The Complete Guide to Cover Letters
Have you ever gotten stuck trying to write a cover letter that would land you an interview for that perfect job? Don't worry. Here's all you need to know (and all the cover letter samples and templates you can think of) to become a job search master.
Cover letters are one of the most challenging tasks in your job search.
You may have read that 55% of hiring managers simply don't read cover letters when looking for high-potential candidates for a job, according to a survey by Jobvite.
Just 18% of employers consider a cover letter important in the hiring process, says the Addison Group, a Boston-based employment agency.
But then again, according to some of those same recruiters, a cover letter can sometimes grab the attention of a recruiter and get you a screening interview.
It can even put you on top when the final hiring decision is just down to a few candidates.
And that's what makes writing a cover letter so hard.
Along my career path, I've held internships leading to employment offers, built businesses as both a sole proprietor and as a CEO, and completed many projects in between.
I can tell the difference between a well-crafted cover letter and a cookie-cutter formula in a millisecond.
You need to somehow balance the need to put so much thought and effort into a few paragraphs while knowing that they may not even get read.
And yet again, if they get read and aren't received well, you may blow that one shot at a potentially wonderful job and perhaps extend your search a bit longer than you'd like.
That's why, very often, when you're in front of the keyboard, it hits you: the dreaded writer's block.
It may be that you feel that you don't know how to write a killer lead sentence.
Or you may have crossed that hurdle, but now you don't know how to move past saying a few nice things about the company you're trying to join.
Or that you feel embarrassed to fill paragraph after paragraph praising yourself, and feel that whoever gets to read those lines may laugh at you.
The first thing you need to know is that we've all been there.
Secondly, no matter what the numbers say you definitely need to write a killer letter to make sure your application is taken seriously by recruiters and hiring managers.
Third, writing a cover letter is not rocket science.
It shouldn't take you hours and hours—at least not after the first time.
With a little bit of practice and some serious self-editing, you'll soon get it.
You'll be producing cover letter after cover letter that will maximize your chances of an interview and a job offer.
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Tens of thousands visit our website looking for ways to change their financial lives, and we want to make sure you get the best job by using the most qualified information available (hint: this article).
Let us show you how and kick your job search into high gear this complete guide to cover letters.
Step 1: Figure Out the Purpose of Your Cover Letter
Each cover letter has a mission—and you should accept it before moving forward
One of the main reasons for writer's block when writing a cover letter is that you haven't figured out exactly what you're trying to achieve with it.
Yes, of course, you're trying to land an interview that will eventually lead your job search to the position of your dreams, but there's a more specific strategy under the hood of every single cover letter.
Before you begin structuring your cover letter, you need to figure out if it fits into one or more of the following goals:
- Creating a bridge between your résumé and the job posting
- Explaining why you may have been out of work for some periods of time
- Making the case for why you're the best candidate for this job (even if it's not apparent at first)
- Showing why your experience is already perfect for that position
- Highlighting that you have already established connections with people in this company or in the industry
My best cover letter was short, sweet, and to the point, but the most important components were honesty, integrity, and desire.
Step 2: Match Your Skills with the Job Requirements
A cover letter is an exercise in highlighting your strengths for the job while smoothly ignoring or downplaying your weak spots
The job description is already a roadmap for your cover letter.
After reading it a couple of times, write down the five essential skills listed for the job.
There are often more requirements in a job listing, but keep in mind that a job description is always a wish list of sorts for what employers call a "unicorn hire."
If you're that unicorn, then you're in luck.
But more often than not, you're competing to be the candidate who checks more boxes on that list.
After you've identified the five essential skills, try to match them with the ones you can convincingly offer to this company.
Use a spreadsheet or a table to make it easier.
Don't undersell yourself here: This is a stretching game, in which you can match sufficient experience with the requirements listed in the job description.
For instance, you may not have been the one responsible for creating a budget, but have enough experience dealing with budgets made by someone else to perfectly understand how a budget works and claim you're qualified to do so.
Or perhaps the job requires editing video and you haven't done it at a professional level but enough on your own that you can confidently say you can do it.
This step connects with the previous one: If you can match your training and experience with the five essential skills, then the goal of your letter is to prove why you're already qualified (or even overqualified) to fill that role.
But if you had a hard time doing so, then the main goal of your cover letter is to make the case for how you still are perfectly capable of naturally stepping into that position.
In the last case, you can always slip a hint of how you're such a quick learner somewhere in your letter.
Step 3: Understand the Structure of a Cover Letter
Even though cover letters serve different functions, they are all the same at their bare bones level
A cover letter has six fundamental sections:
- Your contact information and the employer's
- Lead paragraph
- Core paragraphs
- Closing paragraph
Let's see the important aspects of each one:
Yes, you should add the employer's contact information. It may seem redundant, but it's not: it shows dedication and attention to detail, even if the letter is being submitted digitally.
In the salutation, avoid tired formulas. I mean things like "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern."
If you got anywhere with your research for contact information regarding this position, then address your cover letter to a specific person.
Generic salutations suggest that you didn't put enough effort into the prep work for your application.
Even if you're not completely sure about the person you're addressing but have a good guess about it, go with it.
You may be wrong, but it shows both effort and that you're a proactive worker.
Grab the reader's attention while introducing yourself. The lead paragraph should do two things.
We'll get to this in more detail below (see Step 7), but for now, you need to know that the initial paragraph in your letter is the key for any recruiter or hiring manager to keep reading your letter.
It should avoid any cookie-cutter formulas ("My name is X and I'm submitting my application for…").
Instead, take the chance of saying something unique about you and your interest in this particular job in a few short, affirmative sentences.
The core paragraphs are where you make a case to land an interview. Remember Step 2 above, when you matched your skills to the job description?
Here's where that exercise becomes useful:
You'll use 2–3 paragraphs to expose in more detail how your experience and qualifications match the job requirements.
If you're missing a key qualification, you should bring that particular skill or requirement only if you can't avoid it and/or if you have a way of covering for it.
Otherwise, figure out a way of skipping it.
If you are aware of a specific problem this company has or is trying to solve with this particular hire, you should mention how you will work towards that solution.
Pro tip for your core paragraphs: use bullet points if you're offering specific tips or mentioning data.
Bullets points are also good in forcing you to write short sentences that will make your reader want to know more about you and your qualifications in a future interview.
You should use the closing paragraph to offer next steps. So don't just say salute.
Besides reinstating your interest in the position, use the final line to create an action item: say you'll call or write, or ask about when can you meet to discuss the position.
The closing paragraph is also a great place to show your business and social skills.
One thing to keep in mind here: you should never sound desperate for a job, something that is always a big turnoff for hiring managers.
Likewise, the salutation and signature should not be heavy-handed. Use a simple "Sincerely," or "Best regards," and write your name.
Also, add links to your personal website, LinkedIn profile or appropriate social media if you have them.
Step 4: Make Sure to Include These Things
Load your letter with attention-grabbing words and make it a map to your career
Don't waste the chance to include the following in your text:
- Links to your LinkedIn profile, your portfolio, or any relevant social media profile that you can seamlessly integrate into the text
- Keywords from the job description
- Buzzwords that show your expertise in this area
- Subtle references (again, in the form of keywords) to the company's culture
- Concrete examples of your work experience to back up your claims
- Any solution you can offer for this particular position, that department or the company at large
- The name of anybody in the company or the industry who can provide a reference for you
Step 5: Don't Commit Any of These Formatting Mistakes
These are some of the things that make recruiters go "Next!"
Both formatting and attention to detail are essential in a successful cover letter.
- Your cover letter shouldn't be longer than one Letter page
- Don't go under 12 points in the font
- Make sure your text covers at least 70% of the page
- Don't get too creative with the font: use a sober font (no Comic Sans!), but also avoid the overused Times New Roman!
- Make sure your margins are not smaller than 1"–1.5". Anything else makes it look too crammed
- Typos (see below)
Step 6: Write It (Until You Have a First Draft!)
The sooner you produce a draft, the sooner you'll be done
This applies to journalists and novelists the same as it does to you when you're crafting a cover letter: there's only one way out of here, and it involves producing a draft.
If you've followed our steps, by now you have all the information you need to write your cover letter. So just hit that keyboard.
Still suffering from writer's block? Then try one of these two foolproof methods to get your creative juices flowing:
Set a timer for 15 minutes and write without stopping. You should simply write your reasons for wanting to do this job, without overthinking it.
You should do this exercise as if you were taking a test in school and the time was running out.
Then let take a five-minute break and start editing it.
"Interview yourself" by saying to a recorder why you should get this job. (Tip: use the voice memo app on your phone.)
Then transcribe what you said and start editing.
Step 7: Work Extra Hard on a Killer Opening Paragraph
Think of the reader of your letter as someone flipping through TV channels: if you don't grab their attention right away, they're gone
By several accounts, hiring managers may not spend more than seven seconds scanning your résumé before deciding if moving it to the pile of the people to interview or that of the rejects.
The same thing is true for a cover letter: if you bore your reader in the first lines, you have missed one of the best chances you had to impress them.
Or as the old adage goes: you'll never have a second chance of making a good first impression.
In order to do that, you should avoid generic and bland first lines.
Don't start by saying "My name is X and I'm submitting my application for the position of …"
They already know that.
What you need is to find a few initial sentences that allow you to do the following things:
- Tell something unique about yourself
- Show your passion for this job
- Leave the reader wanting more about you—like a cliffhanger in a TV show
Yes, that sounds like a difficult task to achieve with just three sentences. But it's not that hard once you've tried it a few times.
A good writing tip is using affirmative, short sentences.
If you can create a string of three sentences that can do all of the above without leaving room for doubts, you're on solid ground.
Need some examples of what we're talking about?
If not being able to lose an argument is wrong, then I don't want to be right. That's what took me to law school via several years of hard work and fun on my high school and college debate teams. It's also what makes me the perfect candidate for being the next associate at your prestigious law firm.
In my two years at [prior company], I increased our number of unique visitors to the website by [percentage].
My passion for teaching started as my family moved from town to town, following my father's career in the Army. That meant not only being exposed to different schools and teachers every other year; I also had to help my young brother and sister adapt to it all and finish their homework every night.
The important thing in the lead is that you need to be original. Even if it's just for that one initial sentence, give your reader something he or she has never read before.
Crafting the perfect cover letter is not rocket science: it just takes practice
Something that becomes memorable or brings a smile to their faces. That will make them keep reading and take a look at your résumé.
Step 8: Edit, Edit, Edit
Once you've produced a draft, make sure you've let it sit and edited it at least three times
Your cover letter should be perfect.
And perfect means perfect. Not only should they not contain any typos or grammatical errors, but you should make sure there are no loose ends and that you've told the best possible version of your story.
This can only be achieved by reviewing it over and over again. There are no shortcuts here.
Editing means going over it and making all the changes you deem necessary. Then you put it away at least for a few minutes, and you do it all over again.
And then again.
We swear: it becomes easier after you've done your first cover letter.
Step 9: Find Someone Else to Proofread It for You
Run Your Cover Letter Through Spellcheck if you have no one to ask for copy editing help
Are you tired of us mentioning how typos are unacceptable? So are we, but that won't stop us.
Here's the thing about typos: They're often invisible to the person who just finished writing a text or who's tired of editing.
But they're almost never invisible to a trained eye—like that of someone who reads résumés and cover letters for a living.
So make sure you run your cover letter through spellcheck. And if you have someone who can give it a read, please do so.
You can thank us later.
Step 10: The Email Dilemma
If you're submitting your resumé via email, should it be an attachment or just go in the body of your message?
You've worked so hard on your cover letter (and your CV before), but when it comes to sending it by email, should you attach it in a separate document, or just copy and paste it?
This is not really a dilemma. Nothing would be sillier than writing a cover email for your cover letter. Copy and paste it (without your contact info at the top), and then attach your cover letter to the email.
Just make sure to format your email right:
- Write the subject line in the following format (unless there are specific instructions to do it differently): Job Title - Your Name
- Make sure that no formatting (including hyperlinks) has been lost while copying and pasting from your master document to the email
Crafting the perfect cover letter is not rocket science: it just takes practice
There you have them: the 10 steps to crafting a perfect cover letter and avoiding writer's block.
It does take some work, especially the first time around.
But with a bit of practice, you will become a master of it, and you'll have created your own library of templates to draw from and build upon.
And in the meantime, take a look at the templates we offer below in our annexes.
Oh, and did we mention that you should avoid typos at any cost? Just sayin'…
Annex 1: Template for a cold contact cover letter
Because sometimes you want to show interest in a company before the perfect job has been listed
Dear Ms. Simmons,
The song says that money makes the world go round, but I beg to differ. I think it's data. And that's why I set my mind on becoming an analyst as I was graduating from high school and looking for a way to turn my passion for computing and numbers into a satisfactory career.
Green Widgets, Inc. has become one of the most respected companies in the market, with a reputation for not only producing matchless world-class widgets but also for delivering unmatched customer service and helping its workers develop professionally. My five years of experience as a senior data analyst with [insert company name] and my strong work ethic would keep moving this long history of success forward.
In my current capacity, I lead a team of three junior analysts, with whom I managed to increase our bi-weekly reporting by 15% in just six months. The CEO of the company —to whom I report on a weekly basis— said in last year's annual company meeting that our work had paved the road for a production cost reduction of $250,000. I am proud to say that these achievements were the fruit of hard work and us being a proactive group of workers.
I have learned that Green Widgets, Inc. team of data analysts is growing and that you could add the position of general manager of data analysts. Looking at how your production facilities are expanding, as well as at the prospects for the market in the following year, I am confident that someone with my qualifications could help your company improve its cost-efficiency and capture a larger share of the market.
I have attached my resume and would love to speak with you regarding how I could make a significant contribution to Green Widgets, Inc. I will follow up next week to see if you have an opening for an interview. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Annex 2: Template for a cover letter for a résumé
An example of your basic variety cover letter for a job opening
Dear Mr. Knopf,
My passion for literature started as soon as I learned to read. At the age of seven, I was lost in a world of letters and imagination, to the point that sometimes I forgot to eat. This passion soon turned into writing and editing my own texts, and led to internships at editorial houses such as [insert company name] and [insert company name]. It is also what is driving me to apply for the position of editorial assistant at your prestigious publishing company.
In these three years in the publishing business, I have honed two specific skills: being able to spot a good manuscript from the first pages, and writing accurate reports on them. I am proud to say that in this time, my reports have led to a dozen successful publishing contracts and two titles making it to the New York Times Bestseller List.
One of them was [book title one], which called my attention because [a, b, c]. The second one, [book title two], wasn't fully developed when submitted as a draft but showed enough promise that my initial report became a key element in helping it reach its full potential.
Besides my editorial skills, I have two years of experience working as an office manager for [insert company name]. I am proficient in Excel and PowerPoint, and I served as an assistant to Ms. Schuster during the year 2016—a period that included trips to international book fairs in Chicago and Frankfurt.
I am confident that my experience in the publishing market and my proven eye for high-quality literary content qualify me for consideration. I look forward to meeting with you and discussing my qualifications in more detail.
Annex 3: Template for a targeted cover letter
If you're going to show goals before anything else, try this template
Dear Ms. White,
In response to your advertisement for Senior Manager of Delivery Operations, please consider the following:
Develop and implement strategic operational plans. I have 12+ years of data-driven delivery operations experience. I have both improved on strategies and plans created by others and created structures and processes from scratch. My plan for the metropolitan area of Detroit has saved my current employer 200 hours of labor and thousands of dollars in costs. It has also reduced customer complaints by 5%.
Efficient manager of people and resources. My experience includes training and managing more than 50 people over the years, training them to apply all company procedures and industry standards while meeting tight deadlines.
Create weekly data-driven reports. I have designed and presented reports detailing the implementation and execution of the delivery processes. Assisted in the creation of a successful customer-satisfaction survey that has been used more than 15,000 times and has reduced calls to our customer service by 6% annually.
Report to CFO. At my current position, I report to both the CFO and the CEO on a weekly basis, with simple, data-driven presentations that keep them informed of the status of our delivery operations. My reporting duties also include cross-department meetings with the five divisions of the company. I have received training in corporate communications for 5 years in a row.
I welcome the opportunity to set a meeting and discuss my application for this position. My resume is attached to this letter and was uploaded to your online application system. I may be reached at the number above at any time. Thanks again for your consideration.
Annex 4: Template for cover letter when applying for two jobs at the same company
While it's not ideal, sometimes you need to aim high and low at the same time
Dear Ms. Winfrey:
I started working in corporate communications since my junior year of college, and this is what I plan on keep doing for the rest of my career because it's more than a job for me: it's my passion. Your Communications Department has advertised two job openings for which my experience directly qualifies me. Let me tell you why.
The position of junior communications associate involves crafting and implementing a communications strategy. I have worked in communications strategy for the last 2.5 years at [insert company name], where I started my career. I am familiar with all the stages of communications, from setting goals to drafting internal memos and press releases, and I am confident I can take it to new levels at [insert company name].
The opening for senior communications associate poses a bigger challenge, but I'm also confident I am already qualified for it. At [insert company name] I have worked hand in hand with [insert person's name], the senior communications associate, for well over a year, and I can honestly say I've learned from one of the best in the market. Under her guidance, I've learned about crisis management, dealing with a company merger, and the difficult process of a large layoff. I have absorbed that experience and I am ready to make a big leap in my career.
I would enjoy an opportunity to talk with you to see where do you think my skill set would fit best. I look forward to that conversation, as well as the chance of working for many years as a member of your impressive team.
Annex 5: Template for cover letter with a referral
For when you know people who know people
Dear Mr. Tobias,
My colleague and former mentor Mitch Sprout recommended that I wrote you in connection with the position of Director of Marketing. After 5+ years as a marketing associate at [insert company name], I am ready to take a significant new step in my career, and I am certain that I could make a significant contribution to [insert company name] at the head of its award-winning team.
To me, marketing is more than just figuring how to sell our product over someone else's. Rather, it's a way of showing our customers, old and new, all the love that goes into designing and elaborating a product. And that is why I would love to join the ranks of [insert company name]: because over the years, your company has shown true love for crafting a beautiful line of products. Being part of that history would be more than just a job and a paycheck: it would be a challenge and a true honor.
At [insert company name], I have accomplished many things. In my first year, I helped rewrite the marketing manual that had been in place for 12 years. Soon after, I directed our DDD campaign, that won the EEE 2014 award for Best in Show. And overall, during my tenure in the national marketing team, our sales have increased by 12%—a growth that our CEO called directly linked to our recent marketing efforts.
I truly appreciate your consideration of my resume and application. I look forward to the chance of discussing how I would fit in your world-class organization and will follow up next week to set up an interview.
Annex 6: Template for moving from intern to permanent employee
For when they already know you
Dear Mr. Gillard,
As you are aware, I have a been a freelance designer for [insert company name] for the last two and a half years. I am writing to express my interest in the associate graphic designer position that was recently listed on the company website.
This time working along with the design team has been one of enormous professional growth for me. I have learned the inner workings of [insert company name] and understood why the company motto is [insert company motto]: because even through these difficult economic times, we all work together to put the best possible product in the market.
I am particularly proud of my work in the Blue initiative, and my signature addition to it: the [insert project]. Every time I see a package of [insert project product] in a supermarket or convenience store, I know that the little blue logo is symbolizing more than the product inside of the box; it is also signifying our culture of hard work and 120 years of family history behind our product. That is a legacy I plan on carrying forward if you grant me the possibility of a permanent position.
I have attached my résumé for your review and consideration. Let me know about your availability to discuss my application.
Annex 7: Template for a job promotion cover letter
Dear Mr. Shue,
It was with great interest that I read that the company is seeking applications for a new senior recruiter. Please accept my resume for review and consideration for this role.
I have been with [insert company name] for a total of five years, three of them in my current position of recruitment coordinator working from the home office. These years have been of enormous personal and professional growth, starting with the fact that, before joining, I hadn't discovered my passion for human resources. I actually thought this would be a temporary, transitional job for me.
But working under the direction and guidance of [insert company name], I realized that working in human resources involves having a special understanding of human dynamics. More importantly, it requires being able to understand the role that every person plays in the organization, as well as what role does their job play in their lives.
I also discovered that I had a good eye for spotting good candidates for specific positions. During these five years with the company, I have interviewed more than 4,500 candidates, and have taken part in hiring 142 new employees. What's more important: 80% of those hires are still with the company, a rate that is significantly higher than our national average for first-year hires.
During this time with the company, I have not only become proficient in our hiring and recruiting systems. I have also learned how to use Excel, PowerPoint and Acrobat systems to the high standards set in the company manual. This summer, I also completed our advanced level training course in time management, something that has allowed me to increase my productivity while going home earlier than ever before.
I sincerely appreciate your consideration of my application. It has been a real pleasure to work for this company every day since you hired me, and I look forward to many more years of personal growth and hard work.
Do you have any other tips that will make the writing process easier?
Have we missed anything?
Let us know in the comments below!