Top 7 Tips for Writing a Kick-Ass Cover Letter
Posted by Pamela Skillings
Once you have researched employment opportunities, made a list of positions you would like to apply for, and perfected your resume, the next step is fine-tuning your cover letter before sending it to prospective employers.
Cover letters provide the opportunity to elaborate on job skills and past employment experiences listed on your resume, show off your writing ability (something important to nearly all employers), and make yourself stand out among other applicants vying for the same position.
Here are seven tips to write a kick-ass cover letter, and beat the unemployment blues:
Cover Letter Tip 1
Each time you submit a cover letter to an employer, revise the letter to make it specific to the position and company. Highlight job skills, traits and past work experience most relevant to the position at hand.
This means going beyond inserting the name of the company and a few detailed sentences into a previously written letter.
Employers recognize when job applicants have sent a stock cover letter, and when they’ve written a unique one (especially when you forget to change the name of the company, telling Company A how interested you are in the available position at Company B).
Avoid this recipe for how not to get an interview. Draft a custom cover letter for each position for which you apply.
Cover Letter Tip 2
Follow the format of a business letter. This means including contact information at the top (name, address, phone number, email), followed by the date, a formal greeting, well-organized body paragraphs, and a formal closing.
Text should be right justified and double-spaced between paragraphs. Keep the length to one page.
Proofread the letter. Have someone else proofread for you. Edit, revise and repeat as necessary. Don’t ruin your first impression with a stupid mistake.
Cover Letter Tip 3
Try your best to address the cover letter to an actual person, rather than “Dear Hiring Manager” or “To Whom It May Concern.” Addressing the letter to a specific person makes it more personal, and more likely to be read than placed in a pile in the HR office (or worse, stashed in a computer file, and out of physical sight).
You may be able to find out the name of the person who will be reading your cover letter by checking the job posting, asking the person who told you about the position, or contacting the company’s HR department.
Cover Letter Tip 4
To begin the body of your cover letter, the first paragraph should detail what position you are applying for and how you learned of the opportunity.
Briefly explain how your skills and background make you a qualified candidate for the position. Express your enthusiasm for the company and why you are interested in the position.
Cover Letter Tip 5
In the opening paragraph, don’t be afraid to mention someone you know at the company who may be able to act as a personal or professional reference, especially if you learned of the job opportunity through this person.
Be sure to ask your contact if it’s all right to drop his or her name in the letter, and if so, keep the explanation of your relationship concise (i.e. I learned of the opportunity through a former colleague John Doe, the current vice-president of communications). This will allow your reader to contact the person for a reference if desired.
It always helps to know someone on the inside, and a good referral (with a solid resume and cover letter) often leads to an interview.
Cover Letter Tip 6In the second paragraph, explain how you meet the required skills and qualifications of the position. Utilize the job description and company profile provided in the posting or by the person who informed you of the opportunity. Elaborate on points in your resume, but don’t be repetitive.
Some companies use software that searches for specific keywords within your cover letter (and resume) to discover the applicants with the most desired skills — and weed out those without them.
Reading the job posting carefully will allow you to pick and choose keywords and phrases used by the company, which will garner your cover letter more hits and improve the chances that a human being will read your letter, and not just a computer system.
Cover Letter Tip 7
Conclude the letter with a thank you and express your interest in hearing from the reader soon regarding the status of your application. Communicate the best way to reach you, by phone or email.
If mailing the cover letter, sign and type your full name. If emailing, the likely method, you may send the cover letter in the body of the email or in an attachment. Use simple text and remove the formatting when sending the letter in the email’s body.
Always review the job posting carefully for directions on the preferred method of submitting your application materials. In the email’s subject line, include your full name and the position for which you are applying.
Now that you’ve written and revised your cover letter, and just clicked “Send,” give the employer at least two weeks to reply. Companies often receive dozens, even hundreds, of cover letters for one position and may not respond for weeks, months or at all.
If a good amount of time passes, and the employer hasn’t responded to one or more follow up emails, it’s likely that the company is not interested. Just don’t get down on yourself.
There are a multitude of reasons why the employer may not have contacted you (a subpar cover letter may or may not be a factor). Try to improve your cover letter, and sell yourself better next time.
On the other hand, if you follow these tips, you may end up getting a call for an interview and find out your cover letter was pretty kick-ass after all.
Also, check out our in-depth guide with many cover letter examples.
Also, enjoy this funny cover letter from Reddit. 50/50 on whether it’s real, but who cares.
Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.
While many job applications have the word “optional” next to the field that asks for a cover letter, it shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, a cover letter is intended to show you off and captivate a hiring manager, kind of like a movie trailer. It’s meant to tease and entice the recruiter or hiring manager to keep reading and be so interested in you that they simply cannot put down your resume. Think: personable and professional.
Some of the best cover letters tell interesting stories about the candidate and help them to be seen as a good culture fit for a company. “Recruiters always remember the personal side of cover letters—this is when you become more than just another applicant,” says career expert Heather Huhman. “They connect your experiences with your name because you’re giving them another dimension of you, sharing what makes you unique.”
Given the importance of a cover letter, you cannot afford to blow it. Once you’ve got a working draft, it’s time to grab your red pen. Here are 15 words and phrases that are simply dragging your cover letter down. Cut ‘em! Take the expert advice below to craft the best cover letter possible and let your personality, not robotic prose, shine through.
1. “To Whom It May Concern”
Generic salutations, while professional, can be a bit sterile. Do a little digging to find the name of the hiring manager or the recruiter. “Let’s say you discover an opening for an electrical engineer position at an engineering organization’s website. The position description indicates the employee will report to the lead electrical engineer. You decide (initially) to bypass the company’s automated application system so you can customize your communications,” advises Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter, master resume writer. “You sail over to LinkedIn and begin researching. Use the advanced search feature and type in ‘name of company’ for the company name, ‘lead electrical engineer’ for keywords and ‘64152’ for a zip code for greater Kansas City (where the company headquarters and this position are located) and click enter. Your results will appear.”
2. “Thinking outside of the box”
Recruiters read thousands of cover letters and resumes. It’s their job. So try hard to make reading your cover letter a treat. Career coach Angela Copeland says, “more specifically, stay away from phrases that are known to annoy hiring managers, such as ‘heavy lifting’ or ‘think outside the box’ or ‘game-changer.’” Be creative instead of being trendy.
3. “I’m not sure if you know”
“When it comes to today’s job search process, another thing to remember is your online footprint,” says Copeland. Phrases like this one underestimate a recruiter’s ability to Google and may come across as naive. HR professionals and recruiters do their due diligence on you. Trust us, they know. “In a way, your Google search results are a lot like the modern day cover letter. After an employer reads your cover letter, they will also Google you. Beat them to the punch and Google yourself. Be sure you’re comfortable with the information that shows up on the first two pages of the Google search results. Look through social media, photos, and any other websites that show up when you search for yourself.”
4. Insider Jargon
“Job seekers should try to minimize phrases that are very industry-specific, especially if they’re switching industries,” advises Copeland. “Although these phrases may sound impressive within one industry, they will most likely confuse your hiring manager in the new industry you want to switch to.”
21 Words To Never Include In Your Resume
5. Claims Without Evidence
Instead of simply saying you’re good at what you do, Huhman advises providing a valuable anecdote. “Let’s say you’re applying for a marketing director position. Among other aspects in the description, the job requires several years of marketing experience, a deep knowledge of lead generation, and strong communication skills. Describe how, in your previous role as a marketing manager, you ran several campaigns for your clients and exceeded their expectations of lead generation (with specific numbers, if possible), and how you also trained and mentored new associates on how to manage their own accounts, which improved client retention rates.” In other words, show how effective you have been in the past. “Your anecdote is accomplishing a lot at once—it’s demonstrating one of your top hard skills, lead nurturing, and showcasing how you can collaborate with trainees, communicate effectively, and educate new employees on processes and client relations,” says Huhman. “You’re proving that you can meet the communication standards and marketing knowledge they’re seeking.”
Cut the millennial speak. “You shouldn’t just say that you want the job or that you love your industry. You have to show your passion,” says Huhman. “Share why your career path best suits you and how your love for your work drives and motivates you. For example, answer some questions about what made you want to enter the field, how your personality helps you succeed, and what past experiences influenced your career decisions.”
“Embellishing in a cover letter is one way to set yourself up for letting down your future employer once you’ve been hired,” warns Huhman. Steer clear of touting skills you don’t really possess or overselling your impact on a key project at your current employer. “The best case scenario is that lying on a cover letter creates uncomfortable situations. Worst case scenario? [You’ll lose the] job because [you are] not the candidate they were looking for.”
“When you’re looking for a job, do your best to bring your authentic self to the table. As the old saying goes, people hire people. Often, you’re hired because the hiring manager likes you – not just because you can do the work,” says Copeland. “Nobody likes insincere flattery. It leaves an impression that you aren’t authentic and therefore can’t be trusted. In business, especially in an employee/employer relationship, trust is paramount. Avoid being insincere, and focus on building a true relationship with your future hiring manager.”
9. “Please feel free”
Ending your cover letter with a clear call-to-action is key, but instead of being gentle, be direct. Show your confidence and prove to the recruiter that you know you wrote a compelling cover letter by wrapping up with a more self-assured request for an in-person interview or phone screen.
“Get away from stuffing cover letters full of clichéd phrases and think clear, honest, and impactful. Think in terms of telling a story,” says resume expert Anish Majumdar. “You’re not a dynamic, agile leader who can deliver rapid marketing and biz dev ROI in rapidly-changing environments.” Instead, you are someone who thrives on helping companies “more fully realize their vision, and have some amazing successes on the marketing and business development front that you’d like to discuss.”
9 Things to Never Say in a Salary Negotiation
Instead of tiptoeing around the impact you’ve had at your current company with words like “significant,” “measurable,” or “huge,” get specific. Nicole Cox, Chief Recruitment Officer at national recruiting firm Decision Toolbox, advises job seekers to, “substantiate your accomplishments with numbers. Some recruiters prefer to see actual numbers (such as ‘cut manufacturing costs by $500,000’), while others prefer percentages (‘cut manufacturing costs by 15 percent’). Either way, provide enough context to show the impact. If your objective was to cut manufacturing costs by 10 percent, make it clear that you exceeded the goal.”
12. “Really, truly, deeply”
Flowery language and excessive adverbs can come off as insincere. “Don’t get me wrong, you need to share your accomplishments in your cover letter. Nobody else will do it for you. But, you want to come across as confident, not arrogant,” says Copeland. “Fluffy jargon will risk turning off the hiring manager.”
13. Cut, Copy & Paste
Resist the temptation to write a cover letter that regurgitates what you’ve outlined in your resume. Instead, recognize the opportunity that a cover letter presents. “Use the cover letter as an opportunity to highlight the parts of your resume that align to the job,” says Copeland. “And, add things you don’t normally include in your resume that are relevant to the work. For example, I once coached a job seeker who was a university administrator. He was interested to work for a large hotel chain. Although he didn’t have direct hotel experience, his hobbies included both real estate investing and managing a fitness franchise location. This information was critical to him landing a job with the large hotel company.”
14. “Self-Starter,” “Detail-Oriented,” and “Forward-Thinker”
These are what’s known as “frequent offenders” amongst cover letter and resume experts. They are overused and carry little weight these days. “Treat a cover letter as a chance to make a human connection, not a formality,” says Majumdar. “What gets you excited about this job? What have you been up to recently that they’d find interesting? What should they know about you that they couldn’t discern by reading your resume? All great points to touch on in this letter.”
15. Synonyms Out of A Thesaurus
While it may be tempting to head to thesaurus.com to add a few high-brow words and smart-sounding phrases, resist the temptation. Be yourself. Be honest. “This is a prime opportunity to showcase skills,” says Majumdar. Words like “change,” “execute,” “communicates,” and “relationship building” will all get the job done effectively when paired with strong anecdotes and authenticity.