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Much like writing a resume, the key to writing a good cover letter is to understand how people read them, and by and large, they don’t.

People glance at cover letters quickly, first for format and general appearance; this takes from less than a second to a very few seconds. Then they “quick scan” for keywords and qualifications emphasized in the position description and advertisement. Actually a computer may perform the quick scan for keywords before any human even looks at your resume; this is especially true if you are applying online. Because most position advertisements get dozens if not hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of responses, computer scans have become an essential and sometimes preferred way to pre-scan applicants’ resumes.

Therefore, crafting a superior cover letter begins by carefully reading and analyzing keywords and phrases used in the advertisement that describe what the employer wants.


1. Most people don’t carefully read and analyze the whole ad; they glance through the ad and highlight a few phrases and qualifications that catch their eye – perhaps because those are key skills or attributes that they want to be using in the new position.

2. Many read the ad from their point of view and not from the point of view of either the person who will read their application or the point of view of what the organization has spent the time and money to define, in writing: the person they want to hire.


1. Go old-school! Print out the position description.

2. Read everything in the ad: the description of the firm or organization, the general description of the position they’re seeking to fill, the requirements, the qualifications needed and preferred, and how and where they want you to respond to the ad.

3. Grab a highlighter and highlight everything in all those sections listed above that describes the corporate culture and what they’re looking for in the position. Watch especially for words and phrases that are repeated (e.g. they might describe their organization as one that emphasizes “teamwork” and “collaboration,” and “building and working in teams” might be listed as requirements or qualifications). The real tone of what they’re looking for is usually in the company description of itself (“dynamic,” “cutting edge”); if that’s how the company sees itself, you need to infuse that same tone and those values in your cover letter. Think: what is the essence of what they want? And what are the keywords or qualifications that they’ve used to describe the essence?

4. Sit back and analyze what you’ve highlighted. In addition to identifying the essence of what they’re looking for, based on your knowledge of this kind of position, what are the key skills, qualities and personal attributes desired that are also unique to this particular organization? Remember: ads for the same position title are not the same – the emphasis will be different and unique for each company.

5. Craft the opening sentence of your cover letter around the essence of what they want. Incorporate the top skills and qualifications listed in the position advertisement that you have highlighted. Use the same words they used in the ad; those are the exact keywords the reader or computer scanner will be likely looking for. Are there themes restated and reinforced? Use these themes as major headings for copy, then group the bullet points in your letter under them. Match your background and experience to the qualifications and specific requirements of the ideal candidate described. The goal is to have the reader almost instantly get the essence of what you are communicating without having to read the letter carefully.

This is what often makes the difference in those that go in the “yes” pile from those that wind up elsewhere.

The key to writing a good resume is to understand how people read them, and by and large, they don’t. People glance at resumes quickly for format and general appearance; this takes from less than a second to a very few seconds. Then they start a “quick scan” for keywords and keyword history info (where you worked, what your title was, how long you worked there, and what level of education you have).

If the resume passes that “quick scan” (studies have shown it takes about 10 seconds or less) then they consider putting it in the “yes” pile (if it’s in a pile of resumes they’re evaluating) or giving it what we call “the long read” where they actually read much and perhaps all of the copy in the document.

An exception is if you or your resume has been referred to them by a trusted third source (e.g. your “distant relative” and your “colleague in Shanghai”) in which case 1) it’s usually not in a pile of resumes they are sorting through, and 2) they already have a favorable initial opinion of you from the “recommendation” of the trusted person they know who has referred you.

When people recommend you and your resume to others, those others will likely read your resume no matter how you format and write it. But after that, if/when you start applying for positions that many others are applying for – and your resume becomes just one more in a long list or big pile of them – the “quick scan” tends to become operative.

That said, it’s essential to format your resume so as many keywords and concepts as practical appear right away up top. Once you have your keywords and concepts, be sure to read them carefully and make sure they offer the best of what you do and want to do. They should also represent similar keywords and concepts most likely to be the focus of ads you might respond to.

In addition to keywords, use numbers that stand out by quantifying scope and results. Remember: numbers with a dollar sign ($) or a percent sign (%) stand out and attract the reader’s eye. For example:

  • Managed 18 staff and $2.5 million budget.
  • Led 7-person team that implemented new marketing strategies.
  • Saved $25,000 by consolidating 10% of standard operating procedures.
  • Designed and installed IT system for 450 people in 12 locations.

As always, proofread your resume and ask others to proofread it for you, watching especially for typos and inconsistency.


Read and analyze six or so ads of interest for positions you would apply for to see what keywords or phrases they feature. If those words or phrases apply to you, consider adding them to your resume.

We hear it every year.  “No sense looking now; everybody knows that no one hires in December.” 

Contrary to widespread belief, December can actually be one of the best months to conduct a job search. There are at least five reasons for this.

Less Competition: Since so many people believe December is a bad month to look for a job, they don’t actively search during that month. Hence, there is less competition from other job seekers, and potential employers have more time to consider those who do apply for positions. 

More Access: “Everybody” does not go away for the December holidays. On the contrary, many managers are both catching up on unfinished business and are getting ready for the new year. Many human resources directors are working on staffing plans for the coming year, and are more attentive to personnel matters than they usually are. Thus the last month of the year can be the best month of all to get access to key people.

The Giving Season: As people get in the spirit of the year-end holidays, they tend to be more disposed toward helping others. There may not be a huge swing in this direction, but even a little increased openness by hiring managers works in favor of applicants.

January Hires: January is often one of the biggest months of the year for hiring. However, individuals who are hired in January usually are not the people who waited until then to start their job searches. Those hired in January are often people who were actively pursuing leads in December. (We’ve worked with job applicants who had critical interviews on Christmas Eve or during the last week of the year.)

The January Rush: A lot of people make New Year’s resolutions to change jobs. In January, therefore, the market becomes more saturated with job seekers. If you put off your search until after the December holidays, you’re likely to have to compete with a bigger (and possibly more determined) crowd in January. You also risk losing psychological job-search momentum around Thanksgiving, and you may not get into high gear until mid-or-late January. That means, obviously, that a job seeker can actually lose two months, not just one, by suspending activity in December.