As a hiring manager throughout my career, I’ve reviewed thousands and thousands of resumes. I’ve seen it all. From no cover letter at all, to illegible cover letters in 6-point yellow Comic Sans type, I remain baffled by the overwhelmingly poor quality of applicant materials. (For the record, neither received consideration.)

Why are the cover letter and resume — the dynamic duo of making a great first impression — treated with disdain by so many communicators looking for their next hot job?

Here are nine guidelines to follow if you want your application to remain on top of the pile.  

  • Include a cover letter, always. In my experience, some 60% to 70% of job applicants don’t include one. I disqualify anyone without a cover letter, even if their resume is stellar. Embrace this golden chance to explain why you’re the best candidate or why the job excites you. This is the first chance to show off your writing skills, so make it count (and exhibit a bit of your personality too)! In short: No cover letter, no consideration. No kidding.
  • Address your cover letter to a person and use proper business cover letter format. If you don’t have an individual’s name, “Dear Hiring Manager” is a great way to start. Without this, your first sentence comes across as yelling to a stranger.
  • Refer to the correct company or organization. I’ve received applications intended for other institutions and businesses. Do your homework and show that you want the position.  And don’t forget to proofread!
  • Use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. This sounds obvious, but you’d be shocked to see low quality writing … for a communications job.
  • Make the connection obvious. If you have a connection to the place you’re applying, go ahead and talk about it. Use it as an opportunity to explain why you’re excited about the position. For example, if you’re an alumnus/a of the institution, talk about how eager you are to work at your alma mater.
  • Don’t be boring. For any job in communications (well, any job), great writing is an absolutely essential skill. If your cover letter takes me straight to Snoozetown, that makes me wonder if all of your writing is boring.
  • Position yourself as the solution. Resist the temptation to have a Mad-Libs cover letter, simply filling in the blanks with the name of company and name of job. Use it as an opportunity to show what you know about the organization or better yet, how you can solve the problems presented in the job description.
  • Follow the directions. Every organization seems to have a different recruiting platform and it’s worth your time to read the instructions. For example, my organization asks for a cover letter, references, and salary requirements. Although I won’t call references just yet, I take special note of the applicants who  follow directions and supply them up front. (P.S.: If you don’t want to disclose your salary requirements, you still need to address it somehow in your cover letter. That shows that you are paying attention.)
  • Use a professional font. Every job applicant has their favorite fun font, but you can never go wrong with tried-and-true, easy-to-read standards like Times or Helvetica at 10 to 12 points. Please don’t make me pull out a microscope. Please don’t use a color that’s hard to read. And, please don’t use a whimsical font like Comic Sans or Papyrus. You’re applying for a role in professional communications, not in a preschool.

Hiring managers: what tips would you add to this list based on your experiences?


Kristi Turnbaugh is senior director of marketing communications at Columbia College Chicago. Her team is currently looking to hire a Communications Manager, if you want to put these tips to work!


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