In this age of digital recruiting, do you really need to write something to accompany your resume or job application? Is writing a cover letter really important?
The short answer: Yes!
Yet, far too often, job seekers treat the process of writing a cover letter as an afterthought to submitting a resume. Or they don't bother to write one at all.
Your cover letter is your introduction to a prospective employer. It’s also an opportunity to make a great first impression and to showcase why you’d make a great hire. So don't squander it.
These days, it’s unlikely a cover letter, like your resume, would be something you’d print and mail to a hiring manager. In fact, it may not be a letter at all. The savviest job seekers will include the modern equivalent of a targeted cover letter in the body of an email message or an online job application.
Take a look at these tips for writing a cover letter that will convince hiring managers and HR professionals to call you for an interview.
First thing about how to write a cover letter
Don't rehash your resume. Your words should do more than restate salient details from what's already in your resume. The cover letter is where you should promote yourself, describe your ambition and express your enthusiasm for a new role and company in a way that is distinct from your resume.
Check out this brief checklist of important functions of a targeted cover letter:
- A cover letter specifically relates your skills and experience to the job description and requested qualifications.
- It explains why you would love to have the job in question.
- It shows you've done research on the company, by commenting on its mission or key leadership.
- It finishes with a call to action that invites the hiring manager to follow up with you regarding the job opportunity.
Use fewer words to say more
The barrage of information coming at all of us today has created attention spans that are shorter than ever before. Cover letters are no exception. Managers are often inundated with applications, so economy of words matters.
In fact, keep it brief with a three-paragraph format, using each paragraph to focus on an aspect of your application.
- Start with an attention-grabbing introduction that expresses your enthusiasm about the position and the company. If you have a referral, drop their name here.
- This is your sales pitch where you address your top skills, accomplishments and attributes, and explain why your qualifications relate to this particular role or company.
- Finally, restate briefly how you can add value, thank the hiring manager for their consideration and initiate the next step by saying you’d like to follow up with a call or an interview.
For more details on that last paragraph, read about how to write a cover letter closing.
Tailor your cover letter to a specific job
Don’t use a one-size-fits-all cover letter template for all the positions you apply for. If you do, you’re missing the point: Only a letter that’s targeted to the job at hand will make a positive impression.
Write a cover letter employers can't ignore by tying it to the elements of the job that match your unique skills and experience. What are they asking for that you’re especially good at? What would make your contribution unique? Those are the points to stress when writing a cover letter.
Just as important, gather facts and figures that support your claims. For example, if you're applying for a managerial role, mention the size of teams and budgets you’ve managed. If it’s a sales role, describe specific sales goals you've achieved.
In addition to highlighting your talents, you can further personalize your cover letter by demonstrating your familiarity with the specific industry, employer and type of position.
Be proud of your past accomplishments
Companies want confident employees who love their work. They know these are the people who tend to perform better, serve as stronger team members and have greater potential to grow along with the business.
Draw attention to specific examples of projects you’ve worked on that make you an ideal candidate, and don’t hesitate to brag a little about your most pertinent achievements. Consider adding a sentence or two — or even a bullet list, as long as you’re not duplicating your resume — of key achievements backed up with quantitative data. Did you increase revenue by identifying tax savings worth $50,000 a year, win six design awards, quadruple the company’s social media following? Here’s the place to mention it.
Address the hiring manager personally
How would you feel if you got an email addressed, To Whom It May Concern? Just as you personalize your resume to the role, you should also address the cover letter to the person actually hiring for the position, as opposed to Dear Employer. If it’s not spelled out in the job posting and you can’t find it on LinkedIn, be proactive and call the organization’s main phone number and ask for the name and title of the hiring manager.
If you’re still in school or just out, your career services office may be able to help you identify the right contact at a company.
Use keywords from the job description
Many employers use resume-filtering software that scans for keywords and evaluates how closely resumes and cover letters match the preferred skills and experience. That means your cover letter should incorporate key phrases you've identified in the job description — if they honestly match with your background and strengths.
During the writing process, carefully review the job ad for the type of degree required, the number of years' experience needed, and desired software skills, organization and communication abilities, and project management background.
Throw in numbers and examples
If you want to know how to write a cover letter that stands out, show how you've had a measurable impact on an organization. Did you bring in new clients, make a process more efficient, spearhead some campaigns? Provide specific numbers, percentages to show growth, or a range or estimate to quantify results.
Offering examples can also help you illustrate what you’ve achieved or elaborate on the specifics. Show, don’t tell, whenever possible when you describe what you’ve done and what you can bring to your next position.
More 'don’ts' when writing a cover letter
- Don’t overshare — Showing some personality is generally fine, but keep the focus on your career. Stick to pertinent facts and omit personal details unrelated to your ability to perform the job.
- Don’t go overboard with self-celebration — Employers expect job candidates to use the cover letter to toot their own horn. (That’s the whole point, right?) Instead of bragging about being the “world’s best UX designer” or a “marketing superhero,” job seekers should provide concrete information that conveys value and impact. Bold statements are OK, as long as you back them up with facts.
- Don’t make demands — Zero in on what you can do for the employer, not what you hope to gain from the company. It’s both presumptuous and off-putting to cite salary demands before you’ve even landed a phone or video interview. The same goes for bringing up the perks and benefits you expect.
- Don’t fail to follow directions — Employers often provide specific instructions in the job ad, such as submitting your resume and cover letter in a certain file format or referencing the job title or requisition number. Before you upload your letter or hit the send button, reread the job posting to make sure you’ve done everything the employer asked so you don’t raise red flags.
Proofread your work
Last, but decidedly not least in these suggestions for how to write a cover letter, proofread your work. After you've made a strong argument for your candidacy and given your letter a final polish, ask a friend or family member with a strong eye for typos and good grammar, punctuation and spelling skills to review it. Include a copy of the job posting to make sure you've hit all the right points.
Then do it. Press send!