Your cover letter, on the other hand, is far more important. It’s the billboard that attracts hiring managers to your résumé in the first place.
This means two things. One, yes, you really do need a cover letter. And two, it needs to be awesome if you want a fighting chance at getting the job you’re applying for.
I’m sure this makes the prospect of writing a cover letter all the more intimidating and overwhelming, but take a deep breath and relax, because you’ve come to the right place.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to write a job-winning cover letter.
Don't want to read? Check out the video below:
1. Start with the header
First: the basics.
Every cover letter needs a header. It might seem like an irrelevant little detail, but it’s the first thing the hiring manager will see, so it needs to be well-organised and visually appealing.
So, what do you put in the header?
Your (the sender’s) contact information – specifically:
- Your name
- Your phone number
- Your email address
- Your postal address (or, more commonly, your city and country)
You can also optionally add:
- Your professional title or target job title
- Your LinkedIn profile URL
- Your social media profile URLs
- Links to your professional website, online portfolio, etc.
Here’s an example of a cover letter header:
01632 123456 • johnsmith @ example . com • linkedin.com/in/JohnSmith • Jobville, UK
It doesn’t need to be aligned to the centre of the document, as illustrated above. You can align it to the left or right if you prefer, but it must be at the top (it’s called a header for a reason!)
Ideally, the header should look exactly like the one used in your résumé. This creates a consistent design across all your job search documents, which is great for your personal branding.
If you’re copying your cover letter into the body of an email message, meanwhile, you don’t need to include any of this. Simply add your name, phone number and email address in the closing. (See Step 8 for details.)
2. Add the date and inside address
Now that the header’s out of the way, it’s time to start writing your cover letter. This begins with the top section, which should include the following:
- Today’s date
- The name of the hiring manager and their professional title
- The name and address of the company you’re applying to
Here’s what it should look like:
Tuesday, 15 September 2020
Head of Corporate Governance
168 Employment Road
Remember: the recipient’s address is traditionally aligned to the left of a letter.
Meanwhile, never abbreviate months (e.g. ‘15 Sep 2020’) or use all numbers (e.g. ‘15/09/2020’) in formal letters. Always write out the full date. On that note, if the recipient of your letter is in the US, for example, consider formatting the date according to local conventions – in this case, you could write the date as ‘September 15, 2020’.
Again, leave all this out if you’re copying your cover letter into the body an email.
3. Open with a professional salutation
Who do you address your cover letter to?
The answer is simple: directly to the person who will read it. In other words, the professional salutation you use in your letter should mention the hiring manager by name.
Usually, the published job advertisement will list a contact name and email address – this is who you should address your letter to.
But what if the ad doesn’t include the hiring manager’s name?
One word: research.
Start by checking the company’s website (specifically, their ‘Team’ page, if they have one) to try to find out who is the head of the department you’ll be working in. You can also check the company’s LinkedIn page. If you found the job on LinkedIn, meanwhile, double-check the job ad, which often identifies who posted the ad. If all else fails, you can contact the company directly and ask who the contact person is.
The following are perfectly acceptable examples of professional letter salutations:
Dear Mr Hemsworth,
Dear Miss Brontë,
Dear Mrs Osbourne,
Dear Ms Greene,
(A quick side note on proper title etiquette when addressing women: ‘Miss’ refers to unmarried women, ‘Mrs’ refers to married women and ‘Ms’ is used when a woman’s marital status is unknown. So, unless you’re absolutely certain of the hiring manager’s marital status, ‘Ms’ is the safest option to use.)
When you really don’t know who to address the letter to (i.e. you weren’t able to locate their name after all your research), consider using one of the following greetings:
Dear Hiring Manager,
Dear HR Manager,
Dear [Department] Hiring Manager,
Whatever you do, though, don’t write ‘To Whom it May Concern’ or ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ – both these greetings are quite impersonal and, frankly, outdated. They also show that you put very little effort into finding out who you potentially would be working with.
4. Hook the reader from the very first sentence
Most cover letters usually open with something like this:
My name is John Smith, and I am writing to apply for the sustainability specialist position at Company ABC, as advertised on Jobs XYZ. Please find my résumé attached.
Hiring managers and recruiters go through many cover letters every day, and the last thing they want is to read the same thing everyone uses to start off their letter. They want to feel that you’re excited about applying for the job, which will in turn make them want to read your letter.
As such, you need to grab their attention from the get-go. And the best way to do that is to start your cover letter with a creative and unique intro that hooks the reader right in. You could begin by telling a story or a clever anecdote, for example, or even by bringing up something newsworthy!
Consider the following example intro:
I recently came across an article in Forbes magazine in which Company ABC was highlighted for its commitment to renewable energy and sustainable business practices – all while achieving double-revenue growth. After reading this article, I was inspired to work with your company, and I was excited to see that you had an opening for a sustainability specialist. With my track record of promoting greener workplaces and reducing organisations’ carbon footprint by up to 45%, I believe I am a strong candidate for the position.
Here the candidate shows that he admires the company’s efforts (a little bit of flattery never hurt anyone) while at the same time provides a sneak peek into what he brings to the table. It’s also a lot more engaging and sounds less robotic – and is more likely to get John hired than the first example in his letter!
5. Explain why you’re perfect for the role
One of the biggest cover letter mistakes I’ve seen many jobseekers make in their cover letters is talking about how the job they’re applying for will benefit their goals (think: ‘I’m seeking an opportunity that will allow me to apply my skills and further develop my knowledge’). One, employers don’t want to feel like they’re a stepping stone to something bigger and better and, two, it’s not about you.
The second paragraph of your cover letter is all about showing the hiring manager how exactly you meet the company’s needs – not how the company meets your own.
To get started, read the job description again and highlight the most important requirements and responsibilities of the position. Choose two or three points to focus on in this paragraph, while incorporating examples that demonstrate how you meet these qualifications.
Let’s say that the top requirements of the job are:
- The ability to work with others to ensure compliance with environmental regulations
- Experience in developing training material and courses
Here’s how John managed to show how he fulfils these requirements:
Though my 10-year experience of successfully promoting and managing green business initiatives while developing strong relationships with businesses, I have become well-versed in ensuring compliance to both local and national environmental regulations while achieving and exceeding sustainability goals. In my current role at Company XYZ, meanwhile, I have supervised the development and delivery of training materials to different teams and stakeholders, resulting in the reduction of our carbon emission by 22%.
You could even use three or four bullet points here to demonstrate further what makes you a good candidate.
6. Tell them why you want to join
The third paragraph should tell the hiring manager why you want to join the company – which shouldn’t be because of the high salary or cool benefits, even if that’s really why you’re applying (and let’s face it: it probably is).
Instead, what you need to do here is focus on the company’s mission, and how it aligns with your own beliefs and interests, as well as demonstrate how passionate and eager you are about the prospect of joining the company.
It’s a good idea at this stage to do some research on the company. Start by looking at the company’s website for information about their mission and business model, read up on company news by performing a quick Google search, and even check out employee reviews on sites like Glassdoor. This will help you identify key points to mention in your letter and effectively show how you fit into the company’s culture.
Here’s an example:
I’ve been following Company ABC for years and I know the company’s current plans involve developing environmentally sustainable products. This is a great match to both my personal and professional interests, and it is an exciting opportunity for me to leverage my environmental science skills and knowledge.
7. Make an offer they can’t refuse
Finally, it’s time to end your cover letter with a powerful call-to-action that should do four things:
- Thank the hiring manager for taking the time to review your application
- Summarise why you’d be a good hire
- Reiterate your excitement about the opportunity (without going overboard, of course)
- Politely ask for, or state that you’re interested in, an interview
Let’s put it into a practical example:
Thank you for taking the time to review my application. I believe my skills and qualifications make me an ideal candidate for the position, and I hope I can contribute to Company ABC’s mission of developing and applying sustainable solutions to real-world problems. I would appreciate the chance to talk with you to discuss my candidacy further.
8. Use the right formal closing
All you have to do now is end your cover letter with a formal closing, followed by your name, and you’re good to go. If you’re mailing your application, make sure to sign the letter by hand after your typed name.
The following are some of the most popular closings you can use:
Thank you for your consideration,
With best regards,
Whatever you do, never use any of the following closings to sign off your letter:
Meanwhile, it’s also a good idea to add your contact information again here, especially if you’re emailing your application.
Here’s what your letter’s closing should look like:
johnsmith @ example . com
9. End with a PS
You might think that a PS – or postscript – has no place on any kind of formal letter, but it’s become quite common and it’s actually one of the most overlooked tricks up a jobseeker’s sleeve.
In fact, including a PS is bound to grab the reader’s attention, because hardly anyone ever includes one. This provides you with a fantastic opportunity to stand out from the crowd, and it can be a great way to encapsulate your unique selling proposition in or two final sentences.
Consider this example:
PS: My fluency in Japanese, Korean and Filipino can be of great assistance in the firm’s efforts to expand in the Asian market.
If you do choose to include a PS, make sure it’s worth doing so. If you’re just going to use the PS as an afterthought to throw in some irrelevant information that has nothing to do with the job (think: ‘PS: I enjoy reading 19th Century French literature and knitting scarves for my cats in my spare time’), you might as well scrap it altogether. Of course, that’s not to say you can’t add an interesting titbit about yourself – so long as it relates to your experience and the job you’re after.
Writing a cover letter might seem like an incredibly overwhelming and anxiety-riddled task, but by breaking the process down into practical and digestible steps, it will be a lot easier than you think! Just keep it short, tailor it to the job you’re applying for, and highlight your achievements, skills and talents – and make sure to show your enthusiasm for the opportunity.
Got a question about writing your cover letter or think we’ve missed something important? Let us know in the comments section below – we’d love to hear from you!
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 28 June 2017.