First impressions are key, especially on a cover letter, where you have the opportunity to show the real person behind the compilation of work experiences and skills on your resume.
With the high volume of applications for each job opening—an average of 250 for each corporate position—it’s imperative to make that first sentence of your cover letter count. “You’re really leaning on your cover letter to stand out from hundreds or thousands of applicants,” says Sonia Ashok, a career and happiness-at-work coach. “You really want to find a way to stand out to show you have the skill for the job, you have the strength, and you also have the passion. It’s not just another job that you’re applying for—you’ve really taken the time to tailor the cover letter to this job, and you feel this is something you could excel at.”
In lieu of repeating the information included in your resume, Ashok says you should focus on conveying your excitement about the job and why you think you’d be the best fit.
Tazeen Raza, an interview and career coach who most often works with people in IT and technical roles, says that although cover letters aren’t the most important part of your application in every industries, letting people know who you are and what soft skills you have can boost your chances of getting an interview, especially if you’re missing some key qualifications. “People don’t just want to see those hard skills like they used to 20 years ago,” she says. “They want to see a person that’s in front of them. They want you to be able to do the work, but they want to relate to the person who’s doing the work. It’s not just about the actual work anymore.”
When drafting your cover letter, Raza says to keep in mind “not just why you’re interested in the job and why you’re qualified, but what makes you tick? You have years in the industry. Why are you still there? What is making you stay? These are all good things to mention in the intro.”
Take a look at these ideas for starting a cover letter and put an end to staring at a blank document.
1. Drop names
In a cover letter, the casual name-drop can be the golden ticket to an interview. If you personally know an executive at the company or recently made a great connection with Amy from accounts at a conference, use that name loud and proud.
These connections go a long way with hiring managers by providing a certain level of credibility to a candidate’s application.
At this year’s Big Data Conference, VP Steve Edwards personally shared his insights with me regarding your company’s recent product updates. I have six years’ experience developing SaS for enterprise-level clients, so our conversation was long and inspiring.
2. Show your accomplishments by the numbers
Hiring managers want to see that you have success under your belt that can be translated to the open position. Instead of stating I excelled in my previous position, use concrete examples and numbers to back up your claims.
Strategically inserting these statistics can increase a candidate’s chances of being hired by 40 percent.
As the lead production manager for four years, my implementation of an enhanced, streamlined process increased my company’s production efficiency by 30 percent.
3. Prove you know the company
Decision-makers want to know that you’re excited about the company’s mission. “You want to show that you’ve done your research about the organization,” Ashok says. “You want to show why you’re passionate about that specific organization and that specific role, and you want to outline why your strengths are a good match for the position that’s open.
Use your opening sentence to do just that.
As a long-time member of a local environmental conservation organization, ACME Corporation’s recent green initiative is of great interest to me.
This approach could also be an opportunity to speak to the specific hiring manager’s recent achievements and contributions. Who doesn’t enjoy a little praise? Just be careful you’re not brown-nosing.
ACME’s recent UX redesign inspired me to reach out regarding the open user experience designer position. I want to be a part of the team that sets the standard for e-commerce app design.
4. Show them why you believe in your work
You do what you do for a reason. Show them why. Share what piqued your interest about your field or share a story of how you put that mission to work in your daily life.
I have a sibling who has profound physical disabilities and have experienced firsthand the financial struggles of families who care for loved ones with a disability. Since then, I have spent my career connecting families like mine to affordable financial services.
My longtime volunteer work with local literacy programs has led me to a career in education for at-risk youth.
Read more: How to Address a Cover Letter with No Name
5. Talk about your passions beyond your role
You might not be applying for a job that’s a step up or different from the one you have now. That’s okay. Raza says you can use your cover letter to expound on your other work-related passions, like personal growth or mentorship.
In one of her favorite cover letter openers, someone wrote:
I’m 15 years in the industry, and I still love it because now at this level I’m able to mentor people about what is so exciting in this ever-changing field.
“That to me was so interesting because they’re not talking about themselves,” she says. “They’re talking about how they show their excitement to other people.”
6. Convey your soft skills
Stellar soft skills like communication, relationship-building, and curiosity can make a good hire great. “My favorite thing is when people talk about themselves,” Raza says. “Not only telling me what your technical skills are, but some of your soft skills.” Use storytelling to illustrate a time when you’ve gone above and beyond, even and especially if the job you’re applying for isn’t traditionally soft skill–based.
Collaborating with the software engineers on my team has been the most rewarding part of my current position, which is why I’m applying for this role. I know from reading about your values that your company values team culture and trust.
7. If you really want the job, get creative
Not all jobs you apply for are going to be your dream gig, but sometimes a once-in-a-job-market opportunity sweeps you off your feet. Bolster your cover letter with a unique approach that makes you stand out, like this one from Ashok’s brother: He was applying for a company that shipped items from one place to another within his city. He wrote up his resume and cover letter, put it in an envelope, and hired the company to ship it to their office.
“It was different,” Ashok says. “It was creative. It showed he knew exactly what the organization did.” He got an interview—cover letter introduction notwithstanding.
9 ways you should never start a cover letter
1. With a generic phrase
Phrases like, I am writing to apply for the X job ; Hi, my name is ; or Thank you in advance for your time. You’re more creative than that. We promise.
2. Too formally
Starting off with “to whom it may concern” is already a misstep. Think of this as an email to a manager at your current company—you want to impress, but you see them every day, so you want them to know you’re human.
3. Too casually
Go ahead and delete “Hi there” from the top, too. Keep your opener smack dab in the middle of “dry-clean only” and “ripped jeans.”
4. Beg or show desperation for the position
You’re a catch! Act like it. Interviewing is a two-way street. You have just as much right to accept or reject as a hiring manager does.
5. Forget to talk about company or position completely
Remember this cover letter has a purpose. Save the personal anecdotes for coffee chats.
6. Forget to replace details from the last cover letter sent, like a different job title or company name
We all make editing mistakes sometimes, but this one is pretty bad. You likely won’t hear back if the letter is for a different job. Double, triple check your work.
7. Simply restate your resume.
If you call out items or experience in your resume, it should be only to give them context. Storytelling is an excellent way to elaborate on projects where you’ve excelled.
8. Undercut yourself
I know there are probably more qualified candidates, but… Again, you’re a catch. Sell yourself. Practice your elevator pitch while you’re at it.
9. Telling the hiring manager why they should hire you
Here’s why I’m the best person for the job. This is a show, don’t tell scenario. And a statement like this can be said in a more diplomatic way.
About our sources
Sonia Ashok is a physician and happiness-at-work coach. After pivoting through roles in medicine, public policy, and tech, she founded the Connective Coalition as a global movement to empower women to be more confident, more resilient, and more successful in their careers. Her vision is to create an army of strong female leaders who will lift up the next generation.
Tazeen Raza is a career coach with a background in human resources, first in recruiting, then talent management and college recruiting. This journey helped her realize her real passion: helping individuals attain their dream jobs. She now works one on one with individuals in fields such as IT, marketing, HR, merchandising, and finance.