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How to Write a Cover Letter: The Ultimate Guide

Read Time: 13 mins

Recruiters and hiring managers have different opinions about the role and importance of a cover letter. Some say its purpose is to get your resume read, others say it’s to get you an interview. Whichever end of the spectrum you fall on, it’s important to know how to write a good one.

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Learn how to write an effective cover letter. Image source: Envato Elements
As Steven Rothberg of College Recruiter says, “Candidates should include cover letters because there’s no harm in providing one to someone who will disregard it, but there’s harm in NOT sending a cover letter to someone who prefers to receive one.”

Not including a well written cover letter in your application can lead to you being ignored and passed over by hiring managers. You should avoid this pitfall and put the necessary time into carefully crafting your cover letter.

The Common Problem With Most Cover Letters

A haphazard, copy-paste letter can make even the most promising applicant look like a throwaway. Unfortunately, most of the cover letters written fall into the latter category.

They practically read the same, “I’m writing to you to express my interest in X job that you advertised in Y website.” Worse yet is the self-centered, “I’m interested to work for you because…”

Because you sent them an application, it’s obvious you want a job. No sense wasting space to reiterate it. The people reading your application aren’t interested in what you want. They want to know what you can bring to the table.

A well-written cover letter helps you stand out from the crowd, get your resume reviewed, and an interview secured. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to put together a great cover letter.

A Comprehensive Cover Letter Writing Guide

Tons of books and tutorials on writing a good cover letter are available online. But only a few are detailed enough to give you a useful step-by-step guide. So that’s why I wrote this comprehensive guide, compiling all the nitty-gritty stuff I learned over the years experiencing both sides of the equationas an applicant and hiring assistant.

I’ve also asked several career and recruitment experts to pitch in, to give you a 360-view on this subject.

1. Prepare What to Include Into Your Cover Letter

Before putting anything on paper, you need a detailed understanding of the job and the ideal candidate the employer is looking for. 

Scot Small of RevBuilders Marketing agrees, “What I look for is someone who understands what we do and the value we deliver to our customers.”

Step 1. Learn More About the Company

Look at the company’s about page and other marketing materials to find relevant information, such as:

  • products and services
  • slogan or tagline
  • mission and values
  • tone of language
  • information on the department where the vacancy is in
  • work culture
  • their team

Their copy’s tone and team background will tell you everything you need to know about their culture, and the style of writing you should aim for. For instance, if the team is mostly 20 to 30 something professionals, then casual language will work great. But if it’s a huge multinational with a solid corporate hierarchy, then a conservative writing style might work better.

Read the job ad and list down the skills, tasks, and experience they’re looking forin your own words. In another column, write down examples of how you have previously demonstrated those traits. This will form the basis of your cover letter.

Note: You don’t need to have an example for every skill or task listed, though. Just enough to stand out as the right candidate. 

Step 2. Who Will Read Your Application?

Is it a recruiter, the hiring manager, or the assistant or manager of a small family-run business? Whoever it is, that person has specific preferences or biases that affect the candidate screening process. Besides, addressing your cover letter to the right person already puts you way ahead of the competition.

Look up their LinkedIn and other social media accounts. List down anything you can use as an ice breaker, such as a common interest, or mutual connection. Just be discreet, don’t invite them to be a connection or friend.

Step 3. Perform Informational Interviews

Setting up information interviews is a good option to consider for deeper preparation, as they can help you to understand a role you’re applying for more comprehensively.

Look for people in your network that currently work, or have previously worked for your target company. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the same line of work, or in another department, your goal is just to do a bit of extra digging.

Invite them for coffee or lunch, then ask questions you weren’t able to uncover in your online search.

Some questions to ask:

  • What’s it like to work for XYZ Company?
  • How did you get your start in this job?
  • What kind of challenges do you face regularly?
  • What are the core competencies your boss expects you to have?
  • What types of work or portfolio should I have to break into this industry?

These questions will add depth to your cover letter. It gives the impression that you really know what you’re doing, and you didn’t just edit a few words of the job description.

Meghan Godorov, Associate Director for Alumnae and Community Engagement at Mount Holyoke College adds, “It might be easier to interview someone in a different department than the one you are applying. It will be easier for them to speak neutrally, and if they end up liking you, they might be able to put a good word into the search committee.”

Learn more about the informational interviews and how to conduct them: 

2. Write Your Cover Letter (Step by Step)

Before you write one paragraph of your cover letter, begin by addressing the right person. Don’t use “Dear Sir/Madam”, or “To Whom it May Concern.” Never use “Dear Recruiter.” 

Now let's look at how to write the bulk of your cover letter:

Step 1. Grab Immediate Attention (First Paragraph)

Lead with a referral, or mention of the person you talked to for an informational interview. But if you don’t have any of these, try an unusual introduction.

“I can’t sell ice cubes to Eskimos, but I can sell them blocks of ice for ice carvings.”

“That was one of the best openings I’ve ever written, for a sales professional in the hospitality industry”, says Joni Holderman, Certified Professional Resume Writer and Founder of Thrive Resumes.

It’s not something you’d expect in a cover letter for an industry that prides itself on formality and white-glove service. But “it emphasized the applicant’s ability to close huge contracts. In addition to getting a great new job, several hotel executives called to say it was the best cover letter they’d ever seen,” explains Holderman.

Here are a few ways to write an attention grabbing opening from Godorov:

Open With an Impressive Accomplishment or Job Title 

“As Vice President for a family-run start-up, I engaged with every aspect of business development. I was responsible for payroll, dispatched techs to contracted sites, helped develop both the company and employee handbook and managed a budget of $500,000 earned from investors to get us started. I would like to apply this perspective and enthusiasm for developing processes to your start-up organization in the Assistant to the President position.”

No one gets overly excited about cookie-cutter skills and accomplishments. Recruiters see the words ‘team player’ and ‘creative’ every day.

“Instead of telling me that you have ‘great customer service skills,’ I’d prefer to see something more specific, such as ‘Increased customer satisfaction by 5%’,” says Annabel Edwards, Head of Customer Services for Travelworld Motorhomes.

 Connect the Job Ad’s Keywords With Your Skills and Passion

“My attention to detail, analytical skills and previous experience in the financial sector make me a good fit for a company whose tradition beyond banking is to grant funds toward the advancement of women and girls in STEM fields. I am a recipient of one of those grants and I would like to pay it forward by contributing to the company’s bottom line and advancing the impact of your funding program.”

The people reading your cover letter aren’t robots. Stories appeal to them more than data sheets and bullet points. So tell them your story. Did the company’s product or service have an impact in your life? Is the vacancy your dream job? Include that in your cover letter. Just make sure you can tie it back to your application, as random trivia can be off-putting.

Step 2. Craft Your Pitch and USP (Second Paragraph)

The first paragraph is to lure the reader in, while the second paragraph should answer the million dollar question, “Why should I hire you?”

Here, you’ll explain what differentiates you from other candidates using your Unique Selling Proposition (USP), and why that makes you the best fit for the job. Ask yourself these questions to create one:

  • What have I been good at throughout my career that came naturally to me?
  • What are my most notable projects? What projects do my boss or colleagues most compliment me on? Ask previous co-workers about this.
  • What abilities do I have that have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line?
  • What unique or hard to find talents do I have that may be needed for this job?

List down your answers then tie it to the all the information you’ve gathered about the role, and the company’s challenges.

A Public Relations Manager job ad that requires ‘a natural networker’, ‘experience dealing with clients, and the media,’ which can be answered with the following USP:

“In my 5 years’ experience as a Public Relations Manager, I have successfully executed several events and marketing campaigns that earned ABC company major press coverage in ZX magazine and XY website, just to name a few. Because of my strong ties in different media channels, the clients I represent have become go-to sources for many press outlets.”

You can even shorten it to just,

 “I specialize in marketing strategies and event launches where everyone has a great time and goes home with a great story to write about.”

Step 3. Account for Any Gaps (Third Paragraph)

Let’s say you have a lot of experience in the industry, about ten years or more. In that case, you can use the third paragraph to list some of the achievements or skills not fully explained in your resume. If you’re open to relocation, are from another state, or in career transition, this is where you should briefly explain it as well.

Or maybe, for whatever reason, you were unemployed for six months or more. Use this paragraph to explain the situation, and how you kept yourself up to datethrough training, volunteer work, or attending industry events.

Step 4. Close With a Clear Call to Action (Final Paragraph)

The majority of cover letters end like this, 

“Thank you for time. Kindly check my resume and portfolio. You can contact me at (Phone Number) for more information about how I can contribute in your company. I appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and discuss this job”

How many actions did the applicant request or imply in the example above? 

Surprisingly, it's three. 

First the applicant asked the reader to check their resume and portfolio, then a phone call to discuss interview scheduling. Not yet satisfied, the applicant also suggested a meeting.

To minimize people’s hesitation, you need to make it easy for them to say ‘yes.’ The best way to do that is by giving them one clear and easy call-to-action. Now I know you want them to read your resume, check your portfolio, and interview you.

Prioritize the interview though, as most recruiters and hiring managers will automatically go through the resume and portfolio of applicants slated for an interview. Below is a good example:

“Thank you for taking the time to review my application. I’ll follow-up with you on (Day), at (Time) to discuss this opportunity and gain additional insight about what’s next for (Company Name). You can also call me at, (Phone Number) if that’s more convenient.”

In the above example, your one CTA is for them to call you. You’re also assuming the recipient will review your resume and portfolio, and even if they don’t, they’ll have to once you call them.

Great companies don’t want passive people nor lazy people that just simply blast template cover letters and wait for results,” says Kristin Scarth, Certified Professional Resume Writer at Employment BOOST. 

The CTA above is proactive, but not too aggressive because it’s not requesting an interviewjust a discussion of the job and the company’s plans. Most recruiters see this as an advance-notice follow-up.

What Your Cover Letter is Not

  1. An Apology: So many applicants apologize for experiences they don’t have. Don’t write lines like, “While I only have experience in logo design…” or “Despite my short stint as an iOS Developer…” Almost everyone in the recruitment industry knows it’s tough to find a candidate that perfectly meets all of their requirements, so there’s no need to apologize.
  2. A List of Reasons You Want the Job: “No employer is overly interested in what you want to get from a job. They want to know what you have to offer them,” says Marielle Kelly, Career Adviser at Trinity College Dublin.
  3. A Fan Mail: It helps to connect yourself with the employer’s products and mission, but don’t do it to the point that they could mistake your application for a glowing testimonial. Hiring managers can spot insincere comments easily, so don’t bother lying.
  4. A Place to Negotiate: “Any demand or attempt at negotiation (of salary, working conditions, benefits, future promotions, anything). You haven't been offered the job yet, so it's wildly premature to begin negotiations. It makes you look like a diva that no one would want to work with”, explains Holderman.

Integrate Your Resume and Cover Letter

If you need assistance putting an attractive resume with cover letter together, then jump over to GraphicRiver, we have a number of quality designed Resume Templates to choose from, such as the creative infographic resumes featured in this article:  

You can also learn more about writing and designing your resume in these tutorials, so your cover letter and resume are well integrated together in your application:  

Proofread and Send

Congrats! You’ve just crafted an effective cover letter that’s sure to get you a positive response from employers. Now, there’s only one thing left to do: proofread.

Read the whole letter out loud. Slowly. It’s a good way to catch awkward phrasing, misspelled words, and other grammar problems. Then send it now (along with your resume) and start preparing for the interviews that will follow!

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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