Job hunting isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re putting in extra hours after work, chipping away at application questions, polishing up your resumé, and hoping for the best. And to top it all off, you might have an extra item to check off your list: a cover letter.
You open a Word document, but that blank page is just staring you down. What in the world do you say? Unless you’re unusually confident about your writing skills, it’s tough to write anything—let alone a formal letter that’s supposed to help you land your dream job.
Let’s face those fears head on together. Read on to learn how to craft a cover letter that gets noticed.
What Is a Cover Letter?
A cover letter is a short letter written directly to the person who will read your job application and resumé. Since you only have 7.4 seconds to get a recruiter’s attention, you want to make a strong first impression.1
A cover letter is an chance to motivate the hiring manager to consider you for the position. Traditionally, it’s meant to tell your story, while your resumé is more of a high-level overview of your experience.
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To be honest, if you follow my resumé guide, you might not even need to write a cover letter. But you don’t want to come across as a slacker if they clearly ask for one. Also, you might want to take advantage of a cover letter if it’s an opportunity to showcase your skills. (Say you’re applying to be a writer. Why not show them how well you write instead of telling them?)
If you have to write a cover letter, create something unique. It needs to pop out of that pile of papers on the recruiter’s desk and give them a reason to pick it up and actually read it.
What to Include in a Cover Letter
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the hiring manager that they have to interview you. Here’s how you can put it together.
1. Start with a headline.
Your opening line needs to act like a hook: Grab them and give them a reason to stick around. Remember, you’ve only got 7.4 seconds! Write this in large, and maybe even bold, letters to mimic a newspaper article headline.
Think of the headline like a great social media post. When you’re mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, what causes you to pause, squint your eyes, and actually pay attention to what you see?
Here are a few approaches to try out when writing headlines:
Give your personal mission statement. A well-crafted sentence is a great way to immediately help the reader know whether or not you’d be a good fit for the position. So, why not start out with your personal mission statement? It’s basically an elevator pitch about who you are.
Example: Oprah Winfrey is easily one of the most accomplished people on the planet. Here’s her mission statement: “I wanted to be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my student to be more than they thought they could be.”
Use company lingo. Use a phrase from the company itself to show that you’re dialed in to their culture. Show them from the get-go that you’re speaking their language. Just don’t get too cheesy with this one.
Example: If someone were applying for a job at Ramsey Solutions, here’s how you could incorporate a company motto: I’ve lived like no one else. Now, I want to work like no one else.
Tease out a cliffhanger. Start a story, wake up their curiosity, and motivate them to keep reading. For example, if you’ve personally used their product before, tell the story of first encountering it or what you felt like after you first used it. You could also talk about an important moment of your life when you discovered your true calling.
Example: Here’s how I write about my “ah-ha” moment on my journey to becoming a broadcaster: For years I’d dreamed of being a broadcaster, but I was also one of the 70%—stuck in a job I didn’t love. Then one morning it hit me.
Once you’ve snagged their attention, it’s time to make your case about why you’re a good fit for the job.
2. Tell them why you want the position.
This is your chance to wow the recruiter with your knowledge and enthusiasm. You should touch on the mission, vision and values of the company. Show them you’ve done your homework and that you’d be thrilled to contribute to their work.
3. Talk about your skills and passions.
This is the meat of the letter—but I want you to think lean. The HR team reading your application doesn’t have time for a novel! Write a couple of paragraphs, but each one should be just a few sentences.
Be humble, but confident, as you talk about your talents. What skills do you have that make you a good fit for this job? Include both hard skills (i.e., coding, project management) and soft skills (i.e., I’m curious and always ready to learn something new).
Also, describe the passion that drives the work you do. What makes you come alive? What activities cause you to lose track of time? Let the recruiter sense your excitement for work.
4. Tell them what you bring to their team.
This is where it gets fun. When you’ve found a job that combines what you do best with what you love to do most, you’ll be producing results that matter. Talk about the core motivation that helps you wake up every morning. Tell the hiring manager how you will contribute your unique skills and passions to help move the company forward.
5. Wrap it up.
Thank the hiring manager for their time and attention. Let me be clear about something: It’s not your job to follow up. It’s their job to reach out to you. If you lay out your case like I’ve described, they’ll have plenty of motivation to reach out to you for an interview.
Also, include your contact information and any helpful follow-up information (a link to your portfolio, website or LinkedIn account) if you want.
7 Tips for Writing a Cover Letter
Alright, folks: Now that we’ve touched on the content of your letter, let’s talk about executing the writing process. Here are some practical tips to get the juices flowing.
1. Block off time to write.
Writing demands your full attention. Turn off your phone, silence all notifications on your computer, fix yourself some tea—do whatever you need to do to focus. Get all of your thoughts out of your brain and onto your paper. A rough draft is better than no draft! You can revise it later.
2. Be enthusiastic.
Don’t be afraid to sprinkle some emotional language in what you write (but keep it professional). Passion sets you apart from other candidates who are just looking for a paycheck.
This is also a good time for a gut check. If you’re not excited about this opportunity, then why are you applying?
3. Keep it to about 300 words.
Say exactly what you need to say. Remember, these hiring managers sift through dozens—maybe hundreds—of applications every day. Don’t include information about yourself unless it directly relates to the position you’re applying for. If you follow my template, you should be able to accomplish what you need to in about 300 words.
4. Ditch the clichés.
You won’t stand out if you say what everyone else is saying. Challenge yourself to come up with two or three new ways to say common phrases so you can avoid these clichés:
- To whom it may concern . . . You’re not Shakespeare! Do the work of finding an actual human with an actual name to address the letter to. And if all else fails, think about what you would write if you were writing a polite and professional email.
- I’m writing to tell you about . . . Don’t write about what you’re writing about (see how annoying that is?) Get to the point.
- I have exceptional written and communication skills. When it comes to writing, show—don’t tell. If your writing is compelling, you won’t need to toot your own horn here.
- I’m a team player. This is not a bad thought—it’s just overused. What if you said something like, “I love helping my teammates win?”
- I think outside the box. Ironically, this cliché is pretty stale. Instead of using this phrase, what if you told a quick story about a time when you offered a creative solution to a problem? Actions speak louder than words.
5. Customize your content.
When you’re writing a letter (more like a text message—let’s be honest) to a friend, you make it personal. Each cover letter you write when applying for jobs should be different too. Put yourself in their shoes. If you were hiring for this position, what would you be looking for?
Learn everything you can about the company and the position. Then write about what you know to show you’ve done your homework. If at all possible, directly address the person who will be handling your application. See if you can figure out who it is through a mutual connection at the company, through the website, or maybe even LinkedIn.
6. Shake things up.
The guidelines I’m giving you will help disrupt the visual layout. But is there anything else you can do to showcase your creativity and make you stand out? Maybe you can include a link to a portfolio or relevant work you’ve done, or some stats or testimonials from projects you’ve managed.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to overdo the design. You want it to look professional, not tacky.
7. Triple-check before you send.
Grammar, spelling and accuracy matter. Every detail should look, feel and sound excellent. Don’t let a few typos rob you of your shot at your dream job. Here are a few tips to triple-check your letter:
- Print it off and read it out loud. Seriously. Reading out loud will cause your words to jump off the page in a fresh way. I guarantee you’ll notice something that you hadn’t seen before.
- Check spelling and grammar. Run your paper through the spell and grammar check on your computer to check for typos.
- Ask a friend to edit it for you—especially if they’re a writer or communicator by profession. Also, if you have connections to people in the industry (or even better, in the company where you’re applying), ask them to read it and see if they see any red flags. They’ll be able to share a valuable perspective that you might be missing.
Stand Out in Your Job Search
For a deeper dive on how to stand out in the hiring process, check out my Get Hired Digital Course. It's an online video course that will cover everything from the cover letter to the interview and beyond. In it, I'll give you all the tools and strategies you'll need to get noticed and get on the path to your dream job.