I can write a solid resume, interview well, and make sure that my online presence is on point.
The one thing that’s always been a struggle? The dreaded cover letter.
Cover letters can be absolute torture, and it feels like there are a million ways to screw them up. Is yours too formal or informal? Too long or short? Too much information or too vague?
There’s an upside, though: Making your cover letter awesome doesn’t have to be a long, difficult process. In fact, as I’ve written more and more cover letters over time (and started helping dozens of other people write theirs), they’ve actually become (gasp!) fun.
Below, I’ve listed the 16 most important tips I’ve learned to make crafting a cover letter into an easy and pain-free process. Half of the tips are related to what you write, and the other half are tiny things that’ll make sure your cover letter is better than the rest. By the end of the list, there’s no way a hiring manager will be able to shuffle you to the bottom of the pile. Or you know…delete your email…
8 Tips for Cover Letters That Grab Hiring Managers’ Attention
1. Describe a pain point
Here’s the most important question any cover letter should answer: What problem would hiring you solve?
Notice that this question is about the company’s problem, not your desire to land the job! Tricky, I know.
But think about it: If a company has put up a job description, it means they have a pain point and need a solution. For example, if a company is hiring a web designer, it means they don’t think their current layout is up to snuff and they’re looking for someone who can get them there. That’s the problem they need solved, and that’s what your cover letter should make clear in first few sentences.
2. Don’t regurgitate your resume
This is a tip that you’ve probably heard before, but it happens all the time: Don’t use your cover letter to simply restate your resume!
Your cover letter is the perfect place to expand on things that your resume doesn’t detail, illustrate the more intangible reasons why you’re perfect for the job, and explain any particular circumstances that warrant discussion (for example, if you’re making a sudden or drastic career change).
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3. The tone should match the company
Cover letters are great for companies not only because they can see if you can solve the problem at hand, but also because they give hiring managers a sense of whether or not you understand the company culture.
How do they figure this out? Tone.
Take a look at a company’s website, how its social media is phrased, and how its employees talk about it online. Is this company a little more informal and fun? Is it buttoned-up and corporate? Your cover letter should be written in a tone similar to that of the company’s copy. Obviously put a professional spin on it, but keep the company’s culture in mind.
4. Keep the focus on the company
Hiring managers assume that if you’re applying to a particular job, that must mean you really want that job. Thus, you don’t need to spend your entire cover letter reiterating how badly you want the job and how great the experience would be for you.
It’s okay to spend one or two sentences tops explaining your love for the company, but then it’s time to turn the tables.
The majority of your cover letter should be illustrating to a potential employer what hiring you would do for their company. Again, focus on the pain point: What talents and skills do you have that would help this organization tremendously?
5. Use your numbers
A big problem I’ve seen in lots of cover letters is that they tend to be very vague in describing any notable accomplishments or achievements.
For example, instead of saying that you have had “a great deal of success as an email marketer,” use your numbers: “I spearheaded an entire newsletter redesign that resulted in a 500% increase in our open rate, which proves…”
Numbers also add intrigue and leave hiring managers wanting to hear more!
Psst! This tip holds true for resumes! (More here.) Adding numbers and statistics is a solid way to stand out!
6. Make your anecdotes short
While examples can make your cover letter super effective, many people make the mistake of including unnecessary or irrelevant information when using anecdotes that make them drag on and lose theirumph.
My personal rule is to make any example or story no longer than three sentences so that you can avoid going overboard and wasting valuable space. Here’s how to break it down:
- Sentence 1: Introduce the skill you’re highlighting.
- Sentences 2: Explain the situation where you showed off this skill.
- Sentence 3: What was the end result? Explain what it did for the company and what it proves about your character.
7. Make your opening line memorable
If the big opener to your cover letter is “I’m applying for Position X at Company Y” or “My name is…” it’s time to press the backspace button. There are two things wrong with both of these phrases:
- They’re redundant, so you’re taking up precious space! A hiring manager is already going to know your name from your application as well as which position you’re applying for. No need to repeat it.
- They’re generic and unmemorable. Give your hiring manager something to get excited about or be intrigued by.
So, how can you start a cover letter with something that has a little more pizzazz? Try opening with a favorite short anecdote, a quote that best describes you as a professional, or your personal tagline.
8. Everything should relate to the job description
As you write (and then read through) every line of your cover letter, ask yourself: How does this sentence relate to the job description? If you find yourself going on tangents or including facts that don’t prove your ability to excel at the job or understand the company culture, take it out.
And if you need some help making sense of exactly what will prove you are qualified for the job at hand, check out these 10 Tips for Deciphering Tech Job Listings.
8 Tips for Putting the Finishing Touches on Your Cover Letter
1. Research whom to address your letter to
Scrap the “To Whom It May Concern” greeting and do some research to find out who will be reading your cover letter.
In some cases, employers will be super helpful and straight up tell you whom to address that cover letter to. If you aren’t so lucky, a quick Google search can help, or if you have a connection to a potential employer, have a professional contact ask around to see if they can get a name.
If all else fails and you really want to avoid the dreaded “To Whom It May Concern” line, feel free to shoot the company an email. I did this before when I was applying to a company that had a plethora of people on its editorial and HR teams and I had no idea who’d be hiring me.
Here’s the quick template I used:
I’m applying to [name of company]’s [name of job title] position, and I was having some trouble figuring out whom specifically to address the cover letter to. Is there a particular person or department I should direct it to?
Thanks so much for your time!
2. Be smart with hyperlinks
If you’re going to use hyperlinks in your cover letter, there are two important things to keep in mind. First, try not to include more than two or three links tops in a cover letter (like an online portfolio or personal website). All links should be relevant, and your cover letter shouldn’t be used as a dumping ground for everything you’ve ever created!
Second, make sure you add context to a hyperlink to both draw attention to it and to make the hiring manager understand that it’s worth his or her time to click on. For example, if you’re referencing a recent design project you did, add that said project can be found “in my online portfolio” and add a hyperlink.
3. Delete extra images, clipart, emoticons and emojis
This is a no-brainer: Regardless of how “chill” the company says it is, keep clipart, emoticons, emojis, cute pictures of your puppy, and any other images OUT of your cover letter!
Squeeze an emoji into a cover email if you’re SUPER confident it’s appropriate. Otherwise, steer clear.
4. Keep it short (like, really short)
I’ve seen dozens of cover letters in the past month, and the biggest issue across the board is that people make their cover letters way too long.
Here’s the general rule of thumb to follow: Your cover letter should be a single page (no more!) and around 300-350 words. If you’re writing a cover email, three to five sentences works (since you usually have attachments or links for a hiring manager to click on).
5. Keep your font professional (and normal)
True story: I once received a cover letter from a friend where he’d had kept his writing to one page—but it was in eight-point font. Yikes.
Your cover letter font size should be normal (aim for between 10-point and 12-point), and your font should be straightforward and professional. Favorites include Arial, Times New Roman, and Georgia. Just say no to Curly Q or Comic Sans.
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6. Break up your paragraphs
Nothing provokes fear in people faster than a wall of text. Hiring managers get a visual of your physical cover letter before they ever read it, and if their first reaction is, “Oh god, it’s all one paragraph!” that’s not a good sign.
Instead, break up your cover letter into smaller paragraphs of three or four sentences each. It’s so much more aesthetically pleasing, and the person reading your cover letter will thank you.
7. Cut the vague professional jargon
As with in a resume, using phrases like “team player,” “self-motivated,” or “results driven” only makes your cover letter generic and unmemorable. Use more lively language, or better yet, use specific examples to prove your point.
8. Re-read your cover letter over (and over and over)
Editing is the most tedious but also the most necessary part of any cover letter writing you do. Start by printing your cover letter out and reading it aloud. I also recommend reading the cover letter starting with the last sentence and working your way up.
Another pro tip: Definitely get someone else to read your cover letter. In many cases, you might think your writing is pristine, but a friend will find at least a couple typos and point out some places where your wording is a little clunky.
Getting that perfect cover letter doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process. Use these tips and you’ll be snagging the job (and impressing potential employers with your savvy) in no time!
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Lily is a writer, editor, and social media manager, as well as co-founder of The Prospect, the world’s largest student-run college access organization. She also serves in editorial capacities at The Muse, HelloFlo, and Her Campus. Recently, she was named one of Glamour’s Top 10 College Women for her work helping underserved youth get into college. You can follow Lily on Twitter at @lkherman
I’ve read a lot of cover letters throughout my career. When I was a fellowship program manager, I reviewed them in consideration for more than 60 open positions each year. So I saw it all–the good, the bad, and the standout examples that I can still remember.
As a result, I’ve become the go-to friend when people need feedback on their job applications. Based on my own experience putting people in the “yes” (and “no”) pile, I’m able to give these cover letters a quick scan and immediately identify what’ll turn a hiring manager off.
While I can’t give you insight into every person’s head who’ll be reading your materials, I can share with you the feedback that I give my own loved ones.
1. The Basics
First things first, I skim the document for anything that could be disqualifying. That includes typos, a “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, or a vibe so non-specific that it reeks of find-replace. I know it seems harsh, but when a hiring manager sees any one of these things, she reads it as, “I didn’t take my time with this, and I don’t really care about working here.” So she’s likely to pass.
Another thing I look for in this initial read-through is tone. Even if you’re applying to your dream company, you don’t want to come off like you think someone entertaining your candidacy is the same as him offering you water at the end of a lengthy hike. You don’t need to thank the hiring manager so incredibly much for reading your application–that’s his job. If you align considering your application with the biggest favor ever, you’ll make the other person think it’s because you’re desperate.
So, skip effusive thanks and demonstrate genuine interest by writing a cover letter that connects the dots between your experience and the requirements of the position. Telling the reader what you’ve accomplished and how it directly translates to meeting the company’s needs is always a better use of space than gushing.
2. The Opening Sentence
If your first line reads: “I am writing to apply for [job] at [company],” I will delete it and suggest a swap every time. (Yes, every single time.) When a hiring manager sees that, she won’t think, “How thoughtful of the applicant to remind me what I’m reading!” Her reaction will be much closer to, “boring,” “meh,” or even “next!”
Compare it to one of these statements:
I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorchester, helped me discover a love of reading.
My approach to management is simple: I strive to be the kind of leader I’d want to work for.
In my three years at [prior company], I increased our average quarterly sales by [percentage].
See how these examples make you want to keep reading? That’s half the battle right there. Additionally, it makes you memorable, which’ll help when you’re competing against a sea of applicants.
To try it out for yourself, pick a jumping-off point. It could be something about you or an aspect of the job description that you’re really drawn to. Then, open a blank document and just free-write (translation: write whatever comes to mind) for 10 minutes. Some of the sentences you come up with will sound embarrassing or lame: That’s fine–no one has to see those! Look for the sentence that’s most engaging and see how it reads as the opening line for your cover letter.
3. The Examples
Most often, people send me just their cover letter and resume, so I don’t have the benefit of reviewing the position description. And yet, whenever a letter follows the format of “I am skilled at [skill], [skill], [skill], as evidenced by my time at [place].” Or “You’re looking for [skill], and I am a talented [skill], ” I could pretty much re-create it. Surprise: that’s actually not a good thing.
Again, the goal isn’t just to show you’re qualified: It’s to make the case that you’re more qualified than all the other applicants. You want to make clear what distinguishes you, so the hiring manager can see why you’re worth following up with to learn more. And–again–you want to be memorable.
If you write a laundry list, it’ll blend into every other submission formatted the same way. So, just like you went with a unique opener, do the same with your examples. Sure, you might still include lists of skills, but break those up with anecdotes or splashes of personality.
Here’s a real, two-line excerpt from a cover letter I’ve written before:
If I’m in a conference room and the video isn’t working, I’m not the sort to simply call IT and wait. I’ll also (gracefully) crawl under the table, and check that everything is properly plugged in.
A couple lines like this will not only lighten up your letter, but also highlight your soft skills. I got the point across that I’m a take-charge problem solver, without saying, “I’m a take-charge problem solver.” Plus the “(gracefully)” shows that I don’t take myself too seriously–even in a job application. If your submission follows the same list-type format all the way through, see if you can’t pepper in an example or anecdote that’ll add some personality.
You want your cover letter to stand out for all the right reasons. So, before you click submit, take a few minutes to make sure you’re putting your best (and most memorable) foot forward.
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This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.