For a lot of us, cover letters are the biggest headache of the job application process. You've already listed your experience on your resume and filled out all the fields on the application form.
What more do they need to know?
The truth is that your cover letter is a great opportunity to tell the employer (in your own words) why you'd be great for the job. Your resume can't tell your story as well as you can.
This article will walk you through the formula for a cover letter that works. You can also check out three free cover letter examples for inspiration.
A cover letter is a one-page letter that you send along with your resume and application. Sometimes it’s required and sometimes it’s optional, but it’s always a good idea to include one.
These days, depending on the application, your cover letter might be an attached document or it might be written in the body of an email or pasted into a field on an online application.
A lot of people make the mistake of using the cover letter to list the same employment history and qualifications they have in their resume.
Resumes matter, but they have their limits. They follow a specific formula and don’t give the reader a lot of extra information.
Your cover letter is where you make the case that you’re the best person for the job. It’s your chance to go beyond the details of your work history.
For example, maybe you’re applying for a job in sales but all of your past experience is as a dog walker. You can use your cover letter to explain how you had to develop your interpersonal skills and build relationships with your dog walking clients — perfect qualifications for a salesperson.
And cover letters are becoming more important. 48% of recruiters say they’re more likely to read a cover letter now than they were before the pandemic.
Your cover letter should be tailored to your own skills and to the job, but there’s an easy to use formula for any cover letter.
“To Whom it May Concern” in the past, but that’s not necessarily the best choice. If you can, your letter should be personalized to a specific person — otherwise it could sound like you don’t know or care which company you’re applying to.
If the name of the hiring manager isn’t on the job listing, do a little research on LinkedIn or the company website to find a name. Address the letter “Dear Mr./Ms./Dr. Last name.”
If you can’t find the correct person to address, “Dear Hiring Manager” is still a better choice than “To Whom it May Concern.”
Imagine this: you find yourself in an elevator with the hiring manager for your dream job. She’s getting off on the next floor.
What do you say in 30 seconds to convince her you’d be awesome at the job?
Now put that in your opening paragraph.
Hiring managers don’t have a lot of time to spend on each cover letter. Make sure that by the time they get past the first few sentences, they already have a summary of your strongest qualifications.
This is not the time to ramble.
The hiring manager or recruiter has a lot of letters to get through quickly. So don’t try to fit everything into the body of your letter, just choose a few points to prioritize. Consider writing about successful projects or other ways that you’ve demonstrated your skills on the job.
Formatting some of your important highlights as bullet points is a good way to make your letter readable.
Thank the hiring manager for considering you and let them know that you’re looking forward to meeting them for an interview.
End the letter with “Sincerely, your full name.”
Dear Mr. Johnson,
As a 3rd year graphic design major with a knack for collaboration and experience in both print and digital media, I would be an excellent fit for the summer graphic design internship. I was drawn to this position because of my admiration for your company’s innovation in the field of scented soaps.
I currently have a 3.9 GPA at the Kalamazoo School of Art and have taken courses in:
I’ve also put my design skills to use as a member of the campus knitting club. I created a logo that represented the mission of our group and designed images for our club website.
Through my coursework and my own projects, I’ve developed proficiency in Photoshop and InDesign.
Thank you for considering me for this internship. My phone number is (123)-555-5555. I look forward to speaking to you further about this opportunity.
What the example cover letter above gets right: This cover letter does a great job of drawing the employer's attention to the experience the applicant has gained outside of the workforce, including coursework and extracurricular activities.
As you can see in the infographic below, relevant experience is among the top factors considered by employers hiring interns, so you want to draw attention to it when you can.
Dear Mr. Scannon,
I’m a creative problem solver with three years of IT experience and a lifelong interest in technology. As an IT administrator, I would apply my technical skills to supporting your company’s important work in healthcare.
In my previous position as an IT specialist, my duties included:
After taking two years off to bike around the world, I’m eager to return to the workforce and make meaningful contributions to your business.
I can be reached at (123)-555-5555. I look forward to meeting you.
What the example cover letter above gets right: This letter writer summarizes her qualifications in the first paragraph and uses a bulleted list to make her main points easy to skim. This is great for busy hiring managers who want to know your story but don't have time to read a long, dull letter.
The writer also explains a two-year employment gap in a positive way. A break in your job history might worry some employers, but you can use your cover letter to reassure the hiring manager that it won't negatively affect your performance or readiness for the job.
Dear Ms. Sonia Chen,
My colleague Max Davison recommended that I contact you about the open District Manager position. I have nine years of experience in the retail industry. During my time in my current position as a store manager, our store’s profits improved by 21% and I’m eager to drive similar results for your company.
Being a store manager has required excellent interpersonal skills as I train and oversee staff and work to motivate the sales team to meet targets. I’m known for my ability to resolve customers’ issues quickly and diplomatically.
My MBA from Stevens Business School taught me project management and how to execute strategic initiatives. I put my skills to use managing our VIP loyalty program.
I’m interested in meeting to talk more about this position. Thank you for your time and consideration.
What the example cover letter above gets right: In the first paragraph, this letter writer has provided solid evidence (the 21% jump in profits) that he had an impact at his last job. He doesn't just explain that he has great interpersonal and project management skills, he gives real examples of using those skills.
Anyone can claim to be the future employee of the year, but hiring managers love to hear from candidates who can prove their excellence.
Once you’ve written a great cover letter, it’s tempting to use the same one again and again.
But a cover letter is meant to explain why your skills match up perfectly to a specific job — and every job is different. That means every cover letter should be different.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to rewrite every word. Just read the job posting and make sure you mention any skills and qualifications you have that match the listed requirements.
A whopping 77% of hiring managers consider typos or bad grammar a deal breaker.
If writing isn’t your strong point, there are some online tools like Grammarly that you can use to check your spelling and grammar.
Another thing to check for is correct company information. Sending a cover letter that includes the name of a totally different company is sure to make a negative impression.
You probably imagine your cover letter going straight into the hands of a hiring manager, but unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Many companies these days use an applicant tracking system (ATS).
An ATS is an automated program that scans application materials and decides which ones to forward to a human hiring manager.
Most don’t make the cut. 75% of resumes are never seen by a real person.
The ATS is likely scanning for specific keywords found in the job ad. Look at required skills, experience and certifications, and use those exact words (assuming they apply to you). So if the job calls for “proficiency in AutoCAD,” say that you have “proficiency in AutoCAD,” not that you “know how to use Auto CAD.”
Using keywords is a good strategy even if your cover letter does go to a human. Hiring managers get a lot of cover letters and sometimes have to skim quickly for applicants with the right skills.
Don’t just say you have leadership skills. Give a specific example of a time you had to step up and lead.
Want the hiring manager to know that you’re skilled at customer service? Talk about the ways you provided excellent customer service in your last job.
If you remember one thing about cover letters, it should be this:
Hiring managers are looking for someone who will add value. If you can convince them that you are that person, they’ll probably overlook other issues, like a gap in your employment history or a lack of experience in a particular area.
On the other hand, you can have all the impressive qualifications in the world listed on your resume, but if the potential employer can’t see how hiring you will benefit the business, you won’t get the job.
No. Cover letters and resumes aren’t the same thing, but a good cover letter and resume will work together to sell your story.
Use the cover letter to highlight the important parts of your resume and explain why they make you a good fit for the new job.
Longer isn’t always better. In fact, the body of your cover letter shouldn’t be more than about 350 words — and it can definitely be less.
If your cover letter is too long, a busy hiring manager might not read the whole thing. So be concise and only include the points you want to make sure someone sees.
Yes, while cover letters are common globally, different countries will have different norms.
For example, in some countries cover letters are more formal, and in others it’s OK to take a more conversational tone. Some cultures require more humility while others expect you to sound confident.
After reading this general advice, you might want to search for specifics about the country of your job search.
“I need this job because…” - Focus on why the company needs you, not why you need the company.
Anything about salary requirements or expectations - You’ll have time to talk about money later. Your cover letter is about explaining why you’d be great at the job.
Negative comments about past jobs - Hate your current boss? Leave that tidbit of information for the Christmas Party a year from now, once you've moved on and moved up.
The goal of your cover letter is the same as anyone’s — convince the hiring manager that you have the skills for the job.
It’s OK if you didn’t gain those skills at work. You can talk about your academic work, extracurricular activities, volunteer experience, and of course internships.
It may not be obvious to an employer how your experience fits the job. Luckily, that’s the point of a cover letter. For example, you may not have had a leadership position at a company yet, but if you’ve gained leadership experience in a student club, explain that in your letter.
Writing a cover letter doesn’t have to be hard.
You know why you’d be great at the job. The cover letter lets your potential employer know too. Just follow the format and the tips above and your cover letter will give you a big advantage when it comes to landing that dream job.
For more job search tips, visit the Jobcase Getting Hired Resource Center.