirement profile (without further explanation)
  • further details can be found in the attachments.

Your cover letter is "informative" in a positive sense if it:

  • Your honest interest in the position or the company is credibly conveyed
  • Your professional qualifications (skills and relevant professional experience) for this special position are specified
  • also reveals something about the "person behind the application", i.e. provides information about your work style and personality.

3. You should not only come up with technical information!
As already mentioned, unfortunately, many cover letters only contain technical information. Of course, it is important that you include relevant professional experience and the relevant professional competence for the position in your cover letter, but please do not make the mistake of neglecting your personality.

The fact is, your résumé tells the facts by providing information about education and work history. Your certificates also contain technical information and, if you have several and detailed certificates, personal references as well - but these are usually kept very brief. In addition, personal assessments are not always only positive and lose some of their meaningfulness if they were a long time ago. In addition, the position for which you are applying may also require slightly different personal characteristics than those stated in the certificates.

It is also like this: If your cover letter and your résumé do not seem particularly suitable, the recruiter will often not even go into your references.

So express your personality. This increases the likelihood of being invited and you can also assert yourself against applicants who are equally qualified (or even better qualified) who do not make themselves so tangible.

You show your personality through:

- what you write
(what does the applicant mention, what does he pick from the advertisement or company information, what particularly appeals to him)


- How you write something (are you relaxed or business-like-aloof, do you write too superficially or rather awkwardly or get to the point clearly, only respond reactively to everything that is in the ad, or bring your own questions or expectations with a ...).

Tip: Please also pay attention to your wording, because these also provide information about you. There are some applicants who think it is a good idea to formulate as if they already had the job (by speaking of the company as "we" and "us"). Others do not dare to make clear statements about themselves and push around: "Others say of me ...", "They say that I ...". And then of course there are also those who doubt: "I do believe that I would do the job justice."

Incidentally, the phrase with the "new challenge" is also popular. Please put yourself in the company's position: The company is looking for a professionally and personally qualified employee who can do what he is supposed to do, and not someone who also emphasizes that he is trying to do it as a challenge.

4. You shouldn't just parrot what is being asked!

It sounds so simple ... and some applicants believe that it is proper or that it is a good idea to just somehow drop all the keywords that the company mentions in the advertisement. Unfortunately, customers repeatedly confirm to me that they do this to look good ... even if they have not checked these properties for themselves or even know that they do not have them at all.

This is not a good idea because:

  • You can bet that three-quarters of your competitors claim exactly the same properties, so you will even be drowned in the crowd,
  • a personnel decision maker does not find lists of characteristics credible anyway and often yawns (or is even annoyed) about the same statements,
  • Neither you nor the recruiter will benefit from saying "I am flexible, communicative and able to work in a team".

Be foresighted: Take a close look at the advertisement or the website and honestly check whether you have the required technical and personal points with you. If not, think about what you have to offer that are comparable or complementary.

Tip: Unfortunately, applicants often only look at what the company writes. You can do this without much effort - and even as a professional layperson! - often assess very well for yourself which characteristics and knowledge are required for a particular position. If you have difficulties with this, this is a warning sign and you should check whether you are really applying for the right position.

And one more thing: in the film business there is the principle of "show, don't tell" (so show it instead of simply telling it), and that also applies to the cover letter. Instead of simply telling them that you can work in a team, you can, for example, include in your professional qualifications when and how you worked with colleagues. In doing so, you brought the ability to work in a team and made it tangible instead of just writing down the word.

5. You shouldn't write a serial letter!

In other words, if your cover letters are 90% or more the same and you only exchange the address or a few smaller phrases, then your cover letter is not as good as it could be. Because then you just write the same text over and over, which is so neutral that it fits everywhere and with which you only tell "one-sided" about yourself and get rid of almost everything that there is to report about you "like a shotgun" instead of using it to convey targeted plus points and relevant, particularly relevant experiences, characteristics and skills of yourself.

Do you know what I hear quite often in this context when I say that? A groan and a "Ms. Härter, do you know what kind of work it is to write a cover letter individually over and over again ?!"

"Yeah, I know," I then say, "but would you like to make your application process efficient and find a job as soon as possible, or do you want to send a lot of other general letters, each of which doesn't cause you as much work, but you do not present as well as it could? "

And sometimes, when someone has been unemployed for a long time and their only job is applying, I laugh a little hysterically when I say "This is too much work for me".

Do it better than the bulk of your competitors!

Use the cover letter to

  • to present oneself well,
  • to make yourself really tangible
  • Specify all the plus points that speak in favor of inviting YOU to the interview.

I can tell you from experience that a personnel decision maker is incredibly happy about every individual and meaningful cover letter from an honestly interested applicant. In the mass of serial letters, general non-disclosure letters, these are the great moments - with which you can immediately collect powerful points!

Read the next tip: »What does the HR manager think when he reads ...

About the author:

(c) Gitte Härter
eMail: [email protected]

Gitte Härter was a manager herself and a coach and trainer for many years. She has also published over two dozen guides: www.schreibnudel.de.

Together with Christine Öttl, she has published numerous application guides, among other things.

Link to the book:

Written application: Success with a profile. Cover letter formulated perfectly. From a short profile to online applications. With application portfolio check

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