The Complete Guide to Writing an Effective Cover Letter

A well-crafted and tailored cover letter can help you land your dream job. Here’s everything you need to know.

Cover letter guide

With so much — often conflicting — advice out there on how to write an effective cover letter, it’s unsurprising that many people feel confused and anxious about the whole process and are left with more questions than answers:

Who should I address my letter to?

What should I mention in my letter?

What font should I use?

Should I address any employment gaps?

Do hiring managers even read cover letters?

And that’s precisely why we created this guide: to answer all those questions (and more) and help you write a cover letter that gets you one step closer to your dream job.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter (also sometimes known as a covering letter, motivation letter or motivational letter) is a document that you submit as part of a job application. It acts as a letter of introduction and an invitation to employers to read your résumé, and is used to explain your interest in the job you’re applying for as well as your fitness for the role.

How does it differ from an application letter?

Many people often use the terms “cover letter” and “application letter” interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Although they do share a similar purpose (to show interest in a job), there have some key differences, as highlighted below:

  • An application letter is primarily used to show interest in working for a company, even if they don’t have any current openings. A cover letter, on the other hand, is used to show interest in a specific advertised vacancy.
  • A cover letter is used to accompany your résumé, while an application letter is generally used as a replacement for your résumé (and cover letter).
  • Application letters tend to be much longer and more detailed — they can be as long as three pages.

The importance of a cover letter

A cover letter is a useful tool to showcase how your skills and experience meet the requirements of the job description and how you can contribute to the company’s success. It, essentially, allows you the opportunity to tell your story and explain why the hiring manager should consider you as a viable candidate.

It’s also a great way to build a relationship with the employer. While a tailored résumé will help you stand out from the competition and get past the applicant tracking systems, your cover letter is where you can really connect with the reader, who will then be more inclined to offer you an interview.

Finally, if you know someone who works at the company or who referred you to the job, your cover letter is the perfect place to mention this. A little name-dropping never hurt anyone — and it can be just what gets your foot into the door.

Do hiring managers even read cover letters?

Hard truth: most recruiters and hiring managers (including myself) don’t read cover letters — at least not at first. Indeed, a staggering 90% of recruiters admit to not reading cover letters at all, according to Glassdoor [archived page]. But here’s the thing: whether they read it or not, they expect you to submit a cover letter in your application — and might disqualify you from the candidate pool if you don’t.

When to send a cover letter

You should always include a cover letter in your application. Even if it’s not specifically requested of you in the job advertisement, sending a cover letter shows employers that you’re someone who takes initiative (a highly sought-after quality) and confirms your genuine interest in the role.

The only time you should not send a cover letter is when you’re specifically asked not to. Although this rarely happens, it’s incredibly important that you comply. Indeed, sending one anyway only demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to follow instructions, which could lead employers to thinking that you’re difficult to work with.

How long should a cover letter be?

Generally, cover letters should be no more than one A4 page long. If it can be shorter than this, even better, but it must be a minimum of half a page in length. Essentially, you’re looking to make a case of your candidacy in between 200 and 400 words (or about 3 to 5 paragraphs).

Cover letters for academic positions, meanwhile, tend to be longer than one page, typically about one-and-a-half to two pages long so you can effectively show off your accomplishments.

What to include in your cover letter

There are five key things that your cover letter should always include:

  • Who you are and how employers can contact you
  • Which job you’re applying for and how you found it
  • Why you’re interested in the job
  • What value you offer the company
  • A call-to-action requesting an interview

WARNING

Do not include salary requirements in your cover letter, as you risk coming across as arrogant or desperate. Instead, wait to discuss your salary expectations in the interview.

How to structure your cover letter

Your cover letter should consist of the following sections:

  • A header with your name and contact information
  • The date and the recipient’s address
  • A greeting
  • An opening paragraph focusing on who you are and why you’re applying
  • One to three middle paragraphs explaining why you’re perfect for the job
  • A closing paragraph with a powerful CTA
  • A complimentary close
  • An optional postscript

Header

The header of your letter should, at the very least, contain:

  • Your name
  • Your phone number
  • Your email address
  • A link to your LinkedIn profile
  • Your home address

You can also optionally add links to your personal website, online portfolio and social media pages, as well as a professional photo.

Date and inside address

Under the header, write the date of your letter — it’s better to write it out in full (eg: “Friday, April 29, 2022”) as opposed to writing it in all numerals (eg: “Friday, 04/05/2022”). After this, write the recipient’s address, along with their job title and the name of the company.

If you’re emailing your application, or submitting it online, you can skip this entirely.

Greeting

Start your letter by greeting the hiring manager by name, such as “Dear Mr Smith” or “Dear Ms Evans”. Not only does this show that you took the time to do some research, but it’s also a great little psychology trick (science says that people love to hear their names and react positively when they do).

If you can’t find the hiring manager’s name, though, a simple “Dear Hiring Manager” will suffice — but never the overly popular “Dear Sir or Madam” or, worse, “To Whom it May Concern”.

Opening paragraph

The first paragraph — and perhaps even the very first sentence — of your cover letter is the most important of all. It needs to grab the hiring manager’s attention from the get-go and hook them in to continue reading.

Use the opening paragraph to introduce yourself, mention the job you’re applying for and how you came across it, and (more importantly) highlight your achievements and that you know what the employer’s needs are.

Middle paragraph(s)

The main part of your letter should consist of one or two paragraphs that demonstrate how you meet the employer’s needs — essentially, this is where you’ll tell them why you want to join the company and why you’re the perfect candidate.

One way to do this is to focus on a company fact, like an upcoming project. Mention why you find it interesting and explain how your experience and knowledge will contribute to the project’s success.

Closing paragraph

The closing paragraph is where you make the sale. Essentially, you need to end with a CTA — one that the employer can’t refuse. Here, you should reiterate your interest in the position, briefly summarize why you’re the perfect candidate, and politely request an interview. Don’t forget to thank the reader for taking the time to review your application!

Complimentary close

Close your letter with a professional complimentary close such as “Sincerely”, “Respectfully” or “Best regards”. This should be followed by your typed name and, if you’re mailing your application, your handwritten signature.

Postscript

Adding a PS at the end of your cover letter is entirely optional (and slightly controversial), but it’s a great little trick to ensure your letter grabs the hiring manager’s attention. That said, don’t include a PS just for the sake of it — use it to reiterate your unique selling proposition or to mention an interesting titbit about yourself (so long as it relates to your experience and the job).

How to format your cover letter

Though the content of your cover letter is what really matters, how you present that information to potential employers is what gets them to actually read your letter. Indeed, the tidier it looks, the more inclined they will be to read your letter.

Here are some formatting rules for your cover letter:

Page margins

Page margins should be set to one inch on all sides. You can reduce them to half an inch to keep your letter to one page, but it’s generally best to avoid this if possible.

Font

Use a clean, professional-looking font (like Arial, Calibri, Georgia or Times New Roman) for your letter, and set it to between 10pts and 12pt. Whatever you do, don’t use Comic Sans or any similar “fun” font.

Bullets

Although not strictly necessary, using bulleted lists can help break up the content of your letter to make it more scannable. If you do use bulleted lists, keep these things in mind:

  • Start each list item with an action word (check out our list of résumé action words for inspiration).
  • Limit your cover letter to a maximum of two bulleted lists, comprising a minimum of three and a maximum of six items each.
  • Choose one bullet style and stick to it (round or square bullets are best).
  • Avoid making bullet list items so long that they look like paragraphs (generally, two lines is a reasonable maximum limit).

Text alignment

Keep all text aligned to the left of the page. Do not center, justify or, worse, right-align any text.

Line spacing

Double-space your cover letter. This means that a full blank line should be used between paragraphs. The only time you should use single spacing is between the different parts of the recipient’s address.

PRO TIP

Make sure the overall look and feel of your cover letter matches that of your résumé. This includes font choices, margin sizes, bullet symbols, and the exact same header used in your résumé. Not only does this ensure consistency in terms of design, but it also helps you create an instantly recognizable personal brand.

Tips for writing a cover letter

When writing your cover letter, there are some key things to keep in mind. Here are our 10 must-know tips:

1. Tailor it to the company and job you’re applying for

A generic, one-size-fits-all cover letter won’t get you anywhere. The more tailored it is, the better are your chances of landing an interview.

You can achieve this by incorporating important keywords and phrases from the job advertisement. Likewise, researching the company (specifically, browsing their website and reading up on company news) will help you adopt an appropriate tone that fits their culture, as well as incorporate knowledge of and interest in their products and services.

2. Don’t regurgitate your résumé

Your cover letter is meant to complement your résumé, not replicate it. This means that it should be used to expand on some aspects of your experience and, more importantly, explain you’re a good fit for the company.

3. Show, don’t just tell

If you want your letter to make a real impact, you need to provide evidence of your skills and achievements — not just mention that you’re an expert in Photoshop or that you overhauled the company website’s design. Where possible, use numbers, percentages and dollar amounts to back up your claims and show the results of your successes.

4. Address any employment gaps

Employment gaps on your résumé can raise red flags for employers, but your cover letter gives you the unique opportunity to effectively explain and conquer those gaps, whether it was due to a career break, a layoff or personal reasons. That said, don’t dwell on the gap — briefly address it and quickly move on to marketing yourself as the perfect candidate.

5. Keep it succinct

Your cover letter shouldn’t tell your life story. Hiring managers only care about concrete facts that match your skills, experience and achievements to the job you’re applying for, so keep your letter short and succinct.

In terms of readability and scannability, it’s a good idea to keep sentences to 25 words long, while your letter as a whole should not exceed 400 words.

6. Be creative

Whereas the tone of your résumé is formal, your cover letter allows you to be slightly more casual, especially if you’re going into a creative industry or job role. This means you can be a little creative (but not too creative — it should still look and sound professional) and inject some of your personality in your cover letter.

7. Consider using a template

If you’re not quite the designer, it might be a good idea to use a premade template to get some structure going — this way, all you have to do is prepare the content. We offer a range of professionally designed and ATS-friendly résumé and cover letter templates, which come complete with downloadable fonts and icons, and detailed instructions to help you get started.

8. Avoid clichés

One of the biggest cover letter mistakes that many jobseekers make is using overly vague and cliché statements (think: “I’m writing to express my interest in the role of web designer at Company ABC”). Recruiters are used to reading the same phrases over and over again, and this gets boring fast — your best bet is to go against the norm if you really want to grab their attention.

9. Always read (and follow) any special instructions

Employers sometimes include instructions for cover letters in the job description. These can include file format preferences, specific questions that you should answer in your letter, and even salary requirements. Whatever these instructions are, make sure you follow them to a T.

10. Proofread before you submit

Make sure to check (and double-check and triple-check) your letter for grammar, spelling and formatting issues. It’s also a good idea to have a second pair of eyes go over it — they may spot something you missed or offer you suggestions to improve your letter.

How to send your cover letter

There are two ways you can send your cover letter: by mail and, most commonly, by email. Here are some key things to keep in mind for both methods.

By mail

If you’re sending your job application through the mail, put your documents into a large envelope. If you use a smaller envelope, you’ll have to fold your documents, and this could smudge the ink (especially if not properly dried) — plus, the creases and wrinkles just look awful.

Meanwhile, be sure to address the envelope to the correct person. You can handwrite the address, but it’s generally best to print it on the envelope.

PRO TIP

Send your application via certified or registered mail. This way, you can keep track of delivery.

By email

If you submit your cover letter via email, it’s generally accepted to copy the content into the body of the email message.

That said, it’s a good idea to include it as an email attachment (along with your résumé, of course, and any supplemental files), as this makes it easier for recruiters to download and print your documents — better yet, you can combine all your files into a single PDF. (If you add your letter as an attachment, make sure to add a short message — do not send a blank email.)

Finally, write a clear, concise and professional subject line for your email application, such as “Sales Manager — John Smith”.

Cover letter example

Need some inspiration? Check out this cover letter example to guide you in writing your own.

Cover Letter Example

Get the Active template now

Key takeaways

In summary, here’s everything you need to know about cover letters:

  • Always submit a cover letter with your application — even if it’s not specifically requested in the job ad.
  • Make sure it’s half a page long at the very least, and one page at most.
  • Explain why you’re interested in the position and what value you bring to the company.
  • Craft your letter with clarity, readability and scannability in mind.
  • Don’t be afraid to show off your personality.
  • Read the job ad and follow any special instructions.
  • Check (and double-check) your letter for spelling, grammar and formatting issues before submitting your application.

Got a question about writing a cover letter? Let us know in the comments section below.

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 31 October 2016.