I’m applying for jobs and I have NO IDEA how long my cover letter should be. I want to fully explain my skills to hiring managers but I also don’t want their eyes to glaze over. I want to ensure that it actually gets read and not skimmed (or worse, tossed). How long should the ideal cover letter be?
Cover letters are hard enough to begin with. They ask the applicant to do something unnatural: tell other people what they’re good at. Like nicknames, there are certain qualities that you can’t bestow upon yourself.
It’s impossible to know if you’re a hard worker, a quick thinker or a “team player.” Side note: under no circumstances should you call yourself a team player. But that’s exactly what the average HR professional needs to know about you to separate you from the other applicants swarming their inbox.
It’s an uncomfortable situation and people in dicey spots tend to babble, looking to span the gap by kicking their feet in the air over the canyon until they land on the other side. If you don’t believe it, I’ve gone three paragraphs and I haven’t even arrived at the question yet! Ipso facto and a QED.
The short answer on how long a cover letter should be is one page. The proof is in the name. It’s meant to be a single page that covers your resume. Back in the antediluvian days of shoe leather and working your way up from the mailroom, it was a way to make the application you handed to someone a little neater than an easily chucked or lost piece of paper. And both the practice and the appropriate length have carried over into our age of surrealist memes and reality TV presidents.
As anybody who has ever gone to college can tell you, a page can fit a widely divergent amount of words. And that’s before you make your periods one font size larger (not that we ever did that). To avoid confusion, let’s say that a cover letter should be four to five paragraphs long. Here’s a few tips about how to fill out that space:
Address the letter to a person if you’re sure of their identity. Otherwise, use “Dear Hiring Manager.” Avoid the phrase “To Whom It May Concern” at all costs.
The first paragraph should explain why you’re interested in the job and how your values align with the mission of the company.
The second and third paragraph should broach your work history and explain how it’s relevant to the job at hand. They should move from broadly relevant to the position to specific to the job offered.
The final paragraph should reiterate your excitement about the position and put the idea of talking to you in the near future into the hiring manager’s head
One final tip before I go: while no one likes writing cover letters, it’s best to avoid using a canned cover letter for every application. The average job opening sees hundreds of applicants and hiring managers are better than most at sniffing out someone who didn’t try. Create a basic cover letter template that hits on the key points about you and then customize it based on the opening and the qualifications spelled out in the listing.
Jr. Marketing Assistant. Perfect for new grads! Requirements: 3 years of digital marketing experience.Compensation: $12/hour.
The job search can feel like one big Catch-22: “How the hell am I supposed to get experience if I can’t get a job to get experience?”In fact, after analyzing a random sample of 95,363 jobs, we discovered that 61% of all full-time “entry-level” jobs require 3+ years of experience.
What gives? Before we get into that, here are 3 other interesting things we found:
Employers are driving “experience inflation”; as a result, the amount of experience required to get a job is increasing by 2.8% every year. That means your younger sister (or brother) will need ~4 years of work experience just to get their first job.
That’s bullshit, right? You don’t have to play by their rules. Based on our analysis, you can successfully apply to jobs if you’ve got ±2 years of the required experience.
3, 5 and 8 are your magic numbers. After 5+ years of experience, you (officially) qualify for most mid-level jobs. After 8+ years, you qualify for senior ones. And 3+ for entry-level, obvs.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
How Much Experience Do You Need?
Employers are a superstitious bunch. How many jobs have you seen asking for 13 years of work experience? They’ll ask for 7, 10 and 15 years (but rarely 11-14). You can see job postings clump up by employers’ “lucky numbers” in the graph above.
But, here’s the rub— this isn’t just a cute gimmick. It lets us pinpoint how much experience you’ll (officially) need to qualify for different levels of jobs:
# Years of Experience
% Jobs Qualified
Put another way, if you’ve got 3+ years of experience, you’ll qualify for 75% of entry-level jobs. 3 is the magic number here: below 3 years of experience, you don’t (officially) qualify for most entry-level jobs; above 3 years of experience, you do.
(“Officially” is the operative word here. Keep reading.)
Companies Gone Bad
Can You Be Overqualified?
After 8 years of experience, you qualify for most senior-level jobs out there. But even for senior roles, employers rarely ask for more than 10 years experience. (You can see this in the graph above.)
And from our first post in this The Science of The Job Search series:your hireability starts dropping by ~8% every year after age 35. Assuming today’s experienced folks graduated college around age ~23, this is almost exactly 10 years of experience. It’s no coincidence.
Age matters. A lot, sadly. Your chances of getting a job at age 20 aren’t great. At 30, they’re OK. After 40, they’re getting bad again. It’s illegal for companies to discriminate based on age, but ageism is very real.
What Gives? “Experience Inflation”
In addition to discriminating against older workers, employers have also been driving “experience inflation,” which is especially dangerous for younger workers. For entry-level jobs, the amount of work experience required to get a job has been steadily increasing at 2.8% per year.
Over the next 5-10 years, recent graduates will start needing ~4 years of work experience just to get their first job. (Yes, I know this doesn’t make sense. Hold on.)
We’ll get into experience inflation in detail in next week’s post, but for now let’s focus on what options you have. This is all very depressing—
What Can You Do?
Honestly, the job search is unfair. (That’s fundamentally why we started TalentWorks, but that’s a different story for later.) So what? Folks still need jobs. Hell, maybe you need a job.
What can you do?
#4: Don’t List Your Graduation Date If You’re 35+
We’ve already briefly touched on fighting ageism.Hiring managers (subconsciously) guess your age based on your graduation date, how much work experience you have, etc. If you don’t list your graduation date or only show your most recent 2-3 jobs, they can’t tell how old you are.
#3: Use Freelance Jobs To Build Your Experience
One way to get past the job-searching Catch-22 is to play a different game. Instead of fighting with everyone else to get that first job, you can instead build up your work experience (and resume and portfolio) by doing freelance jobs on the side.
Not only will you get paid, you’ll also have far higher chances getting your 2nd job (everyone else’s 1st job). In the future, especially when experience inflation means you need 4+ years of experience to get your first job, this might be the only way to break into your job.
#2: Apply for Jobs Within ±2 Years of Your Experience
The #1 lesson: you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. From what we see, if you’re within ±2 years of required experience, hiring managers will often consider you “close enough.”
So, be flexible with what jobs you go after! You never know if something special in your application will catch the hiring manager’s eye. What’s the harm in applying?
#1: Identify (Actual) Entry-Level Jobs Near You
Let’s be honest: looking for jobs is a *[email protected]$* pain in the ass. Of the 95,363 jobs we analyzed, 52% (49,245) were supposedly entry-level (based on what the employer said). Of those, my hypothetical job-searcher — a Marketing Assistant in LA, say — was only interested in 3% (1,286). Of those 1,286 supposedly entry-level Marketing Assistant and other jobs, I found 240 for actual entry-level Marketing Assistants.
In real life, folks need to apply to 150-250 jobs to get a job, so needing to review 1,286 job postings is actually pretty representative. (Afterwards, you’d still have to apply to the final 240 jobs, of course…)
Getting a job has always been hard, but it’s getting (quantifiably) harder. These days, you need to have ~3 years of experience (officially) to get the average entry-level job. It’s a full-on Catch-22: “No, you can’t have a job.” “Why?” “Because you don’t have a job.” “…”
With the right insights and tools, you can break the Catch-22 and get the job you deserve. To recap:
Identify (actual) entry-level jobs near you. With a bit of patience (and a lot of stubbornness), you can identify the ~5% of jobs that actually match your needs.
Apply for jobs within ±2 years of your experience. If you’re within ±2 years of required experience, hiring managers will often consider you “close enough.”
Use freelance jobs to build your experience. Go guerrilla. Not only will you get paid, you’ll also have far higher chances getting your second job (everyone else’s first job).
Don’t list your graduation date if you’re 35+. Ageism is real. If you don’t list your graduation date or only show your most recent 2-3 jobs, hiring managers can’t tell how old you are.
We’ve already added a filter for (actually) entry-level jobs in ApplicationAssistant. If you’re looking for an entry-level job,sign up for ApplicationAssistant and set “Entry Level” during setup. We’ll only look for (actual) entry-level jobs near you!
(88% of recent graduates looking for entry-level jobs got an interview in 60 days or less using ApplicationAssistant — it’s backed by our Interview Guarantee.)
First, we randomly sampled 100,000 jobs from our index of 91 million job postings. We extracted the # of years of experience, job level and employment type for each job using TalentWorks-proprietary parsing algorithms. We then used a blended Gaussian-linear kernel to calculate experience densities. Finally, we used an averaged ensemble of multiple independent RANSAC iterations to robustly calculate inflations against outliers. This was done in python with pandas, sklearn and scipy and plotted with bokeh.
Why Are We Doing This?
With ApplicationAssistant right now, we can boost the average job-seeker’s hireability by 5.8x. But, what makes ApplicationAssistant work has been an internal company secret until now. We’re fundamentally a mission-driven company and we believe we can help more people by sharing our learnings. So, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
I don’t expect a response from every job I apply to, but what is up with getting no response after multiple interviews, even after I follow up. Do I suck at interviewing or are employers just that rude?
Dear Feeling Ignored,
Some employers are just that rude. I mean, I can’t say if you suck at interviewing. Maybe you’re showing up in an orange tutu. Maybe you have no idea what the company does and biffed your way out of the classic “What do you know about us?” question. (If you’re not ready for this one, you really need to give one of our wonderful TalentAdvocates a call.)
Although it’s still uncommon to get ghosted after an interview, it’s happening more and more. But, what does happen all the time is getting ghosted after a job application. In fact, it’s pretty much the norm.
Chances are it’s not you. Most of us have the tendency to beat ourselves up about it. “I should’ve worn the blue shirt instead of the black.” “I should’ve smiled more.” “Maybe if I’d asked better questions…” “Oh, God, what if I had a massive booger hanging out of my nose? I knew I should have grabbed that Kleenex!”
We focus on the small, nit-picky things that might have made a difference. It’s easier to do that, because it puts a little control back into our hands. But, here’s the truth: we can follow every bit of advice out there — show up a little early (but not too much), dress up (but not too much), do our research beforehand, give killer answers — and still never hear back. There are so many things that can happen behind the scenes:
They already had an internal employee in mind (this happens a lot). Maybe the nephew of some VP needed a job at the last minute.
Another candidate had fancy-schmancy experience. Maybe they worked for big, name-brand companies. Maybe you’ve got years of experience producing videos, but they made feature films.
Maybe you applied during the Resume Blackhole. After a job has been posted for more than 10 days or so, it’s almost not even worth applying to it. You’ll get ghosted (almost) every time.
They’re simply too busy.
And that last one? That’s the kicker.
Most of the time, it really isn’t you — it’s them. Let’s take a moment to think about it from a hiring manager’s perspective:
For every open job, there are often 100+ job applications. You have to review each application and pick 5-10 people to interview.
Even if you spend just 15-20 seconds on a resume and 2-3 minutes writing an email, that’s still nearly an hour.
The interviews basically take you a full day (assuming 30-60 minutes for an interview, plus notes, plus any other random emails and meetings you had).
Making the offer, writing it up, setting them up in payroll, getting them started on their project is probably a full day on its own.
Replying to 100+ job applicants is (realistically) never going to happen. Worse still, replying to every interviewee often falls through the cracks. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.
But, honestly, here’s the thing: You’re going to drive yourself crazy with all the whys and what-ifs. Your time is precious — whatever the reason, don’t give them another moment of your time and energy. Instead, focus all of yourself on looking ahead and maximizing your job search.