When applying for a new job, your resume can be constructed more or less by formula. However, cover letters require a bit more finesse. You want it to be long enough to attract some attention, but short enough that it doesn’t get boring. An ideal cover letter will tell your potential employer why they should focus on your application more than others. It will also give them a small taste of your personality. There are a lot of template cover letters floating around the internet. Don’t use those, as it’s almost always very obvious that you’re using a copy/paste pre-written format. Instead, take the time to create a cover letter that will stand out from the rest. Even if the idea of writing terrifies you, a cover letter can be taken step-by-step to make it easy. Here’s how to write the perfect cover letter.
Keep It To One Page
Seriously. The cover letter is only supposed to be a short introduction to real meat of your application, which should be your resume. If the recruiter loses interest in your application before the end of the cover letter, you won’t get hired. Even professional writers can have trouble keeping people’s attention beyond a single page.
So, do yourself a favor and keep things short and sweet. Eliminate any extra fluff and make sure you only keep the important details. There’s almost never a reason for your cover page to be longer than a single page.
Format like a Formal Letter
Remember the goal of your cover letter. You are writing a personal letter to the hiring company, explaining why they should choose you for a job opening. To be given consideration, you need to show you know, understand, and respect business conventions. One of those common conventions is as how to format a formal letter.
This isn’t hard. There are guides all over the interwebs. Take a few minutes to make sure you’re formatting everything properly. Although we told you a minute ago that you shouldn’t simply use a template cover letter, using proper formatting isn’t the same. All cover letters should appear like a formal letter.
Adopt the Four-Paragraph System
You really only need four paragraphs, which can be easily laid-out roughly the same for every letter. (You may be able to ignore this advice if you’re applying for a very rare or specialized position. In these infrequent cases, you might need more than four paragraphs.)
First Paragraph: Introduction
In this paragraph, you should state which position you are applying for and layout the main one or two reasons why this job is right for you. Do you have lots of experience in the industry? Or a great relevant degree? This paragraph is where you should mention it. You’ll elaborate further, but you want to get that key information out there early.
Second Paragraph: Why You’d Succeed
Next, go into detail about why you’re more than qualified for the job than the average applicant. Look at the job description again — especially the qualifications section — and incorporate these things into your letter in this paragraph. Talk about the things on your resume you want to steer the recruiter’s eyes to. Mention any awards or achievements you’ve received or accomplished. Impress them!
Third Paragraph: Why You Want Them
Employers know that their employees work harder and better if they have a personal stake in the business of the company. Use this space to convince them that their company is one that you want to work for. In fact, you’d be downright proud to tell people where you work. Obviously, this is easier said than done. However, if you can’t say why you want this job at this company, then why are you even applying for it? Talk about why you look forward to working for the company and why you think it will be a desirable next-step in your career. That should help you find the answers you need.
Fourth Paragraph: How You’d Help Them and Conclusion
Finally, conclude your letter with why their company would benefit from hiring you. You can briefly mention a few intangible qualities here, such as strong work ethic, attention to detail, or a strong sense of initiative. After that, make sure you thank them for their time and consideration of your application. Mention that you look forward to hearing from them.
Don’t Be Afraid to Sell Yourself
Now is not the time to show off your modesty. You have one single page to make the potential employer think that you must be hired. No one else will toot your horn for you, so you might as well. Whoever is reading your cover letter expects a a bit of self-bragging, so go ahead and sell yourself.
You’ve worked hard to make yourself qualified for this job. Go ahead and take pride in whatever it is that makes you an ideal candidate, whether it’s your education or years of experience — or both. There’s no shame in letting the reader know exactly why you’re so amazing.
Explain How “You” Will Benefit “Them”
This part is critical, but often left out. Remember that the company will hire whoever it feels will help them the most. So make sure you take a couple sentences to explain why you are that person.
If we can be a bit cynical for a second, your reason for applying for the job might be as simple as “so I don’t starve or end up homeless.” Those are definitely very valid reasons. However, you need to tell the hiring manager something more than that. Explain how you’re going to help the company. Tell them why you’re such an important asset. If you can use real examples from previous jobs, even better.
Keep a Professional Tone
Once again, this is a formal letter. You have probably never met the people who are reading your cover letter. You are applying for them to engage in a business transaction with you. That means services rendered in exchange for monetary compensation. So adopt that mindset — stay clear and formal.
What does this mean in a practical sense? It means you should avoid any personal anecdotes or private information. The cover letter doesn’t need to mention your children or partner, your hobbies, or your religion. You should also skip mentioning your age for any reason (and remember that laws in most places prevent them from asking you to reveal how old you are before deciding to hire you or not).
When you’re done, re-read the letter. Then re-read it again. Then read it out loud. Seriously. Read it backward, checking each word for spelling. Have a close friend or family member read it too. Any grammar or spelling mistakes could instantly sink you. It’s also easy to make your ideas long and confusing by accident. Make sure your friend tells you honestly about any hesitations they had while reading it.
The unfortunate truth is that hiring managers will go through dozens (even hundreds) of random applicants for most open positions. It can be a daunting task, which means many of them will definitely throw your application into the “Do Not Call” pile over one small spelling or grammar error — even if you are the most qualified person for the job! Don’t make this kind of mistake.
Don’t Just Regurgitate Your Resume
The organization you’re applying to for a job will receive your curriculum vitae or resume that outlines your experience in the workforce, as well as your educational background. So, there is no need to restate these facts in your cover letter. For example, there is no need to write in your cover letter that you hold a marketing degree from Northwestern University if it is in your resume.
Rather, a cover letter should be used to highlight your personal qualities and what you’ve learned during your career. You may also want to emphasize significant projects you’ve worked on and big wins you’ve had in your career. But make sure that these are not mentioned in your curriculum vitae. A cover letter should not duplicate what’s on your resume.
Highlight Skills You’ve Acquired
Use your cover letter to highlight any skills you’ve acquired throughout your career. For example, you could state that you have gained experience with managing budgets or note that working as a journalist has enabled you to develop superior writing and editing skills, and so on.
Demonstrating how you have grown and developed throughout your career is important as it shows employees that you have experience that can help them meet their needs and accomplish their goals. The skills you’ve gained can also be viewed as your specializations.
Demonstrate Knowledge of the Organization
An organization that is looking to hire you wants to know that you are familiar with them and understand how their business works. Use your cover letter to demonstrate your knowledge of the organization. This will impress potential employers.
You could even go so far as to see if there has been any recent positive media coverage of the organization and mention it to show that you are up to date on what’s happening with them. In addition to being flattering, this will also show prospective employers that you are a diligent and conscientious person.
Show Career Progression
You should also use your cover letter to show potential employers that you have progressed in your career. View your cover letter as an opportunity to tell a story about yourself and how you have grown in your career, taking on increasing amounts of responsibility and bigger projects.
Employers want to know that you have not stagnated or slid backwards in your career. They want to hire people who have progressively moved forward and been successful. Your cover letter is the best place to demonstrate this through a strong narrative that tells a tale of how you have overcome obstacles and achieved success.
Use the final paragraph of your cover letter to summarize who you are and why you will be a valuable asset to the company you’ve applied to. Mention succinctly what you bring to the table and that you feel strongly that you can help the organization accomplish its goals.
Also be sure to state in the last paragraph that you hope to hear from the company or organization or that you will follow-up with them directly to arrange an in-person interview. Be assertive without being aggressive and let the company know how interested you are in the position you are applying for.
The Bottom Line
Applying for a job is a game. It’s important to follow both the written and unwritten rules. A strong cover letter can help get a foot in the door with an employer. Remember that a cover letter is often the first thing that a hiring manager reads, even before your resume. So, you want to ensure that you use the cover letter to put your best foot forward. Make sure the writing is strong and that it adheres to proper punctuation and grammar rules. And don’t be shy about being self-promotional. After all, a cover letter is a sales tool, and you are using it to sell yourself. So be positive and upbeat and highlight all that you have to offer. Good luck!