No one seems to agree on cover letters. How much time do you need to spend perfecting them? Do hiring managers even read them? Is it better to just send in your resume and call it a day?
Now, I'm not in HR, but I've been approached by applicants who wondered whether their cover letter would actually be read. My answer is one not many of them wanted to hear: "Sometimes." Sometimes it will be read. Other times, you can get away with just sending in your resume -- like when you network your way into applying for a position.
The truth is, you can't really predict on a case-by-case basis -- and you're better safe than sorry. For the most part, having a cover letter will give you an upper hand in ways your resume doesn't. It allows you to show off your writing skills, provide details that you couldn't fit on your resume, demonstrate your passion, and show your willingness to put in as much time and effort as possible.
But if your cover letter is sloppy, you might as well have not applied at all. Grammatical errors could mean your application is thrown in the trash. Using a generic "one-size-fits-all" cover letter -- especially if you forgot to change the name of the company -- will definitely hurt your chances. So if you take the time to write a cover letter, take special care that it reflects you in the best possible light.
Let's take a look at an example.
Sample Cover Letter
Here's an example of a great cover letter. The numbered sections are explained in more detail below.
The level of formality your header has will depend on the company you apply to. If you're applying to a formal business, it's important to use a formal header to open your cover letter, like in the sample above. Put your address, the date, and the company's address. But if you're applying to a company that isn't as formal, you don't need to include yours and the company's addresses. You can still include the date, though.
Using "To Whom It May Concern" is okay, but you may want to take the time to research the name of the recruiter or hiring manager online. If you do your research and aren't confident you found the right name, then you should definitely use the generic greeting -- but if you are sure, then it shows you put in the effort to find their name and it will catch the recruiter's eye.
If you have the recruiter's name, do you greet them by their full name, or by their courtesy title (i.e. Mr., Ms., or Mrs.)? Similar to the header, it depends on the company's level of formality. If you're applying to a corporate business, you may want to consider using "Mr. Snaper" instead of "Jon Snaper." If you're applying to a start-up or a business with a more casual culture, you can use "Jon Snaper," as shown in the example.
3) Paragraph 1: Introduction
Your opening paragraph should, in 1-3 sentences, state why you're excited to apply and what makes you the perfect candidate. Get right to the point, and don't worry about explaining where you found the posting or who you know at the company. This isn't a place to go into detail about why you're a great candidate -- that's for the second paragraph. Here, simply list a few key reasons in one sentence to set up the rest of your letter. Keep in mind that the recruiter may cross-reference your cover letter with your resume, so make sure the two sync up.
4) Paragraph 2: Why You're a Great Fit for the Job
Next, sell yourself and your experience by choosing one or two concrete examples that show why you're a great fit for the position. What did you do at a previous company that gave you relevant experience? Which projects have you worked on that would benefit the new company? How will your prior experience help this company grow? Stay humble in your explanation of credentials while still showing that you would be an asset to the team. Use this paragraph to show you're genuinely excited and interested in the position.
5) Paragraph 3: Why the Company is a Great Fit for You
While it's certainly important you're a good fit for the job, it's also important that the company is a good fit for you. "A cover letter typically describes why you're great for a company -- but how will you benefit from getting hired?" asks Emily MacIntyre, Senior Marketing Recruiter at HubSpot. "We want to know why our company appeals to you, and how it will be a mutually beneficial working relationship."
In the third paragraph, show you're serious about growing and developing your career at this new company. What impresses and excites you about the company? Is there something that you feel strongly about that aligns with the company's goals? For example, the candidate in the sample letter used this space to show his personal commitment to environmental causes aligns with the company's green initiatives.
6) Strong Closing Paragraph
Don't write off the final few sentences of your cover letter -- it's important to finish strong. Be straightforward about your interest and enthusiasm about the new position without coming off too strong. Tell them you're available to talk about the opportunity at any time and include your phone number and email address. At this point, the ball is (rightly) in the recruiter's court to decide how to follow up.
Last but certainly not least, thank them for their time and consideration.
7) Formal Sign-Off
Use a formal sign-off like "Best," "All the best," or "Sincerely," and finish by typing out your full name. You don't need to sign it with a pen.
5 Cover Letter Tips From the Experts
While the sample from the previous section provides a basic framework for writing your cover letter, there are also several tips you can follow to help get your cover letter to stand out from the crowd.
1) Do your research.
In order to craft a truly compelling cover letter, you need to show that you understand what the company does and what their pain points are. And that usually entails doing more than simply reading a job description.
Start by soaking up all the information you can find on the company's website and blog, and then consider drilling down into the LinkedIn and Twitter accounts of executives and employees you could end up working with. That research will help you fine-tune the messaging of your cover letter.
As author and entrepreneur Jodi Glickman told the Harvard Business Review:
Think about the culture of the organization you’re applying to. If it’s a creative agency, like a design shop, you might take more risks but if it’s a more conservative organization, like a bank, you may hold back."
2) Keep it short.
You might have heard that keeping your cover letter to one page is ideal. But according to Forbes tech journalist Seth Porges, you may want to consider keeping it even shorter than a single page.
As Porges once noted (in appropriately concise fashion):
"Less. Is. More. Three paragraphs, tops. Half a page, tops. Skip lengthy exposition and jump right into something juicy."
3) Don't state the obvious.
One trick for helping you keep your cover letter concise: Avoid wasting real estate on information that the hiring manager already knows -- like the position you are applying for.
As Porges wrote for Forbes:
Never ever, ever use the following phrase: 'My name is ___, and I am applying for the position as ____.' They already know this, and you’ll sound inexperienced."
4) Add some personal branding.
Career coach Evelyn Salvador recommends using personal branding elements -- specifically a slogan, a testimonial, and/or a mission statement -- to help make your cover letter more attention-grabbing. As Salvador told Monster.com:
Each of these elements is optional, but it might just be the thing that makes your cover letter stand out from those of other candidates."
Here's a quick run down on what those three elements are, and examples of what they might look like.
- Slogan: A short summary of the value you'd bring to a company/role (e.g., "Using data to solve the problems of tomorrow.")
- Testimonial: An excerpt from a letter of recommendation, thank-you message from a customer, or other short quote that highlights your past performance (e.g., "[Your name] was prompt, professional, and responsive throughout the entire process. I can't wait to work with her again the future!")
- Mission Statement: Similar to a slogan, but focused more on the philosophy behind why you do what you do, and why you want to accomplish what you want to accomplish (e.g., "The key to customer happiness is creating products that people love. My mission is to produce the most lovable products on the planet.")
5) Don't force humor.
Don’t stick to a template
You could easily Google “cover letter template” to get some ideas on how to write it. Don’t.
“You need to think about your audience,” said Kristen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of career and professional development at Harvard Business School. “Who’s reading it? How do you capture their attention enough so they move you from one pile to another?”
This is your time to show your communication skills and your personality. You must make the case that the other 99 percent of applicants don’t have what you have. Following a template, or otherwise putting little effort into making your letter stand out, suggests you’re just another applicant.
Don’t rehash your résumé
Focus on the organization you’re writing to and the job description of the open position. If you nail your cover letter, the hiring manager will end up reading your résumé anyway, so don’t waste precious space duplicating it by going down the list of where you’ve worked.
“It’s to complement your résumé, not repeat it,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Cover letters where you’re just rewriting the content of your résumé aren’t effective.”
Instead, you could list some specific examples of projects you’ve worked on, and explain what you learned from them and how that knowledge would apply to the open position. Or you could offer some new ideas, showing from the start that you understand the company’s goals and would bring creativity.
(Related: Getting past the first cut with a résumé that grabs digital eyes)
Don’t state the obvious
Read your letter again, and zap any clichés or platitudes that don’t say something meaningful about you, the position or the company.
As an example: Don’t say you’re a “hard worker.” Everyone says that, and it would be easy to lie about if you weren’t, making it a meaningless sentiment to include. It merely takes up space that could be better spent on something that actually sets you apart from the other candidates.
“It’s not even worth saying,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. “You’ll show you’re a hard worker by going above and beyond in writing a letter.”
Do your research
This requires going past the first page of Google results.
You could go to a library to sift through professional databases that might have more information, or get coffee with someone who works at the company you’re applying to. Show a familiarity with recent projects, acquisitions and public statements. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but a few sentences to show you’ve put time into it could go a long way.
If you’re not preparing for something as crucial as a cover letter, why would they trust you would prepare for an important meeting?
Focus on what you can offer them
A lot of applicants spend too much time talking about why they love the company, Ms. Fitzpatrick said.
“How many letters does Apple read that say, ‘I couldn’t live without my iPhone’? Probably a lot,” she said. “So you want to show you are unique and you’ve done your research.”
You do want to make it clear that you respect the company and explain why you’re interested, but the focus should be on what you can do for them.
“You want to avoid too many ‘I’ statements — ‘I know this,’ ‘I did this,’ ‘I can do X, Y or Z’ — because that’s too much about what you’re going to get out of this opportunity,” Mr. O’Neill said.
The company isn’t posting a job for charity, or to improve your life; they’re trying to fill a position they consider essential. Convince them that you’re the one who would most help them, not that you’d benefit most from it.
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