Cover letters are the bane of every jobseeker’s existence. But they’re a necessary evil.
Indeed, most hiring managers will use your cover letter to evaluate your candidacy and decide on whether reading your résumé is worth their time, never mind inviting you to an interview.
That’s why it’s so important to spend time and careful thought in writing the least generic and most compelling cover letter you can.
Not sure how to write a letter that grabs the hiring manager’s attention?
In this article, you’ll find a curated collection of 20 tips that will walk you through the entire process, from start to finish — plus examples to inspire you and a free template to ensure job search success in 2024.
Before you put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard), you’ll first need to do some prep work for your cover letter:
1. Understand the purpose of a cover letter
Writing a cover letter is so much more than simply a way to express your interest in an open position. It’s a way to effectively market yourself as the ideal candidate for said position.
Essentially, your letter should do four things:
- Relate your skills, experience and qualifications to the target job.
- Explain why you want the job in question.
- Demonstrate your interest in the company.
- Invite the reader to follow up with you regarding the job opportunity.
Keeping all this in the back of your mind as you set out to write your letter can help you write a better one.
2. Review the job description
It’s time to go back to the job description of the position you want to apply for, and carefully read it — and read it again — to really understand what the employer is looking for in the ideal candidate.
As you read through the description, make note of any important keywords and phrases, as well as any special instructions. All this will come in handy during the writing stage, which we’ll get to shortly.
Find out as much as you can about the company you’re applying to. Check out their website (paying special attention to their mission, values and culture), read up on company news and announcements, and go over employee reviews.
The more you know about your potential employer, the better you can personalize your letter to them. For example, if they’re planning to expand operations to Asia, you could highlight your fluency in Mandarin or Hindi, or how you previously worked in Japan for five years and have an extensive list of useful industry contacts.
4. Identify your unique selling point
Everyone has a unique selling point. It could be being fluent in seven languages, having a knack for turning failing companies around, or being the winner of a highly prestigious industry award.
Take the time to identify your own USP — essentially what makes you unique among your competition — by assessing your skills, experiences, qualifications and accomplishments. This should then be the focus of your letter.
Now it’s time for the actual writing part. Just keep the following tips in mind:
5. Focus on what you bring to the table
One of the biggest cover letter mistakes that you can make is making it all about you — think: “I am applying for this job, as I believe it will help me develop my skill set and expand my knowledge.”
Employers don’t want to feel like they’re a steppingstone onto something bigger and better. They want to know what you can do for them, not what they can do for you. So, focus your letter around how your past experiences and achievements can help you contribute to their company’s success.
6. Incorporate keywords
Consulting the list of keywords and phrases that you identified when reviewing the job description, figure out how you can naturally incorporate them into your letter.
For example, if “in-depth knowledge of SEO” is listed among the position’s requirements, you could work the exact phrase into your letter, like so: “With 8 years of experience in copyediting for leading digital publications, I have in-depth knowledge of SEO and social media marketing.”
That said, don’t go overboard. Only do this for the most relevant and important keywords, and only where it makes sense to do so.
7. Don’t apologize for skills you don’t have
While you should, ideally, be applying for jobs that you’re qualified for, you (or anyone else) will never meet 100% of the position’s requirements — and that’s okay. What’s not okay is apologizing for your shortfalls.
When you bring attention to the skills or qualifications that you lack, you’re setting yourself up for failure, as your lack of confidence will rub off on the hiring manager. Instead, direct their attention to your strengths.
8. Use numbers and metrics
Don’t just tell the hiring manager that you’re good at something — show them, too. A simple trick to achieve this is to quantify your achievements with numbers and metrics, as doing so provides concrete evidence of your impact and results in past jobs.
For example, instead of simply saying that you have a “track record of increasing revenue”, mention how much revenue increased by because of your efforts — like so:
As the Vice President of Sales at Company ABC, I increased annual revenue by 45% in just one year, doubling our client base and establishing strong relationships with key stakeholders.
9. Don’t rehash your résumé
Your cover letter is meant to complement — not replicate — your résumé.
While it should touch upon the content of your résumé (that is: your experiences, skills and accomplishments), your letter should “zoom in” on the most salient points of your résumé and talk about your experiences in a way that you otherwise couldn’t highlight there, given the limited space you have.
Still, make sure that the information you’re touching upon in your letter has already been included in your résumé — don’t introduce brand-new skills, achievements and experiences.
10. Be concise
At the heart of impactful writing is conciseness. This helps improve clarity, keep your reader engaged and even enhance your credibility.
Keep your cover letter to one full page at most — and half a page at least — and aim for a total of 250–400 words. Also, use short sentences (no more than 25 words), limit paragraphs to 3–5 lines, and consider using bullet points to break down longer paragraphs into easily digestible chunks.
11. Use active voice
The active voice (eg: “Zombies ate Karen”) is far more direct, impactful and compelling than the passive voice (eg: “Karen was eaten by zombies”). It also makes you sound more confident and professional.
Of course, the passive voice sometimes works better than the active voice (such as when you want to emphasize the action over the subject), but try to steer clear of it as much as you can. You can do this by watching out for “by” phrases and “to be” verbs (“be”, “is”, “being”, “been”, etc).
12. Get the tone right
It’s not just about what you say in your cover letter; it’s also about how you say it.
It’s a good idea to match your writing style to that of the company. If their website’s tone of voice is formal, then adopt the same tone in your letter. If they’re quite laidback, though, then use a more upbeat and friendly tone.
As a general rule of thumb, keep it professional — but try to work in a bit of your own personality (without going overboard).
13. Use positive language
In your cover letter, positive language can increase optimism in the reader of you and portray you as a credible and respectable applicant.
Where possible, use “I am” and “I have” phrases (which demonstrate confidence), as opposed to “I feel” and “I believe” phrases (which are subjective and imply uncertainty in your own abilities). Likewise, eliminate weak words and phrases like “some knowledge” and “fairly experienced”, and generally try to use language that shows agreement, flexibility or incentive.
14. Follow any special instructions
Some job descriptions include special requests for cover letters, such as answering specific questions, listing salary requirements (which is rare but not unheard of) or using a particular file type. It is beyond imperative that you follow any such instructions precisely.
If you don’t, the hiring manager will inevitably assume that you’re either a) lazy or b) unable to follow basic instructions — either way, it will land your job application in the rejection pile.
15. Don’t overuse “I”
While your letter should use a first-person perspective, you need to be careful that it doesn’t end up sounding like your autobiography and creating the perception that you’re self-centered.
As such, it’s a good idea to minimize the use of personal pronouns like “I” and “my” where possible. If you can, rework sentences that contain instances of “I”, especially at the beginning — without, of course, sacrificing proper grammar.
16. Speak to the reader
When you speak to the reader, and not about them, you can better connect with them. As a result, they’ll be more inclined to shortlist you, as you’ve already got some rapport going.
Do this by addressing the hiring manager by name in your letter’s greeting, highlighting the common ground you found during your research, and incorporating personal pronouns like “you” and “your” (where it makes sense to do so).
As a lifelong fan of Company ABC, I was excited to learn that you’re currently looking for a Junior Accountant to join your San Francisco-based team.
17. Use plain English
You may be applying for a highly technical job, but your application will likely (at least at first) be read by a recruiter or HR manager who isn’t at all familiar with terminology frequently used in your field.
As such, it’s best to use plain English that everyone can understand — regardless their job title or even language proficiency — and to keep industry jargon to an absolute minimum.
You’ve finished writing your cover letter and you’re ready to submit it, but wait — don’t hit the “Apply” button just yet:
Always make the time to proofread your cover letter (and résumé!) before sending it off.
Ideally, you should take a couple of hours away from your letter, allowing yourself to recharge your batteries and come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes.
Try different proofreading techniques, like reading your letter backwards, reading it aloud, and focusing on one issue at a time (capitalization, verb tenses, spelling, punctuation, and so on).
19. Ask for feedback
As you’re the one writing your cover letter, it’s sometimes difficult to be unbiased when reviewing your own work. After all, you know what you’re trying to say — which makes it easier to miss mistakes in terms of structure, flow and grammar.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to ask friends, relatives, teachers or, even better, a professional résumé writer for their feedback. Email them a copy of your letter, including a link to the job you’re applying for and a list of things you particularly want their input on.
20. Email your letter to yourself
Finally, it’s important to make sure your document works properly when opened. You can do this by sending a test email (with your letter attached) to yourself and opening it on a different computer.
This is a great way to check your letter’s formatting, and fonts especially — indeed, the font you’ve chosen may not be supported by the hiring manager’s operating system. This will result in a replacement font being displayed, which could potentially impact your cover letter’s overall look and feel for the worse.
Check out our video with our best cover letter tips:
Our free, ATS-optimized cover letter template is both editable and easy to use, and comes complete with helpful suggestions and practical tips to guide you in crafting your own job-winning letter.
Download the template by subscribing below:
Need some writing inspiration? We’ve crafted three cover letter samples, each tailored to a specific situation, to help you get started — all based on our collection of professionally designed premium templates.
If you’ve decided it’s time to move on to greener pastures, your cover letter should highlight what you can do (and that you do it well) and how your past success and results can benefit the company you’re applying to. Consider this cover letter example:
2. Applying for an internal position
If you’re eyeing an internal position that has recently opened, you’re at an advantage as you know more about the company’s internal structure, culture and priorities than you would if you were applying to a different company. For internal position cover letters, it’s always a good idea to name-drop a recommendation or referral, like in this sample:
3. Applying for a scholarship
Cover letters aren’t strictly reserved for applying for a job or an internship. They can also be used for scholarship, grant and even college applications, where you should highlight your dedication, passion and goals. Consider this sample scholarship cover letter:
If you still have questions about cover letters, fret not: we’ve got the answers.
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter is a one-page document that you submit as part of your job application (alongside your résumé). It’s, essentially, a piece of persuasive writing that introduces yourself to potential employers and conveys why you’re a great candidate for the position.
Do I even need one?
Yes! Hiring managers expect you to include a cover letter in your job application, and if they can’t find one attached, they’ll likely assume that you don’t really care about the job — which could mean instant rejection. The only time you should ever skip the cover letter is when the job description specifically requests you to (which is rarely the case).
Your cover letter should consist of three main parts: an opening paragraph (introducing yourself and why you’re applying), the middle paragraphs (highlighting why you’re a great fit for the job) and a closing paragraph (expressing gratitude and highlighting a call to action). Make sure to also include a professional greeting and a complimentary close.
How should I design my letter?
Your cover letter should complement your résumé’s design and overall look. This means using the same fonts and colors, and adopting the same formatting across both documents (and any other supplemental documents, for that matter). This will effectively help you create a consistent personal brand.
How should I submit it?
This depends on the employer’s preferred method. You’ll typically find this information at the end of the job description, where you’ll be asked to either complete an online form or send an email. In the case of the latter, make sure to write a short, descriptive subject line like “John Smith — Application for Junior Accountant Position”.
While your résumé is what gets you the interview, it’s your cover letter that opens the door in the first place. But a cover letter takes careful thought and effort — get it wrong, and that door is swiftly closed in your face.
Using the tips and examples we explored in this article, you’ll hopefully be able craft a cover letter that not only keeps said door open, but that also gets you through it.
To sum up, here’s what we learned about writing a strong cover letter:
- Do some prep work. This includes reviewing the job description and identifying your USP, which will be helpful when you get round to writing your cover letter.
- Be strategic. Focus on how you can contribute to the company’s success, incorporate relevant keywords, use numbers and examples, and follow any special instructions.
- Review examples for inspiration. But don’t copy/paste content you find online; use your own words to tell your story and make your letter yours.
- Add the finishing touches. Proofread your cover letter before sending it out, and ask a trusted friend to look over it too.
Got a question? Let us know in the comments section below!
Originally published on June 28, 2017.