A successful cover letter is like a relatively short, easy-to-read ad for yourself that is aimed at THEIR needs. If done right, a cover letter shows an employer what your resume might not be able to do all on its own – just how great a match you are for their company.
So let’s talk about how to to write a strong cover letter and what you should include in the three basic sections: the introduction, the section where you provide some key information about yourself (usually one or two paragraphs), and the closing. But there is more you need to know!
The sections of a good cover letter
A cover letter usually has a formal or semi-formal letter structure, meaning you have your name, address and contact info at the top (or as part of the closing). Then at the far left you have the date as well as the person’s name, title, company and address you’re sending it to. Then come the greeting, three main sections, and your closing.
NOTE: When it comes to the greeting, PLEASE don’t use “To whom it may concern” or anything vague and lazy like that. If you’re given a name or title in an actual posting, great … use that. Otherwise, try to find the exact name and title as part of your research on the company.
If all else fails, Dear Hiring Manager, or (if it is going to HR) Dear Human Resources Representative, or some other actual company title that seems appropriate. Your research may even help you find an organizational chart. And from there, keep digging. You may find the real name or at least a title after all.
First section to include in your cover letter
If at all possible, try to grab their attention from the first line. Did someone recommend you for the job? Did you read one of their articles or see them speak? Have you just read something about the company that makes you want to work there? Is there something about the company that truly appeals to you? Let them know!
At the very least, especially if you are responding to a job posting, include the job title that you are applying for and perhaps where you heard of the job. And if you’re transmitting via email, use the job title and any ID number in the email Subject line.
Second section to include in your cover letter
This is the heart of it. Where you show them how well matched you are to their job opening, and perhaps to the company itself. Use this section to present your 3 or 4 strongest skills and accomplishments. Personally I like bullet points, since it makes it easy for someone to quickly see why you might be a great fit for them. But a good, clearly-written paragraph, with strong, targeted sentences will work well, too.
Don’t ramble on. Think about the screener with a huge pile of resumes on their desk (yes, even if they got spit out of an automated system), and a few seconds to skim each one. You want to make it easy for this person to say “yes!” – or at least “maybe”.
Third section to include in your cover letter
This is where you tell them (perhaps again) how interested / excited you are about the possibility of working with them (or something specific related to that thought), and add another sentence about looking forward to a chance to meet with them in person. Or anything like that. I’m not giving you exact words, because your whole cover letter should sound natural – like it’s coming from you and not some “how to” book.
Some people suggest you also say something like “I’ll call you in a week if I haven’t heard from you…” Maybe if it’s a sales job or some such thing or if you’ve been specifically asked to contact them, but otherwise I would find that really annoying. So use your own judgment, but tread lightly. Employers have their own time schedules and processes, and to some these tactics can be a bit of a turn-off.
OK. Now is the time for me to remind you about typos and grammar. And the way your cover letter looks. And, once again, using your natural voice. All important. But there is something even more important …
Most important part of a great cover letter
Your cover letter has one purpose and one purpose only – to make a strong case for why you match the job so they call you for an interview. Use the job description and your actual skills and experiences, including transferable skills, to help make that case. But … and I really want to emphasize this point … the case you’re making should be mostly about THEM and their needs.
Cover letters that go on about how interesting you are and all your hopes and desires totally miss the point. And, I’m sorry to say, more often than not they get tossed. An employer wants you to tell them in as few words possible why you meet THEIR needs.
Of course, an employer is also looking for someone who will enjoy the work. And if you have something interesting to tell them, by all means do. But what you say about yourself should tie into the job you are applying for. If your cover letter runs on and on about just you, the impression you leave is that your work focus will also be mostly on you, once you are on the job.
Now if you also happen to love the type of work and they can see that too, that makes for the best employee of all!
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