Top 10 Cover Letter Writing Tips

Advice for Writing a Top Notch Cover Letter for a Job

Image by Maddy Price © The Balance 2019 

When you need to write a cover letter to apply for a job, it's sometimes the small things that can make a big difference. The closer to perfect your letter is, the better your chances are of impressing the hiring manager.

Follow these tips and techniques for sending a top-notch cover letter, and you will increase your chances of getting an interview.

Select the Right Type of Cover Letter

There are several types of cover letters that can be sent to employers and contacts. For example, there are traditional cover letters (also known as application letters), which are written to apply for specific job openings. There are also letters of interest (also known as prospecting letters), in which you ask about possible job openings at a company.

Be sure to choose a type of cover letter that reflects what you are applying for, and what you are requesting.

Go Beyond the Resume

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Your cover letter should not be just another version of your resume. Instead, this letter should provide specific evidence of what you will bring to the company.

For your letter, pick two to three skills or abilities you want to highlight. Then offer examples of times you demonstrated those traits. These examples are what will make your cover letter different from your resume. For example, if you want to highlight your experience and skill tutoring children, provide an example of a time you successfully tutored a student. You can include a particular teaching moment when you were particularly successful.

Whenever possible, include numbers to show how you have added value to previous companies you worked for. In the example mentioned above, you might provide data on how your previous students’ grades improved while working with you.

If you are a recent graduate or otherwise do not have a lot of work experience, you can highlight some of your transferable skills in your resume. Provide evidence from projects, classes, volunteer work, etc. that demonstrates that you have these skills.

Write a Custom Cover Letter

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A hiring manager can quickly tell if you have written a generic cover letter for every job. That is a quick way to get your application thrown out.

Instead, target each letter to fit the specific job. The best way to do this is to match your qualifications to the job. First, look carefully at the job listing. Second, select two or three skills, abilities, or experiences that the job requires that you know you have. In your letter, provide examples of times that you demonstrated each of those skills.

Include keywords from the job listing in your cover letter as well. For example, if the listing says the ideal candidate has experience with “data-driven decision making,” you might include an example of a time you used data to make a decision or solve a problem.

Take the time to showcase your personality and explain how you'd be a terrific fit for the position and the company.

It can be ​time-consuming to write a custom cover letter for each job you apply for, but it's important to take the time and effort. A custom letter will help the reader to see, at a glance, that you are a good match for the job.

Don't Point Out What You're Missing

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Generally, don’t apologize for anything in your cover letter. If you are lacking a required skill or degree, don’t mention it. That will only highlight what you don’t have. Instead, focus on highlighting the skills and experiences you do have, and explain how they make you a great fit for the job.

However, when you have recent gaps in your work history (within the past year or so), whether from being laid-off and out of work, taking time out from the workplace to spend with your family, traveling, going back to school, or for any reason, your cover letter gives you an opportunity to explain an employment gap.

If you decide to mention this employment gap in your cover letter, do so very briefly, then quickly return to highlighting your skills and abilities.

Try to Find a Contact Person

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When it comes to cover letters, taking the time to get personal is really important. Find out as much as you can about the company and the hiring manager.

Be sure to address your cover letter to the specific hiring manager who will be reading your letter. If you don’t know who that person is, check out the company website, or even call the company and ask.

If you really can’t figure out who will be reading the letter, address your letter with the greeting, “Dear Hiring Manager.”

If you have any contacts at the company who referred you to the job or are willing to put in a good word for you, mention their names in the first paragraph of your letter. This is a great way to gain an employer’s interest. However, make sure you have checked with your contacts in advance and asked if they are willing to give you a referral.

Format Your Cover Letter Properly

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You want your cover letter not only to include the proper information, but also to look polished. Therefore, be sure to format your cover letter properly. If you are sending a physical letter, be sure to use business letter format. Include your contact information, the date, and the contact information of the employer at the top of the letter.

If you are sending your cover letter as an email, your format will be a bit different. You will also need to include a subject line that mentions your name and the job title.

cover letter should not be longer than a page (three to four paragraphs at most). If your cover letter is a bit too long, you can adjust the margins to give yourself more space. However, you want to have plenty of white space in your cover letter, so don’t make the margins too small.

Also include a space between your greeting, between each paragraph, and after your closing. This will add white space as well. No matter how you send your cover letter, be sure to pick a simple, readable font

Be Yourself

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You want your cover letter to be professional. However, this does not mean you have to use awkwardly formal language. Avoid phrases that don’t feel natural, like “Dear Sir or Madam,” or “I wish to convey my sincere interest in a position at your exquisite institution.” Instead, use clear, straightforward language.

Also avoid clichéd, overused phrases that hiring managers are sick of reading (“go-getter,” “team player,” etc.). Replace those phrases with power words like “initiated” and “collaborated.”

You want to come across as polite and professional, but not fake. Don’t use language that feels uncomfortable or corny.

Review Cover Letter Examples

Take the time to review cover letter examples before you start writing your own. Examples can give you an idea of how to structure your own letter, and what to information to include.

Also check out some cover letter templates, which can help you format your own letter.

While it is useful to look at templates and examples, be sure to change any letter sample to fit your own skills and abilities, and the job you are applying for.

Edit Your Letter

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Because hiring managers look at hundreds of applicants, a small typo can make or break your chances of getting an interview. Therefore, be sure to thoroughly proofread your cover letter (and all of your application materials, for that matter).

Read through your letter, looking for any spelling or grammar errors. Consider reading your letter out loud – it is a useful way to check for mistakes. Make sure you have the correct company name, hiring manager’s name, date, etc. in your heading.

Consider asking a friend to read your letter as well. Ask him or her to check for errors, but you can also ask for more general feedback. Ask whether or not your friend is convinced that you are a great fit for the job after reading your letter.

Send a Cover Letter That Will Get Read

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The most important part of sending a cover letter is to follow the employer's instructions. If the job posting says to include your cover letter and resume as an email attachment, attach Microsoft Word or PDF files to your email message. If the hiring manager says he or she wants you to submit your materials using an online application system, don’t mail a physical application.

It's important to send your cover letter and resume attachments correctly, to include all the information requested so your message is read, and to let the receiver know how they can contact you to schedule an interview.