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: writing 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 write 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
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A cover letter is a 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. A cover letter can also be 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?)
Not all companies require one, but 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. Let’s walk through my top tips for an engaging cover letter.
How to Write a Cover Letter
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the hiring manager that they need to interview you. Here’s how you can put it together.
1. Choose a template.
There are plenty of easy-to-use cover letter templates out there that can help you figure out how to format your cover letter. But it doesn’t need to be cookie-cutter—it should still show who you are and why you want to work at this specific company.
Think about it: When you’re writing a letter to a friend (or a text message, in this day and age), 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?
No matter which cover letter template you choose, you should learn everything you can about the company and the position and use that information to make your letter personal and show you’ve done your homework. Keep it to around 300 words and remember that, just like your resumé, you don’t want to overdo the design (leave the crazy fonts alone, folks). The goal is to look professional, not tacky!
2. Include your contact information in the header.
Even if your contact information is already on your resumé, you should still put it in the header of your cover letter. Here are the important things to include:
- Phone number
- Email address
- Any helpful follow-up information: a link to your portfolio, website or LinkedIn account (if you don’t have any of those, that’s okay)
This header can go at the top of the page underneath your name or in the top right corner. If you want to get really formal, you could also include the name of the person you’re addressing, the name and address of the company you’re applying to, and the date of application. This info can go on the left side of the page below the header.
3. Start with the right greeting.
Don’t start out with “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern.” You’re not Shakespeare! Think about what you would write if you were writing a polite and professional email. Here are some options:
- Name of hiring manager: 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.
- Name of company you’re applying to: If you can’t find the name of a real person, “Dear [Company Name] Team” is always a safe bet.
- Generic title or position: Another option is to just say “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear [Team You’re Applying For] Hiring Manager.”
4. Use an eye-catching 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.
- Use words/phrases that the company uses. Using a phrase from the company itself can let them know 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.
- 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.
Once you’ve snagged their attention, it’s time to make your case about why you’re a good fit for the job.
5. Explain 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.
6. 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.
7. State what you can 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 those skills and passions you already mentioned to help move the company forward.
8. Don’t use clichés.
While you’re writing about what makes you an interesting candidate, make sure your words are interesting too. Challenge yourself to come up with two or three new ways to say common phrases so you can avoid these clichés:
- 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 isn’t a bad thought—it’s just overused. Try saying 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.
9. 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. There’s no need to mention following up in your cover letter.
10. Review your cover letter.
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.
- Check spelling and grammar.
- Ask a friend to edit it for you.
Once you’ve perfected your cover letter, all you need to do is submit it along with the rest of your application! Don’t overthink the process, folks. Keep it to 300 words and showcase why you’d be a good fit, and your resumé will do the rest of the talking.
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.