Do you need to write a cover letter to apply for a job? In most cases, the answer is yes. Your cover letter may make the difference between obtaining a job interview or having your resume ignored, so it makes good sense to devote the necessary time and effort to writing effective cover letters.
Here's all the information you need to write a cover letter that will get your application noticed. Review these tips for what to include in a cover letter, how to format it, and examples of many different professionally written cover letters.
What is a Cover Letter?
Before you start writing a cover letter, you should familiarize yourself with the document’s purpose. A cover letter is a document sent with your resume to provide additional information on your skills and experience.
The letter provides detailed information on why you are qualified for the job you are applying for. Don’t simply repeat what’s on your resume -- rather, include specific information on why you’re a strong match for the employer’s job requirements. Think of your cover letter as a sales pitch that will market your credentials and help you get the interview. As such, you want to make sure your cover letter makes the best impression on the person who is reviewing it.
A cover letter typically accompanies each resume you send out. Employers use cover letters as a way to screen applicants for available jobs and to determine which candidates they would like to interview. If an employer requires a cover letter, it will be listed in the job posting. Even if the company doesn’t ask for one, you may want to include one anyway.
It will show that you have put some extra effort into your application.
The Different Types of Cover Letters
There are three general types of cover letters. Choose a type of letter that matches your reason for writing.
When you are applying for a job that has been posted by a company that’s hiring, you will be using the “application letter” style.
What to Include in Your Cover Letter
A cover letter should complement, not duplicate, your resume. Its purpose is to interpret the data-oriented, factual resume and add a personal touch to your application for employment. Find out more about the differences between a resume and a cover letter to make sure you start writing your cover letter with the correct approach.
A cover letter is often your earliest written contact with a potential employer, creating a critical first impression. Something that might seem like a small error, like a typo, can get your application immediately knocked off the list. On the other hand, even if your cover letter is error-free and perfectly written, if it is generic (and makes no reference to the company, or to any specifics in the job description) it is also likely to be rejected by a hiring manager.
Effective cover letters explain the reasons for your interest in the specific organization and identify your most relevant skills or experiences. Determine relevance by carefully reading the job description, evaluating the skills required and matching them to your own skills.
Think of instances where you applied those skills, and how you would be effective in the position available.
Review a list of what to include in a cover letter for a job before you get started.
What to Leave Off Your Cover Letter
There are some things that you don’t need to include in the cover letters you write. The letter is about your qualifications for the job, not about you personally. There is no need to share any personal information about yourself or your family in it. If you don’t have all the qualifications the employer is seeking, don’t mention it. Instead, focus on the credentials you have that are a match. Don’t mention salary unless the company asks for your salary requirements. If you have questions about the job, the salary, the schedule, or the benefits, it’s not appropriate to mention them in the letter.
One thing that’s very important is to not write too much. Keep your letter focused, concise, and a few paragraphs in length. It’s important to convey just enough information to entice the hiring manager to contact you for an interview.
If you write too much, it’s probably not going to be read.
Customize Your Cover Letter
It is very important that your cover letter be tailored to each position you are applying to. This means more than just changing the name of the company in the body of the letter.
Each cover letter you write should be customized to include:
Which job you're applying for (include the job title in your opening paragraph)
How you learned about the job (and a referral if you have one)
Why you are qualified for the job (be specific)
What you have to offer the employer, and why you want to work at this specific company (match your skills to the job description, and read up on the organization’s mission, values and goals to mention in your letter)
Thank you for being considered for the job
Here’s more on how to personalize your cover letter.
Cover Letter Writing Guidelines
Here's an outline of the items that should be included in every cover letter. Before you get started, it can be helpful to review some cover letter samples, just so you have a visual of how everything fits on the page.
These cover letter examples, both written and email, are designed for a variety of different types of job applications and employment inquiries. Do be sure to take the time to personalize your letter, so it’s a strong endorsement of your ability to do the job for which you’re applying.
A cover letter should begin with both your and the employer's contact information (name, address, phone number, email) followed by the date. If this is an email rather than an actual letter, include your contact information at the end of the letter, after your signature.
Your contact information should include:
First and Last Name
City, State Zip
Begin your cover letter salutation with "Dr./Mr./Ms. Last Name." If you are unsure if your contact is male or female, you can write out their full name. If you do not know the employer's name, simply write, "Dear Hiring Manager." This is better than the generic and formal, “To Whom It May Concern.”
Review information on how to choose the right cover letter greeting to select one that works for the job and company you’re applying to.
Begin your introduction by stating what job you are applying for. Explain where you heard about the job, particularly if you heard about it from a contact associated with the company. Briefly mention how your skills and experience match the company and/or position; this will give the employer a preview of the rest of your letter. Your goal in the introduction is to get the reader's attention. To get started, see examples of engaging opening sentences for cover letters.
In a paragraph or two, explain why you are interested in the job and why you make an excellent candidate for the position. Mention specific qualifications listed in the job posting, and explain how you meet those qualifications. Do not simply restate your resume, but provide specific examples that demonstrate your abilities.
Remember, actions speak louder than words, so don’t just “tell” the reader that you are, for example, a great team player with strong communication skills and an excellent attention to detail. Instead, use tangible examples from your work experience to “show” these traits in action. Here’s more information on what to include in the body section of a cover letter.
In the closing section of your cover letter, restate how your skills make you a strong fit for the company and/or position. If you have room (remember, just like your resume, your cover letter should be no longer than one page - here's more information on how long a cover letter should be) you can also discuss why you would like to work at that specific company.
State that you would like the opportunity to interview or discuss employment opportunities. Explain what you will do to follow-up, and when you will do it. Thank the employer for his/her consideration.
Use a complimentary close, and then end your cover letter with your signature, handwritten, followed by your typed name. If this is an email, simply include your typed name, followed by your contact information, after the complimentary close.
Format Your Cover Letter
Your cover letter should be formatted like a professional business letter. The font should match the font you used on your resume, and should be simple and easy to read. Basic fonts like Arial, Calibri, Georgia, Verdana, and Times New Roman work well. A font size of 10 or 12 points is easy to read. Standard margins are 1” on the top, bottom, and left and right sides of the page.
Add a space between the header, salutation, each paragraph, the closing, and your signature. You can reduce the font and margin sizes to keep your document on a single page, but do be sure to leave enough white space for your letter to be easy to read.
Follow these cover letter formatting guidelines to ensure your letters match the professional standards expected by the hiring managers who review applications.
Edit and Proofread Your Cover Letter
Remember to edit and proof your cover letter before sending it. It may sound silly, but make sure you include the correct employer and company names - when you write multiple cover letters at once, it is easy to make a mistake. Printing out and reading the letter aloud is a good way to catch small typos, such as missing words, or sentences that sound odd.
Always double-check the spelling of your contact's name, as well as the company name. Here are more tips for proofreading a cover letter. If possible, enlist a friend or a family member to help proofread your cover letter, as two pairs of eyes are better than one and even professional proofreaders don’t always catch their own mistakes.
Ready to Get Started? Write a Cover Letter in 5 Easy Steps
A well-written cover letter will help get your application noticed and help you secure an interview. Take the time to personalize it so it shows the employer why you're a solid candidate for the job. Here's how to write a cover letter in five simple steps.
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