Writing a great cover letter ain’t easy. Most cover letters are formulaic and generic. There’s not a hiring manager on earth that wants to read yet another bland cover letter, so putting a little more thought and personality into yours can make the difference between your resume going into the trash pile or the must-interview pile.
Do hiring managers even read cover letters? You may have heard mixed messages about whether it’s worth the time to write a good cover letter. It’s true that some recruiters and hiring personnel skip the cover letter and go straight to the resume. Who can blame them, considering that so many cover letters are so boring and useless?
However, an argument can also be made that cover letters are the most important step in the job application process. Many hiring managers use the cover letter to screen candidates before even bothering with looking at resumes.
The smartest approach is to take the time to write a strong cover letter for every single job application. You never know when it’s going to make a big difference.
But how do you write a great cover letter? It’s not an easy writing assignment. You must convey several things about your personality in a limited space, and well enough to get the reader to look at your resume. If your cover letter is lackluster, your entire e-mail (or resume and cover letter packet) will probably be deemed unworthy and trashed.
A Simple Model for Writing a Great Cover Letter
1. The Who
You must begin your cover letter with a personal salutation. It is imperative that you begin your letter with the salutation “Dear [Hiring Manager’s Name]:” (Sidebar: Please use a colon, not a comma. “Dear [name],” is for casual notes and greeting cards!)
In most job postings, you should be able to find the name of the person you should be responding to. If a name is not provided, do some research to see if you can get a name. A cursory Googling will most likely set you up with, at the very least, a phone number. Call the office, and ask the front desk to whom you should address a cover letter.
If you get a name, be certain to spell it correctly. A misspelled name is sure to send your letter to the Trash folder.
If all else fails, “Dear Hiring Manager:” is acceptable.
“To Whom It May Concern” is a pretty good indicator that your cover letter was written once, and has been sent out a hundred times. It’s also a sign that you haven’t done your research.
2. The What
In your first paragraph, you should indicate the specific job you are applying for and, if at all possible, name a mutual acquaintance who referred you. Here is where your networking efforts can really pay off. If someone within the company, or another acquaintance of the hiring manager, has referred you, your resume is much more likely to get a considered review and lead to an interview.
If you don’t already have a handy name to drop, research your network to see if you can find a connection. LinkedIn can tell you if one of your professional contacts has ties to the company or hiring manager. If you find someone, reach out to ask for advice on applying for the position. Don’t skip straight to asking to use their name unless you already have a strong relationship and have been in touch recently.
If you approach it gracefully and have a good reputation with your contact, he or she is likely to agree to help you — by offering useful information, agreeing to let you use their name in the cover letter, or even offering to recommend you or make a personal introduction at the firm.
If you can’t name an acquaintance in your cover letter, open with the reason you applied. Not “because I need a job,” but perhaps because you’ve been following the company or noticed specific requirements in the job description that spoke to you. Make it an interesting opening to keep your reader hooked.
Here is where your personality first shows through. Boilerplate phrases like “I was interested to see your posting” or even the overconfident “I was thrilled to find your posting” don’t really say much.
3. The Why
Your interest and qualifications are the meat of the second paragraph. This section should be specifically tailored to each application.
Write a concise description of your top selling points for the job and how they match with the requirements stated in the job description.
“Concise” is a key word here. Don’t reiterate your entire resume in the cover letter. Analyze the job description and focus on the most compelling details that show you are a great match for the position.
You should also think about describing why you’re a match for the company. If you’re applying to a young start-up or an entrepreneurial organization, include an achievement that helped a previous employer grow. If applying to an established, successful firm, state how you’ve worked at similar or relevant places.
You must convince the reader that you’re not only qualified, but a potential superstar. Again, proving that you’ve done your research is impressive to the reader, and demonstrates that you’re diligent.
Keep your tone confident, but don’t overdo it on the superlative adjectives. Is anyone truly “perfect” for a job? You can certainly be close, but it’s better to show than to tell. You can turn the hiring manager off with too much flowery self-promotion and not enough examples to back up your lofty claims.
Your second paragraph can be bulleted for ease of reading. Try to stick to 5 bullets or fewer.
4. The Closer
Ideally, your cover letter will be no more than three paragraphs long. A busy hiring manager is likely to be turned off if she opens an e-mail that is 6 meandering paragraphs long and scrolls right off the screen.
It’s not often said, but certainly understood: The hiring manager is going through hundreds of applicants, and those that do not immediately grab their attention are relegated to the NO pile.
So, your third paragraph should be your closer. You’ll state succinctly that you look forward to the opportunity to interview, that your resume is attached (don’t forget!), and that you look forward to hearing from them soon.
Remember: Your audience and your fit for the job change with each application, and so should your cover letter. If you convey that you are smart, that you’ll get things done, and that you’ll fit in well, you can look forward to the call back for an interview.
For further reading, check out our example cover letters for different situations.