Tips and Advice for Writing a Great Cover Letter

Businessman reviewing cover letter
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When most people think about applying for jobs, they believe that writing their resume will be the most challenging part of the process. Your resume is, of course, extremely important, but it is the cover letter that accompanies it that makes the critical first impression on a hiring manager that will get you noticed. As such, it needs to be much more than a rushed, generic afterthought. 

Every cover letter you write should be customized for the specific job you are seeking. It must be clearly written and concise, as well as free from any typos, grammatical errors, or misspelled names. Remember, most hiring managers will read your cover letter before they look at your resume. It's a golden opportunity for you, with a self-marketing document, to show why you are a great candidate for a job.

Here are tips and suggestions that will help your cover letter stand out from the crowd and get you one step closer to a job offer.

Send a Cover Letter Each Time

Your cover letter may make the difference between obtaining a job interview and having your resume ignored. It is your first opportunity to create a relationship with the person who is doing the hiring, and not including a resume could even cost you an interview.

Even if an employer doesn't request a cover letter, it can be helpful to send one. It shows you've put extra effort into your application.

Personalize Your Letter

If you can, address your cover letter to the individual who is doing the hiring. If necessary, conduct some online research to find out who the hiring manager is. Search LinkedIn or find the “Contact” or “About Us” section of the employer’s website. It’s also fine to call the company directly to ask the name of the person to whom you should address your letter. This is not being pushy. The hiring manager will respect you for taking the initiative.

Don't Rehash Your Resume

Your cover letter should complement, not duplicate, your resume. It should expand upon your resume, highlight your skills and experience, and explain how these relate to the job you're applying for.

The other advantage that a cover letter has over a resume is that, as a narrative, it allows you more of a chance to use your personal “tone” to build rapport with a hiring manager – to show, in your own words, your thinking process and goals in asking for his or her consideration.

Think of your cover letter, first and foremost, as a “sales pitch.” Its primary goal is to explain why you are a candidate who deserves a personal interview.

Target Your Cover Letter

Take a good look at the job posting and make a list of the criteria the employer is looking for. Then, list the skills and experience you have that correlate to what the employer is seeking. Focus on incorporating these qualifications into your cover letter. This is not cheating or “copying.” It's simply being smart enough to target your skills to the job. Be sure to directly address, in your letter, how your skills match the job requirements established by the employer.

Remember, a successful cover letter shows a potential employer how you'll benefit the company. Why you want the job and why it's a good fit for you are less important considerations for hiring managers. The lion’s share of the cover letter should focus on the employer’s needs rather than your own.

As a general rule, try not to use the personal pronoun “I” more than three or four times in your cover letter, and never begin a paragraph with “I.” This will help to ensure that your cover letter is focused on the employer.

Format Your Letter Properly

Your formatting will be slightly different if you're sending your letter through the mail, uploading it to an application portal, or sending it via email. Here's more information on how to format a cover letter.

All cover letters are structured into three basic sections:

  • In the first paragraph, you'll say why you're writing. Mention the specific job title and where you saw the posting.
  • In the middle section, you'll establish what makes you a good candidate, referencing relevant experience and skills.
  • Finally, in the third section of a cover letter, you'll thank the letter recipient for reading. You can also share details on how you'll follow up.

If you are sending a formal letter through the mail, use the same header (i.e., with your contact information) that you do at the top of the first page of your resume.

Write Simply and Clearly

Write a short, targeted letter by getting right to the point. No one has time for an epic novel, so keep your cover letter to one page. Also, make sure each paragraph has no more than three or four sentences. If you want, you can opt to use bullet points to break up chunks of text. Just make sure they do not duplicate the language of your resume. 

Avoid clichés in your cover letter. While it is a formal piece of correspondence, it shouldn't sound stilted, stiff, or unnatural. 

Highlight Your Top Qualifications

A great way to catch a hiring manager’s eye is to present your most desirable qualifications in a bulleted section in or right after the second paragraph of your cover letter. If possible, quantify impressive professional achievements with numbers, dollar amounts, or percentages, using boldface to make these figures “pop” on the page. Here’s an example:

A few examples of my qualifications include:

  • 10 years’ experience producing YOY gains within the luxury automobile sales sector, achieving a 75% increase in sales from FY 20XX to FY 20XX.
  • Proven foresight in capitalizing upon rising internet marketing strategies to build a strong client base.
  • Superb customer service talents, consistently earning client satisfaction scores of more than 95%.

Incorporate Keyword Phrases

Like your resume, your cover letter may be scanned by a company’s automated applicant tracking system (ATS) if it is submitted digitally. These systems are programmed to pinpoint specific keyword phrases (or “buzzwords”); they then rank the applications received according to the placement and the number of times the keywords appear in the application.

If your cover letter and resume fail to use these keyword phrases, they may never reach the human eye of a hiring manager.

It’s important, then, to use relevant keyword phrases in your cover letter. Your best guide to which phrases to use is the listing that describes the job you are applying for. If a phrase appears high and/or frequently on the list of the company’s “Required” or “Preferred” qualifications, it’s a good idea to include it somewhere in your cover letter. 

Just be sure not to overdo it with these "buzzwords." While including them can help rank your application higher, repeating them too often can read as robotic and possibly off-putting.

Keep Email Cover Letters Short

When you email a cover letter, make sure your letter is short. Include the copy in the body of the email message or upload it to the company website with your resume.

List your name and the position for which you're applying in the subject line of the email. Don't send a cover letter as an attachment unless the employer specifically requests it in that format.

Keep copies of all your cover letters so that you can track what you sent to whom and when. That way, if you get a request for an interview, you can look back at your cover letters to know what you already mentioned. 

Spell Check and Proofread

Before you send the cover letter, ask someone to read it and review it for typos. It's difficult noticing mistakes in our own writing because we are so close to it. If you're alone and need to proofread your own work, you can try a few techniques to catch errors: change the font style, copy the text into another document, or read the document backward (from bottom to top). 

Always double-check that you have spelled the company name, the job title and department, and your contact's name correctly. These are particularly embarrassing errors. Follow these proofreading tips for job seekers for additional assistance.

Review a Cover Letter Example

Download the cover letter template (compatible with Google Docs and Microsoft Word) or see below for more examples.

Cover Letter Sample (Text Version)

Annabel Jones
123 Central Street Lima, OH
45802 555-212-1234
annabeljones@email.com

November 7, 2019

George Greene
Director, Human Resources
ABC Charitable Trust
123 Country Club Road
Lima, OH 45802

Dear Mr. Greene:

It was with much interest that I read your advertisement on LinkedIn for the Development Officer position that has opened with the ABC Charitable Trust. As an individual with 10 years’ experience in non-profit fundraising, I can offer you knowledge and expertise that will ensure the continuing success of your philanthropic programs.

In your job posting, you mentioned that you particularly seek a Development Officer well-versed in donor segmentation, multichannel fundraising, and grant writing. During my tenure first as a grant writer and then as a Development Officer with ABC College, it was my responsibility to build our donor pipeline both through these approaches and through strategic calls-to-action and the solicitation of legacy, principal, and recurring gifts.

My qualifications and credentials for this role include:

  • Acknowledged success increasing our college’s total endowment from $75K in 20XX to more than $1.75M today through major giving, annual giving, and planned giving initiatives.
  • Solid leadership expertise onboarding, training, and supervising a 7-member team of grant writers who garnered over $5 million for various departmental research programs last year.
  • Ownership for directing all phases of a capital campaign that raised $4.5M for the renovation of one of three college libraries.

The ABC Charitable Trust is renowned for its success in transforming the lives of its beneficiaries, and it would be both a joy and a privilege to support your fundraising initiatives. Thank you for your time and consideration of this application; I would be grateful for the opportunity to meet with you in person to discuss your mission and vision for the future in greater detail.

Sincerely,

Annabel Jones

More Cover Letter Examples

Review cover letters examples, both written and email, that are designed for a variety of job applications and employment inquiries.

Article Sources

  1. CareerOneStop. "Cover Letters," Accessed Nov. 8, 2019.

  2. CareerBuilder. "Employers Share Their Most Outrageous Resume Mistakes and Instant Deal Breakers in a New CareerBuilder Study," Accessed Nov. 8, 2019.

  3. CareerOneStop. "Write Effective Cover Letters," Accessed Nov. 8, 2019.

  4. SHRM. "Cover Letters Have Transformed into E-Notes," Accessed Nov. 8, 2019.