It’s a good time to be a job seeker: U.S. job growth is strong, unemployment is on a steady decline, and openings are at an all-time high.
That doesn’t make the search any less daunting. Differentiating yourself from every other job seeker on the market is no small feat, and the monotony of filling out online applications can make the task downright exhausting. That’s where a killer cover letter comes in.
Done right, a great cover letter is like a secret weapon for catching a hiring manager’s attention. Next to your resume, it’s one of the most important, underutilized tools at your disposal.
Here are some cover letter writing tips, and a free, downloadable template, to make yours stand out.
Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the job you’re applying for — just like your resume. Study the job posting carefully, and make a quick list of any essential qualifications.
“Job seekers really struggle with what to say on a cover letter,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. “Taking a second to think about why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the company, makes the process a lot easier.”
If you’re adding a cover letter to an online application, use a business letter format with a header and contact information. If you’re sending an email, it’s OK to leave out the header, but be sure to provide a phone number (and an attached resume, of course). Make sure you’re clear about the position you’re applying for.
Avoid nameless salutations — it might take a little Google research, and some LinkedIn outreach, but finding the actual name of the position’s hiring manager will score you major brownie points. “Do not start a cover letter with, ‘to whom it may concern,’” Holbrook Hernandez says. “It concerns no one.”
2. Tell a Story
To grab a recruiter’s attention, a good narrative—with a killer opening line—is everything.
“The cover letter is a story,” says Satjot Sawhney, a resume and career strategist with Loft Resumes. “What is the most interesting thing you’re doing that’s relevant to this job?” Use that to guide your letter.
Ideally, the story that drives your resume will focus on a need at the company you’re applying for. If you’re a PR professional, maybe you have a list of clients in an industry the team wants to break into. If you’re in marketing, a successful promotional campaign might be the ticket in. “A hiring manager wants to see results-driven accomplishments with a past employer,” says Holbrook Hernandez. “If you’ve done it before, you can deliver it again.”
If you have a career gap or are switching industries, address it upfront. “If there’s anything unique in your career history, call that out in the beginning,” says professional resume writer Brooke Shipbaugh.
(Here’s a downloadable sample.)
3. Use Bullet Points to Show Impact
Hiring managers are usually slammed with applications, so short, quick cover letters are preferable to bloated ones, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of human resources at job site Indeed.
“Make your cover letter a brief, bright reference tool,” he says. “The easier you can make it on the recruiter the better.”
Bullet points are a good tool for pulling out numbers-driven results. Job seekers in creative fields like art and design can use bullets to break down their most successful project. Those in more traditional roles (like the one in the template), can hammer off two or three of their most impressive accomplishments.
4. Highlight Culture Fit
It’s often overlooked, but a major function of the cover letter is to show a company how well you’d mesh with the culture.
As you research a potential employer, look for culture cues on the company website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. Oftentimes, employers will nod to culture in a job posting. If the ad mentions a “team environment,” it might be good to play up a recent, successful collaboration. If the company wants a “self-starter,” consider including an achievement that proves you don’t need to be micromanaged.
The tone of your letter can also play to culture. “The cover letter is a great place to show [an employer] how you fit into their world,” Shipbaugh says. “Show some personality.”
5. End with an Ask
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the person reading it to make the next move in the hiring process — with a phone call, interview, or otherwise. Ending on a question opens that door without groveling for it.
“You have to approach this with a non-beggar mentality,” Sawhney says. “Having an ‘ask’ levels the playing field.”
Related: What Your Resume Should Look Like in 2018
Whether you love writing cover letters or view them as a chore, many hiring managers still rely on them to gauge an applicant’s personality, attention to detail, and communication skills. The key to writing effective cover letters, then, is to follow instructions and communicate succinctly but with a compelling voice.
Here are five guidelines to keep in mind as you craft your cover letters.
1. Customize your header based on the format of your application
If you’re writing your cover letter directly within an online job application, there’s no need to include your address or other contact information, as you’ve probably already typed that into other areas of the application form. If you’re including your cover letter as an attachment, you can use the same heading as your resume.
2. Use an appropriate greeting
If you know the name of the hiring manager for this job, begin your cover letter by addressing them directly (Example: Dear Jane Smith). If you don’t know the name of the hiring manager, you can begin your letter with a simple “Hello,” or “Dear Hiring Manager,”. Get a feel for the company’s culture when deciding how formal your greeting should be. More formal introductions such as “To Whom It May Concern:” or “Dear Sir or Madame,” can come across as too stuffy for some organizations, while greetings like “Hey!” and “Hi there,” are almost always too casual for a cover letter.
3. Avoid generic references to your abilities
Whenever possible, tell meaningful anecdotes that tie your skills to concrete problem-solving activities or tangible business results you’ve worked on in your career. Any candidate can say they possess a desirable skill. To make an impact, you need to show hiring managers examples of your skills in action. For example:
Too vague: “My skills would be a great fit for your organization.”
More specific: “In my role as a sales associate, I am frequently required to provide exceptional customer service on short notice. Exceeding customers’ expectations is a point of personal and professional pride for me, and this is a skill I’m eager to continue developing.
Too vague: “I’m a proactive team player.”
More specific: “In my current job, I proactively jumped in to help launch an internal recycling and waste reduction initiative. Together, our team contributed to a 25% reduction in solid waste production within the company.”
4. Keep it short and to the point
Unless specified in the job description, there is no required length for a cover letter, so focus on the details that are most important for the job. Read the job description closely to identify the best opportunities to illustrate your qualifications. What professional achievements are you the most proud of? Choose one or two and map them directly to the desired experience or qualifications the hiring manager is looking for, using just a few detailed but concise sentences. What attributes is the job description calling for in a candidate? Consider using the cover letter itself as a way of demonstrating those traits.
Don’t reiterate everything that’s on your resume. You want to focus on one or two anecdotes, expanding on how you achieved something specific.
[Read more: 6 Universal Rules for Resume Writing]
Here are two examples of cover letters, a traditional version and a less traditional version. First, read the job description on the left, then read the cover letter. In the first example, you’ll see how the writer uses specific phrases from the job description and includes them in the letter. The second example takes a more creative approach. The author tells a personal story and appeals more abstractly to the attributes called for in the job posting. Both are less than 300 words long.
Example 1: Administrative Assistant
In this role, you will be supporting managers and other senior level personnel by managing their calendars, arranging travel, filing expense reports, and performing other administrative tasks.
Strong interpersonal skills, attention to detail, and problem solving skills will be critical to success.
- 5+ years of experience providing high-level admin support to diverse teams in a fast-paced environment
- High school diploma or equivalent work experience
- Excellent Microsoft Office Skills with an emphasis on Outlook and Excel
- Self-motivated and highly organized
- Team players who works well with minimal supervision
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am writing to express my interest in the opening for an administrative assistant at ***.
I am drawn to this opportunity for several reasons. First, I have a proven track record of success in administrative roles, most recently in my current job as an administrative coordinator. A highlight from my time here was when I proactively stepped in to coordinate a summit for our senior leaders last year. I arranged travel and accommodation for a group of 15 executives from across the company, organized meals and activities, collaborated with our internal events team, and ensured that everything ran according to schedule over the two-day summit. Due to the positive feedback I received afterwards, I have been given the responsibility of doubling the number of attendees for the event this year and leading an internal team to get the job done.
I am also attracted to this role because of the the growth opportunities that *** provides. The research that I’ve done on your company culture has shown me that there are ample opportunities for self-motivated individuals like me. A high level of organization and attention to detail are second nature to me, and I’m eager to apply these skills in new and challenging environments.
I look forward to sharing more details of my experience and motivations with you. Thank you for your consideration.
Example 2: Brand Copywriter
We are looking for an experienced copywriter to join our team. If you have a great eye for balance, a quick wit, and can adapt a brand voice for any medium, then this role is right for you.
- Write for branded communications including ads, emails, events, landing pages, video, product marketing, and more.
- Maintain and develop the voice of our brand in collaboration with others.
- Develop copy for internal communications that generate excitement about our company culture
- Work independently and manage your time well.
- Strong copyediting skills: for your own work and for others.
- A portfolio of your work
- Minimum 5 years of copywriting, ideally within an agency
- Strong attention to detail
There are least two less-than-obvious ways to improve your vocabulary (and by extension, your copywriting skills): studying for the GRE and becoming a crossword puzzle enthusiast. I’ve done both but for the purposes of this job application, I’d like to focus on the latter.
My grandmother was the best writer I’ve ever known. She wasn’t a professional writer, but she had a gift and a love of writing was something we shared. It wasn’t until last year that I also took up her love of crossword puzzles, and immediately saw how the two went hand in hand. Before long, I was solving Monday through Wednesday puzzles in the New York Times, needing to look up words less and less frequently as time passed. Soon, I was able to complete Thursday to Saturday, too. Throughout this process, I could feel my stock of quips, rejoinders, and turns of phrase steadily growing. Eventually, I worked up the courage to attempt the Sunday puzzles.
It was this courage that was the real turning point for me. In my current agency, I was already known as a hard worker and creative spirit; my peer and manager evaluations had made this clear. But while I felt confident in my abilities, I had never seen myself as particularly daring. Considering new challenges and mastering each one along the way had given me a renewed sense of myself and clarity about my chosen profession.
I began a career as a copywriter because I was skilled at finding combinations of words to fit a thought or feeling. I’m continuing down that path because I’ve realized how I can shape and hone that skill to reach new heights. I’d like copywriting at *** to be the next step in my journey.
All the best,
5. Always proofread before you submit
Reread your cover letter several times before submitting and keep an eye out for errors of spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Reading the letter aloud can help you pick out awkward phrasing or too-long sentences. There are certain common errors that we all have a tendency to gloss over, so make sure to do a slow, deliberate reading that examines each word. If your salutation includes the hiring manager’s name, triple-check the spelling.
[Read more: Cover Letter Checklist: What to Review Before You Submit]
For jobs that require submitting a cover letter, remember that you’re getting a valuable chance to illustrate your capabilities and share a glimpse of authentic personality. Take advantage of the opportunity to let your greatest strengths shine, while also showing that you respect the hiring manager’s time and attention.
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