One of the slyest tricks you’ll come across on a job application is the part where it says that attaching a cover letter is optional.
Sure, some companies genuinely may not care if you include a cover letter with your application or not, but most hiring managers use this as a way to weed out applicants long before anyone in HR starts sending out emails. They know candidates that care about the job will go the extra mile, and the cover letter is your chance to make a strong first impression.
Although there are as many ways to write a cover letter as there are to skin a cat, the best way is often the simplest way.
In this article, we’ll show you how to write a cover letter that will send your job application to the top of the pile and land you that first crucial phone screen or first interview.
Here are 10 things you need to know about writing a great cover letter. Let's get into it!
1. What’s the Point of Writing a Cover Letter?
In brief, your job cover letter is a way to tell the people that you want to hire you why they should hire you. It should illustrate your fitness for the role, your professionalism, and your competence, all while revealing a little bit of your personality.
It's also your opportunity to provide some context for what's in your resume, explaining anything your resume leaves out and highlighting the parts of your resume that are most relevant to the role.
Sound tough? We promise, it’s not that hard, and once you get the basics down, it’s easy to modify your cover letter slightly for each role, so it’s as relevant as possible to the exact job you’re applying for.
2. How Long Should a Cover Letter Be?
As with resumes, cover letters shouldn’t exceed one page in length; any longer and you risk turning off the hiring manager before they’ve even glanced at your resume.
In terms of word count, this means that you should be aiming for around 500 words.
As a rule of thumb, try to stick to around three paragraphs (four at most), not counting the salutation and sign-off.
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3. What Should a Job Cover Letter Include?
A great cover letter for a job application includes the following parts:
- An address and salutation
- An introduction that tells the hiring manager who you are and what role you’re applying for
- A statement about your interest in the role, and why you’re the best person for the job
- A brief section outlining your qualifications and relevant past experience
- A quick conclusion that reiterates your interest in the job, the best ways to reach you, and closes with a friendly but professional sign-off
4. What's the Proper Format for a Cover Letter?
A basic cover letter for a job application should look something like this:
As you can see, the cover letter includes your name, address, and contact information at the top, followed by the date and the recipient's name and address. The body of the cover letter (again, three paragraphs should do the job) should all fit on one page with room for your sign-off.
(Protip: You can find this and other cover letter templates in Microsoft Word.)
5. What Salutation and Sign-Off Should You Use in a Cover Letter?
As a general rule, you should tailor the language, style, and tone of your cover letter to the type of role and company to which you’re applying. A cover letter for a job at a prestigious law firm, for example, would be very different from a cover letter for a part-time retail position.
“I say, old chap, did that candidate address you as ‘sir’ just a moment ago?
I like the cut of his jib.”
That said, the basic salutation that works in almost any situation is "Dear Mr./Ms. [Name]." If you don't know the hiring manager's name, you can use a generic salutation like "Dear Hiring Manager" or "Dear Recruiting Manager." (Experts recommend avoiding "To whom it may concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam" as they sound antiquated.)
Note: You should also avoid using “Mrs.” when addressing a female hiring manager, even if you know for a fact that she’s married. Use the politely ambiguous “Ms.” instead.
As a sign-off, stick to something simple and professional like "Sincerely" or "Regards."
6. How Should Your Open Your Cover Letter?
Solid advice. Image via WikiHow.
Typically, a cover letter introduction (the first paragraph) should accomplish three goals. It should tell the reader:
- Who you are
- Why you’re writing to the recipient
- Why that person should continue reading
Although there are a few “clever” ways to open your cover letter, most tend to be pretty formulaic. For example:
“My name is Dan Shewan, and I am writing to apply for the position of Staff Writer.”
The line above addresses two of our three goals; it establishes who I am and why I’m writing to the recipient. It’s up to you whether to include where you saw the vacancy. (I don’t tend to include this, as the hiring manager already knows where they’re advertising, so why bother?)
If you happen to be a referral or you know someone at the company, this would be a good place to mention that, i.e. “My name is Dan Shewan, and I am writing to apply for the position of Staff Writer, which I heard about from your magazine's editorial assistant, Jane Doe.”
We still need to deal with the third objective of our cover letter’s introduction, though, which is to give the recipient a reason to keep reading. This is where you get a chance to mention how awesome you are:
“With more than a decade of editorial experience across a wide range of publications in print and online, I believe I would be an excellent candidate for the role.”
By including this line, I’m giving the hiring manager that reason to keep reading. I mention how long I’ve been doing what I do, offer a glimpse of the kind of experience they’ll see on my resume, and conclude with a strong, confident statement of intent.
At this point, I’m ready to segue into the real meat of my cover letter.
7. What Goes in the Body of the Cover Letter?
Remember, cover letters are an opportunity to prove you can be the very specific individual that the hiring manager is looking for. This is what the body of your cover letter, the second paragraph, should illustrate.
A great way to do this is to picture yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes.
The hiring manager responsible for screening candidates probably has someone pretty specific in mind. She knows what her ideal candidate’s major was at college, what specific skills they have, how many years they’ve been in their field, and the kind of projects they’ve worked on. When it comes to cover letters, hiring managers are looking for one thing – relevance. In short, the hiring manager knows exactly who she’s looking for.
“It says here you can walk AND chew gum. I’m impressed – so impressed I’m
going to continue leaning on my keyboard with my elbow absentmindedly.”
Your cover letter is an opportunity to prove that you are that person, by aligning yourself perfectly with the hiring manager’s idea of her dream candidate.
The second paragraph of your cover letter (which should be the longest and most substantial part) is where you should do that. Tell the recipient, in about 5-7 sentences, why you're the absolute best person for the job, by highlighting specific elements of your education and past job or life experience that you can bring to the table.
If you're truly passionate about the job and your field, make sure that shows! Nobody wants to hire someone who's just desperate for a job, any job.
As you will see from the attached resume, I’ve built my career in a variety of roles and industries, mostly in small companies where I was not just the admin but also gatekeeper, technology whiz, bookkeeper and marketing guru. I’m not only used to wearing many hats, I sincerely enjoy it; I thrive in an environment where no two work days are exactly the same. In addition to being flexible and responsive, I’m also a fanatic for details – particularly when it comes to presentation. One of my recent projects involved coordinating a 200-page grant proposal: I proofed and edited the narratives provided by the division head, formatted spreadsheets, and generally made sure every line was letter-perfect and that the entire finished product conformed to the specific guidelines of the RFP. (The result? A five-year, $1.5 million grant award.) I believe in applying this same level of attention to detail to tasks as visible as prepping the materials for a top-level meeting and as mundane as making sure the copier never runs out of paper.
Notice how the cover letter backs up claims (like "fanatic for details") with specific examples and evidence ($1.5 million grant award).
8. How Closely Should Your Cover Letter Match the Job Description?
Because the person making the decision on who to hire knows what they want, it's a good idea to look for clues in the job description and mirror those back in your cover letter.
Tailoring cover letters to the requirements laid out in the job description is one of the best ways to set yourself apart from the competition. In fact, many companies actually use software that scans applicants’ cover letters for specific keywords or phrases from the job description, and failing to include these keywords could exclude you from consideration altogether before the real screening process even begins. This is another reason why matching your cover letter to the job description is so crucial.
We get it: If you've been out of work for even a moderate length of time, applying for jobs can be a soul-destroying grind, and after a few months on the market, it’s easy to see why so many people fail to customize every single cover letter they send out, especially if they’re playing a numbers game by applying to dozens of companies every week.
“Must have a Master’s degree or greater, 10+ years of professional experience. Starting
salary of $35,000 per annum.”
Don't make this mistake!
Because the hiring manager has done the lion’s share of the thinking for you, the easiest way to make your cover letter more relevant to the specific job you're applying for is to “mirror” the structure of the job spec in the cover letter. Let’s say you're applying for an opening for an office and events coordinator role. Here are some of the key job functions and requirements:
You should use exact terms and language from this list in your cover letter to describe your own applicable experience and skills.
For example, you could open your cover letter with something like this:
“As an experienced events coordinator with considerable expertise in the planning and execution of ambitious corporate events including customer functions, conferences, and executive meetings, I believe I would be an excellent candidate for the role.”
Notice how the list of events from the first bullet point is mirrored here?
As above, you should back up your claims with examples, borrowing words from the job description itself so that the hiring manager can clearly see you've paid attention to the job listing and are a good fit for the job:
“In 2016, I was responsible for the travel and accommodation arrangements of 40 staff members traveling from San Diego, CA to Boston, MA for the INBOUND marketing conference. My primary responsibilities included negotiating with commercial airlines to secure cost-effective flights, handling individual needs such as unique dietary requirements for several delegates for the duration of their stay, and liaising with several nationwide logistics firms to ensure conference booth materials were delivered and set up on time. As a result, we achieved a 35% reduction in year-over-year travel and accommodation expenditure, and secured a more favorable rate with a more efficient nationwide logistics operator.”
In the paragraph above, we’re mirroring the original job spec, but we’re making it more interesting, specific, and relevant. We’ve demonstrated that we can definitely handle the rigors of the job and backed up our assertions with a nice little humblebrag about how we also saved the company a ton of money.
Mad props to HubSpot’s event planning team
9. What's the Right Tone for a Cover Letter?
Pay close attention to the language used in the job listing, and reflect this with the language of your cover letter. Be formal when applying for a role with a formal job description. If the description is more fun and "kooky," you can be a little more creative and casual (within limits).
Many job descriptions reflect a company’s brand voice and values. This means that mirroring the kind of language used in the job description in your cover letter doesn’t just make sense stylistically, but also offers you an additional opportunity to prove that you’re a good culture fit.
10. Do I Need a Cover Letter When Applying to Jobs on LinkedIn?
This might shock you, but cover letters used to be actual paper letters that served as the cover of a person’s resume. That they would physically mail to an employer. In an envelope.
Today, of course, most job applications are processed online, and a huge number of these are handled through LinkedIn.
As you might already know, LinkedIn offers an amazingly convenient way to send prospective employers your information, known as “Easy Apply.” This essentially sends a truncated version of your LinkedIn profile directly to a hiring manager’s InMail inbox (LinkedIn’s internal messaging and mail service), from which they can view your entire profile and application package.
A beacon of light amidst the darkness
Remember how I said that one of the sneakiest tricks in a job application is the part where it says cover letters are optional? Well, I’ll be honest with you – I don’t think I’ve ever included a cover letter for an Easy Apply role on LinkedIn.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, however.
How Do LinkedIn Cover Letters Differ from Regular Cover Letters?
There are even fewer carved-in-stone rules about LinkedIn cover letters than there are for ordinary cover letters. There are, however, some unique considerations you should bear in mind when crafting a cover letter for LinkedIn applications.
For one, there’s the fact that your LinkedIn profile itself combines elements of both your resume and a well-written cover letter. Your LinkedIn profile’s summary essentially functions as its own cover letter, and your profile hopefully contains a great deal of detail about your professional accomplishments (as well as those vital connections that are becoming increasingly important in today’s job market). As such, LinkedIn cover letters may be a little shorter and more rudimentary than the type of cover letter I’ve outlined above.
However you choose to structure your LinkedIn cover letter, keep it brief; the hiring manager already has a lot of information to look over, so don’t waste time.
Many Thanks for Your Time and Consideration
There are almost as many ways to write a cover letter as there are jobs to apply for. However, as long as you manage to pique the hiring manager’s curiosity and maintain a professional and respectful tone, cover letters are just a chance to get your foot in the door.