Read and live by this comprehensive cover letter guide from our resume expert and professional resume writer Kimberly Sarmiento and check out her cover letter examples for inspiration.
You Really Do Need a Strong Cover Letter
You never get a second chance to make a good first impression in the job search. And in most cases, your first impression on a hiring manager begins with your resume and cover letter. If you don’t get the cover letter right, you may never get the opportunity to wow them with your new suit, confident eye contact, and compelling interview stories.
Even if you network your way into that job interview (and even if you got a great referral from one of your advocates), the hiring manager will look at your resume and/or cover letter and use them to form or influence an opinion prior to meeting you. That is why in my 2009 book, “The Complete Guide to Writing Effective Resume Cover Letters: Step by Step Instructions,” I refer to your cover letter as your handshake and your sales pitch all rolled into one.
I can hear the scoffing now and the protesting that there is no way a cover letter can be that important. “Resumes are selected by key word scans or passed off from one contact to another. No one really reads cover letters anymore, right?” Wrong.
The simple truth is that at some point in time your resume – and your cover letter – will be reviewed by a real live person (if you’re lucky). That person will be deciding whether or not you are worth their time to interview and your cover letter can help confirm that your resume goes into the “yes” pile rather than the “file for future opening” pile (or the real or digital garbage can).
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Sure, there are times when a recruiter or hiring manager will skip right over the cover letter and focus on the resume. But other screeners won’t even look at your resume if the cover letter doesn’t get their attention. Why take a chance? Write a strong cover letter and you’ll know that you’re doing everything possible to get past the gatekeepers and score an interview.
If you are wondering how to write a compelling cover letter, read on for Kimberly’s advice and examples.
Three Situations When a Great Cover Letter is Even More Critical
1) When you need to include information that should NOT go into the resume
A resume is a formal business document with strict rules that must be followed. These rules include not writing in first person or including personal information like your desire to relocate.
However, there are times when you need to communicate this type of information in order to make the case for your fit for the position:
Example: Your cover letter can be used to communicate your intention to make a transition in your career or move to another city/state. Recruiters receive thousands of unqualified resumes for every position. They will look at your resume and cover letter and immediately trash them if they don’t see a fit — assuming that you are another one of those annoying applicants who applies for every job posted. This is always a challenge for career changers and individuals looking to relocate and a good cover letter can make a big difference.
Example: Your cover letter can also explain away other aspects of your particular career situation that might not be appropriate to include on your resume. For example, if you took some time away from the work force, but have kept your skills and knowledge up-to-date.
Additionally, in some job ads, the company will ask for specific information to be included in your cover letter. This technique is used to make screening easier — if someone can’t follow simple application directions, why waste time on an interview? Pay careful attention to the information they request and be sure to address it.
One problematic area is if they ask for salary requirements to be included in your cover letter. Companies make this request to help them rule out individuals with higher salary requirements than they have budgeted for the position, but it can also lock you into a lower pay range than they might offer you otherwise.
However, ignoring the request could disqualify you as well. Ergo, I suggest you research the average salary for the position you are applying to in the state of the opening and include a range slightly above and below that number.
There are several sites that have compiled census and other data information to give you a decent estimate of salaries by position in specific cities and states (Payscale is a great place to start). So if the average salary of your job is $60K for the location where you live (or want to live), list your salary requirements as $55K to $65K. Again, no salary information should be included in a resume. I typically don’t even include information about bonuses or commissions for sales representatives (just awards like President’s Club or Top 5%).
2) When you want to reference a network connection
There is no right way to include in your resume, “Our mutual associate John Smith referred me to this role and says he thinks I will make a great fit for the job opening.” That is a reference line reserved solely for the opening paragraph of a cover letter. There are multiple ways you can mention a network connection or mutual friend in a cover letter, but such a statement has no place in a resume whatsoever.
Note: In professional resume writing, it has become passé to include a list of references on your resume or even the line “references available upon request.” Such information takes up valuable real estate on your resume (which should be 1-2 pages max) and it is best to focus on your achievements and qualifications instead. Besides, the hiring managers know you will give them references when they request them.
Rather than waste space on your resume, prepare a reference sheet with the same header as your resume and give it to the interviewer at the end of your meeting.
This sheet should include the first and last name of your references, their titles and company names, city and state, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses if possible.
You can even be proactive and have letters of recommendation ready to hand the hiring manager at the end of your meeting, but don’t send them prior to that initial interview.
3) When you want to emphasize why you’re interested in the company
One way to distinguish yourself as a job candidate is to research the company you are interviewing with and talk about things you like or ask questions about the work they have coming up. This demonstrates your interest in their particular organization as opposed to them being just another job ad you responded to in your desperate attempt to find employment.
You can use your cover letter to show that you’ve done your homework and see a strong fit with the organization. Within the second or closing paragraphs of your cover letter, you can mention being interested in the specific work the company does, recent grants they have been awarded, a product they recently released, etc.
Again, this is not appropriate for inclusion on your resume, but adding it to your cover letter can help you stand out from the stack of applications the hiring manager is sorting through on the day your resume passes by him/her.
How to Write a Great Cover Letter
Hopefully I have convinced you of the importance of cover letter writing or at least how the letter can prove useful to you in certain circumstances.
But how do you write a cover letter that will open doors for you? And how do you avoid mistakes that can lead to rejection?
Please review these five simple rules for ensuring your cover letter leaves the hiring manager excited about meeting you.
- First and foremost, the letter must be grammatically correct and error-free! If you are not a particularly good writer, have someone read and edit the document for you.
- If printed, the letter should be one page max. The letter should also be printed on high-quality paper just like your resume. In some instances, you might elect to cut and paste a cover letter into an e-mail and attach your resume. If so, you want the cover letter to be easily read with minimal scrolling. So get to the point and be succinct.
- The letter should include examples of your qualifications. You can write a cover letter in paragraph or bulleted formats, but either way, you should include examples of your achievements and credentials. While you want to be brief, you also want to encourage the reader to review your resume for greater detail.The best way to do that is to call out two or three things that you have done professionally to catch their attention and make them want to know more about you. Make sure you customize the letter to highlight the achievements most relevant for each position.
- Your letter should address a specific person. Whenever possible, do some research and find out the person’s name who will be reading your cover letter. This is a minor detail and some hiring managers won’t care, but it can distinguish you from your competition all the same. More importantly, don’t send an obviously-generic letter that has not been customized for the company/position.
- Your letter should end with a call to action. When you close your letter, be sure to ask for a meeting. It is obvious that you want an interview when you submit a cover letter and resume, but job hunting is usually helped along with a proactive approach. Therefore, at every point in the application process, you should seek to move along to the next stage of consideration.
The cover letter is the first instance of this, so don’t miss an opportunity to encourage a meeting with the hiring manager at the close of your letter. Also be sure to thank them for their time and consideration.
Cover Letter Examples
Check out Kimberly’s cover letter examples to see and learn from the methods that have worked for her resume writing clients.
Cover Letter Example 1: Returning to Work after a Job Gap/Relocation
Dear Principal Townson:
With five years of experience in teaching high school and a master’s degree in Chemistry, I believe I am an ideal candidate to fill the science teaching position you have open with the retirement of Stacy Jones. My teaching experience was at John Smith High School in Smallville, NJ before my husband and I moved here seven years ago. While there, I taught all levels of Chemistry and helped host the science fair each year.
When we moved here, I was pregnant with my oldest. Now that my youngest has started kindergarten, I am eager to return to the workforce. Although I focused on my family these last seven years and have not worked for pay, I kept up with developments in teaching and chemistry by reading literature and attending conferences hosted by the American Association of High School Science Instructors. I have also volunteered my time at the community center, tutoring all level of students in general sciences.
I look forward to raising my children in this community and someday teaching them at Rosewood High School. Please review my attached resume. I will be contacting you next week to schedule an interview. Thank you for your consideration.
Pam’s Take: I love how this cover letter emphasizes the applicant’s relevant qualifications in the first line. This puts the emphasis on her ability to do the job and not the fact that she’s returning to work after several years as a stay-at-home parent. Later, she briefly explains her break and how she has kept current. Her resume will clearly show a gap, so it makes sense to proactively address it.
Cover Letter Example 2: Transitioning Careers
Dear Ms. Garcia,
Blending a formal background in marketing with proven success in retail sales and customer service roles, I am looking to transition into public relations and believe I would make a great fit for the advertised position of Public Relations Specialist at your company.
Having both used and sold your products, I am already well versed in your brand and both present and past years’ offerings. I have followed with excitement as you launched in European and Asian markets and incorporated an international feel into your product line. I would bring both passion and expertise to championing your company with the press and public.
I am already trained in creating buzz and awareness through social media channels including Twitter and Facebook. When my sales team decided to participate in Walk for a Cure three years ago, we used social media to heighten our sponsorship support and raised more than $20K for the event.
Confident my transferable skills make me a solid candidate for this opening, I respectfully submit my resume for your review and request a meeting to discuss the opportunity further. I will make myself available at your convenience and look forward to your call to arrange a time. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Pam’s Take: This candidate leads off with a strong statement about her career change goal and her fit for the specific position at hand. She uses the rest of the letter to discuss her interest in the company and some of her key transferable skills/experience.
Cover Letter Example 3: Entry Level
Dear Ms. Morris:
I am writing in response to your listing in the Memphis Gazette for a nurse’s aide. Please accept my enclosed resume for consideration.
As a CPR-certified lifeguard and a LPN student at Memphis Community College, I have the formal training necessary for this position. Additionally, with two years of experience in retail sales, I have excellent customer service skills that can translate well to patient relations.
After you have reviewed my resume, I hope to meet with you to discuss how I can be beneficial to your team. I look forward to hearing from you to schedule an interview at your earliest convenience.
Pam’s Take: Nice concise approach for an entry-level candidate. She doesn’t have years of nursing experience to point to, so she highlights her training and how her non-nursing work experience has also helped to prepare her.
Cover Letter Example 4: Professional
Dear Mr. Carter,
As an Accounts Payable & Receivable Specialist, I offer a proven ability to accurately process invoices, payments, reimbursements, and tax reports. I quickly learn and adapt to software changes and updates and help team members resolve issues and problems they are having with data input and processing.
Examples of my accomplishments include:
- Handled biweekly accounts payable processing of checks and ACH payments; reconciled payments made to accounts payable software and addressed any discrepancies that arose.
- Created a spreadsheet that listed bank and routing numbers to expedite processing of expense reports.
- Uploaded and reconciled monthly phone bills for approximately 200 branches and 4 operational centers; total billing amounts were coded for various departments and branches as required.
- Confident I will prove valuable to your company, I respectfully submit my resume for your review. I would also like to request a personal meeting to discuss your upcoming goals and how I can help you achieve them. I will make myself available at your convenience and look forward to your call. Thank you for your consideration.
Pam’s Take: For an experienced candidate, a bit more detail is expected. This candidate customized the bullet points to specifically communicate his experience with the position responsibilities listed in the job description.
Cover Letter Example 5: Manager
Dear Ms. Nguyen,
As a Human Resources Manager with a strong customer service background, I offer expertise in employee relations, benefits administration, and generalist duties. I have made significant contributions in succession planning and workforce engagement as well as ensuring compliance with employment and labor requirements.
I am also known for my ability to help identify and implement key technology and process improvements. I am well-versed in Six Sigma methods and have lead projects which produced significant and sustainable savings. Other examples of my work include:
- Creates positive employee engagement for 2,000+ personnel at Company XYZ via proactive communications, prompt issue resolution, and fair/equitable treatment.
- Led Six Sigma project related to FMLA administration and online orientation programs for Lean Belt training.
- Proved instrumental in the deployment of an E-recruitment system that serviced a Fortune 200 company; defined policies, procedures, and communication planning for the project.
Confident I will make a positive impact on your organization, I respectfully submit my résumé for your review. I would also like to request a personal meeting to discuss your goals for this position and my potential contributions. I will be available at your convenience and look forward to your call to arrange a time. Thank you for your consideration.
Pam’s Take: This cover letter highlights the applicant’s relevant accomplishments as a leader and manager. It goes beyond stating familiarity with the required job duties and emphasizes results in key projects. Remember that you don’t want to copy and paste your whole resume into the cover letter. Think about the key selling points that you want to feature prominently. The goal is to make them excited to learn more about you.
Cover Letter Example 6: Senior-Level Executive
As a Senior-Level Finance & Operations Executive, I offer proven success in maximizing productivity and improving profit margins. My work spans companies and business units at various stages of growth, including start-up, established, and turnaround settings.
Believing profitability requires strong revenue generation and cost controls, I monitor budgets and sales performance closely to identify areas for improvement. I am known for enhancing overall performance through technology upgrades, advanced employee training, and implementation of best practices.
Examples of my work include:
- Drove successful launch of start-up company by hiring a talent team, defining product development plans, and leading go-to-market strategies to achieve $35M+ revenue and 50% margins within two years.
- Managed daily operations of a $150M subsidiary that provided a complete suite of manufacturing solutions in the US and Canada; improved profit margins on overall product line 10%.
- Proved vital to reorganization leadership that cumulated in a 10% productivity improvement in the sales and service organization and a 20% improvement in support organizations.
As CPA and MBA, I am confident I will prove valuable to your company and respectfully submit my resume for your review. I would also like to request a personal meeting to discuss your upcoming goals and how I can help you achieve them. I will make myself available at your convenience and look forward to your call. Thank you for your consideration.
Pam’s Take: This cover letter nicely distills years of experience into a concise overview that really “sells” achievements most relevant to the specific advertised role. Each bullet presents a compelling high-level overview of a specific position, complete with impressive data points. It’s hard to be this concise when talking about a long career! However, a concise letter is always more effective — make the most exciting information jump out of the letter and grab the recruiter’s attention.
Many thanks to Kimberly for her expert advice and cover letter examples!
Have other thoughts on what would make a great cover letter? Leave a comment below.
Main Photo Credit: Arslan