Love ’em or hate ’em, if you want to get a job, you’re probably going to need write a cover letter. And in a world where recruiters receive hundreds of responses to job postings daily, yours has to stand out.
We’ll look at what to say and what not to say—the do’s and dont’s of cover letter creation—plus cover letter examples proven to work.
Wait—do I still even need a cover letter?
It’s generally accepted that a full half of recruiters don’t read cover letters; what that means, though, is that the other half does. Unless you’re directly instructed not to include one in your job application, then yes, you need a cover letter. In many instances, they’re still expected, plus a cover letter can actually be the deciding factor as to whether you land a coveted interview or job.
Business initiatives consultant Scott Farray explains the value of a cover letter this way: “It allows an applicant to introduce themselves, provide a high-level overview of their experience, talk to the value they bring, add detail that they could not fit into the resume, and maybe even note their goals. Compared to the resume, which should have hard hitting bullets with quantifiable impacts that showcases their ‘awesomeness’.”
A strong cover letter stands out to the hiring manager—it demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to think about how your qualifications and experience are valuable to that company. It’s also another opportunity to use role-specific keywords, which helps in this era of applicant tracking systems.
Do’s and don’ts of writing a great cover letter
Here are some pointers regarding what your cover letter should include, and what it should absolutely not include.
Don’t make your cover letter a repeat of your resume. That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to expand upon and demonstrate how your experience is well-matched to the role.
Do address how you’ll solve that department’s pain points. This approach shows exactly the kind of value you’ll bring to the company and makes the decision to hire (or interview) easy. Use the one opportunity you have before the interview to market yourself.
Don’t make the letter too long. One page is plenty, and less is definitely more in this case. Remember you’re competing against strained attention spans and enormous volume here. According to SmallBizGenius staff writer Ivana Vojinovic, the average corporate job post receives 250 resumes.
Do include a call to action. That is usually confirming that you’re available for an interview at the employer’s convenience, and you can put your availability for the start date as well.
Don’t blindly follow a template. While keeping the general framework of a strong cover letter in mind is a good idea, don’t send a bland letter that doesn’t specifically connect to the job you’re applying for.
Do address potential questions the recruiter might have based on your resume, such as gaps in your employment. You can also demonstrate knowledge of the company you’re applying to, which shows the recruiter you’ve done your research.
Don’t make typos. Proofread your cover letter as carefully as you did your resume. Even one mistake can be jarring in the eyes of the hiring manager and negate much of the good impression your letter should have made.
Do proofread! This can’t be overstated: Embarrassing errors happen and it can mean your note getting the interview. Foreign affairs syndicated columnist Markos Kounalakis says when he applied for an editing job, his letter read: “I am applying for your editroial position.” (He didn’t get the job.) Put your draft cover letter away for 24 hours, then come back to it for a final run-through. Use a text-to-speech reader and read along with it, then ask a human to read it for you, preferably someone who is good at spelling, grammar, and editing. Use CTRL+F or words you repeat or know you tend to have trouble with (you’re/your; it’s/its).
The four paragraphs of a cover letter
In her book Tell Stories, Get Hired, certified career coach and resume strategist Daisy Wright sets cover letter guidelines you can use and make your own. She’s given us permission to republish it here in full:
The first paragraph answers the “how” and “why”: how you heard about the position and why you are the perfect candidate for the role. If your application is an unsolicited one, indicate that the company is your main target and that you are exploring possible opportunities.
The second paragraph describes your skills, education, and experience and how your experience meets the company’s needs. It also shows how they align with the position and what the employer can expect from you.
The third paragraph describes your key contributions and tells stories of your achievements—how well you did what you were asked to do—and what makes you uniquely qualified for the job.
The fourth paragraph is a “call to action,” reiterating your interest in the position and indicating that you will be following up with them.
A sample cover letter template
Wright provided us with the following fill-in-the-blanks sample cover letter, based on her recommendations above. You can personalize this for the job itself focusing on the top desired skills, and your unique qualifications.
I am writing in regard to your job opening of [target role]. As a candidate with extensive experience in [job title], I am highly skilled in [hard skills to job description]. My solid background in [people skills] has allowed me to manage teams with exceptional performance.
The opportunity to join [organization] greatly interests me because [reasons]. As a holder of [degrees, certs], I can competently execute [job responsibilities].
I believe that I would make a valuable asset to your team and I offer my resume for your review.
As per my professional summary, my qualities and experience make me highly suitable for the role of [target role]. I am highly regarded for [transferable skills]. I am proficient in [systems].
Throughout my career, I have demonstrated the highest levels of service and commitment to the mission of any organization I have worked for. [List three or four achievements relevant to the job description].
Thus, if you are looking for an organized [“what” + “who”], you are welcome to contact me to arrange an interview. I am eager to learn more about how your organization can benefit from my contribution.
I thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.