Your cover letter can be the difference between being called in for an interview and having your application rejected before the hiring manager ever sees your resume.
Read on to learn how to write a cover letter and give yourself the highest possible advantage over the competition.
(Big Interview offers an entire module on resumes and how to write cover letters as a part of our interview prep curriculum.)
How to Write a Cover Letter – Getting Started
There are very specific rules involved in writing a resume, which can make it difficult to fit in certain information that may be relevant, but inappropriate in that format. A cover letter, on the other hand, is a tad more conversational and can be used to fill in the gaps that your resume can’t.
For instance, if you are applying to a sales position that requires a lot of travel, you can briefly discuss in your cover letter how traveling is important to you and an integral part of your career plan. These details help craft the case for why you are the right person for the job.
Follow Application Instructions Carefully
Employers often get an incredible number of applications to fill just one position, so they are looking for ways to eliminate candidates. One of the ways a hiring manager will narrow down the pile is to include special instructions in the job description. This accomplishes two things:
(1) It will let the hiring manager know whether or not the candidate is detail-oriented and able to follow instructions.
(2) It will allow hiring managers to eliminate anyone who did not follow the simple instructions, making their job of filling the role easier.
Do not end up in the discard pile because of carelessness. Be sure to read the job description carefully, all the way to the end. Often special application instructions are included at the bottom of a job post in order to see who actually read the job description in its entirety and who is simply blasting out as many resumes as possible.
Content to Include
A cover letter is your pitch to the company about why this job should be yours (much like the interview question “Why should we hire you?”). It is a brief, succinct overview of your work history, as well as a specific account of how your skillset and experience directly relate to the job you are applying for.
At its best, a cover letter will leave the hiring manager wanting more. They will want to read your resume and, even better, call you in for an interview to talk in person.
To have a strong cover letter, keep these things in mind:
Use “Power Words”
Power words are action words that evoke a strong sense of competency. Using passive language can make you sound unsure of your abilities and foundationally insecure; two things you don’t want included in your cover letter.
In cover letters as well as resumes, avoid using the same word over and over. This can be a bit challenging at times, but finding an appropriate synonym makes all the difference in the strength of your overall application.
Some examples of Power Words are:
While reading this list, you likely had associations with strength and leadership. Your hiring manager will too. Being able to articulate your abilities well is a huge advantage in the job search process.
Match the Tone of the Company
It is usually apparent from the job description of what sort of workplace culture a company has. Go to their website and social media pages to get an overall feel for the kind of environment you will be working in and if you will be a good fit.
Match the tone of your letter to that of the company. A more laid-back, fun-loving company may be turned off by a cover letter that is too formal or stiff while hiring managers in a more corporate setting would likely not look favorably on a more relaxed manner of presenting yourself.
This is why any advice online about a singular approach on how to write a cover letter is misguided. Keep your individual situation in mind!
Make It About Them
Though your cover letter is about your work history, use language that makes it clear your goal is to fulfill the needs of the company. Avoid using “me” and “I” too often, instead opting for more inclusive words that describe how you hope to help them get the results they are after.
Avoid vague generalities. Not only will it seem like you don’t have an authentic interest in the company, but you’re missing an opportunity to show exactly how well suited you are for the job.
The job description will very often include bullet points that outline exactly what the employer is looking for. This is very helpful because it gives you an idea of what specific points to hit.
For instance, if a job description mentions being detail-oriented and experienced in managing projects, you could integrate this into your cover letter by saying something similar to:
This brief description lets the hiring manager know that you have experience being a Project Manager, leading a team, and are used to being responsible for overseeing details.
Use Good Formatting
Formatting is another area where employers vet potential candidates. Misuse of common terms, bad grammar, and spelling errors are a few of the red flags that can take you out of the running for a job immediately.
Other best practices for formatting include:
Revising Your Cover Letter for Each Position
If you are unemployed, there’s a good chance you are applying to many jobs at once and may feel like speeding up the process any way you can.
This is an understandable feeling. Job searching is a full-time job and applications are often very time consuming and sometimes frustrating.
However, a well-crafted application, complete with a stellar resume and excellent cover letter, will bring you one step closer to landing a job and being able to quit the job search for good.
For this reason, do your research and be thorough. Make sure you are addressing your letter to the right person in the right company.
Craft the entire letter to be customized to the position that you want. An employer will be able to tell if you are sending out form letters without any personalization and it will be perceived as a lack of interest in the company.
Do Not Exceed One Page
If your cover letter is a physical letter and not an email, it should not exceed one page. You can opt to use bullet points or paragraphs, but be thorough, succinct, and easily readable.
Do not use small or outlandish fonts. Content should be left-justified and double-spaced for readability.
If you are printing your cover letter, it should be on high-quality paper and kept in a folder to avoid any crumpling or staining of the page.
Use Business Letter Format
With the rise of email as the primary way to communicate, the art of the business letter has gone by the wayside.
However, it is still best practice to format your cover letter like a business letter. This means putting your name and contact information at the top of the letter, followed by the date, and the address and complete information of the person your letter is addressed to.
Anywhere, USA 12345
Tel: (555) 555-555
Email: [email protected]
April 1, 2018
107 Dream Street
Anywhere, USA 12345
Dear John Mann,
How NOT to Write a Cover Letter
Now that we have strong content and good formatting for our cover letter, let’s take a look at some things to avoid.
You never want to apologize for skills you don’t have in a cover letter. You shouldn’t draw attention to your weaker areas at all, but instead, play up your strengths. Always be honest in your assessment of your skills, but don’t put yourself down unnecessarily. As with most aspects of the job search process, confidence is key.
Repeating Your Resume
There is no need to reiterate your resume point for point in your cover letter, but you do want to draw attention to the parts of your work history that directly relate to the role you are applying for.
This can include specific details about the duties you performed in previous roles and how those skills can be utilized to benefit the company.
Most importantly, as we discussed above, make sure you are including skills that are directly asked for in the job description. Matching your skills with those key “wants” is likely to get you an interview.
Spelling and Grammar Errors
As we mentioned earlier, spelling and grammar errors can be the death certificate of your chances for getting called in for an interview.
Even if you are incredibly careful in the writing of your letter, human eyes get tired and it’s easy to overlook some critical errors.
If at all possible, have someone you know and trust proofread your cover letter before you submit it. You don’t want one small overlooked error to cost you a shot at your dream job.
Copy and Pasting a Template
The internet is an incredibly useful tool, full of helpful resources and guidelines.
However, be careful not to fall into the trap of letting those helpful tips make you think you can avoid the work of writing your own cover letter.
If you copy and paste an available template from the internet, only changing your name and the name of the company, it will be apparent to the hiring manager who reads it and it will take you out of the running for the job.
After all, if you don’t care enough to craft your own cover letter, how can they trust that you would care about doing your job?
Rambling or Being Overly Verbose
It may be tempting to show off your vocabulary in an attempt to make yourself stand out, but likely you’ll only come off as confusing and pretentious.
Use simple language that is to the point and easy to understand. Hiring managers want to know within a few seconds of scanning your cover letter if they should take the time to read your resume, so don’t make the mistake of putting yourself out of the running because you’ve been dying for a chance to use the word “ostentatious.”
We know there are a million articles online called “How to Write a Cover Letter”. Some are better than others (make sure you’re reading actual expert advice from a qualified coach, like the Big Interview team!) But the important thing to remember is to be informative, succinct, organized, and professional. Be sure to read the job description carefully and craft your cover letter specifically to the needs of the company. Also, include the completion of any special instructions the employer has asked for as a way to weed out candidates.
With the excellent introduction of your cover letter and your impressive resume (you can also include a resume summary statement), you have every reason to expect to be called in for an interview.
(For help with preparing for your interview, read “How to Prepare for an Interview: Key Steps to Land Your Dream Job”)