A cover letter, also known as an application letter, is a personalized letter from you to the person overseeing the hiring process for the job you’re applying for.
A cover letter is not the same as a résumé. While a résumé provides a clear, point-by-point map of your career thus far, a cover letter tells the personal side of your career story. Ideally, your cover letter and résumé complement each other, with each document answering any questions the recruiter has about your skills and work experience after reading the other.
What should a cover letter include?
Make sure your application letter includes all of the following:
- The position for which you’re applying
- How you found the job opening
- Why you want to work for the company
- Why you’re applying to the specific position you’re seeking
- The skills, experience, and work-related personality traits that make you a great fit for the role
Mentioning the position you’re applying for and how you found it is simple—just state your interest in the job title in your opening sentence:
- “I’m writing in response to the content writer position posted on Indeed.”
When you talk about why you want to work at the company, you can’t just write “because I need a job.” Even if it’s true, it does nothing to make you stand out as a well-qualified candidate for the role. This part of your cover letter should communicate how your specific values and career goals fit the company’s mission. You might say something like:
- “As a lifelong animal rights activist, I’m excited for the opportunity to work with an organization that directly benefits threatened species.”
Your cover letter also needs to talk about how and why you’re qualified for the position for which you’re applying. Sentences that communicate these points can look like this:
- “During my years teaching English in Japan, I developed the classroom management skills, cultural sensitivity, and linguistic knowledge base necessary to succeed as an ESL teacher.”
- “I have worked in customer service for the past seven years. During that time, I’ve become an expert in clear communication, problem-solving, and guiding customers to the products best suited for them.”
Beyond sharing why you’re interested in working for the specific employer and why you’re qualified for the role, include a little bit about yourself and how this shines through at work:
- “I’m a natural organizer. In my past roles, I’ve helped my colleagues increase their productivity by introducing them to my favorite organization tools and strategies.”
Is a cover letter necessary?
With most job applications, you’ve probably seen the phrase “cover letter optional.”
But is it really optional? The stats on whether a cover letter will actually help you get a job or not are mixed. According to the 2016 Jobvite Recruiter Nation report, 74 percent of recruiters do not consider a cover letter when assessing whether to hire a job applicant. However, 90 percent of executives from recruiting firm Robert Half reported that they don’t only consider cover letters in the hiring process, but that cover letters are invaluable.
The truth is, cover letters are more important in certain industries or for certain roles than they are in others. Familiarize yourself with your industry’s norms for cover letters, which you can do by talking to more senior professionals in your industry and reviewing job postings for positions like the one you’re seeking. If the job posting says a cover letter is required, write a cover letter. And if it doesn’t, write one anyway. The only times when you shouldn’t write a cover letter are when the job posting explicitly says not to send one and when the application process doesn’t allow you to provide one.
When in doubt, it’s always better to be overprepared than underprepared. While the thought of submitting a cover letter that nobody reads can be annoying, missing out on a great opportunity because you didn’t write a cover letter can leave you kicking yourself.
How to write a good cover letter
When you apply for a job, it’s extremely rare to be the only applicant. In nearly all cases, you’re one of a group, potentially hundreds, of applicants.
That means your cover letter is one of potentially hundreds the recruiter will read. This is why it’s so critical that you write a cover letter that excels in the following:
- Grabs the recruiter’s attention
- Effectively communicates why you’re an ideal candidate for the role
- Makes you stand out from the crowd
Remember, your goal with a cover letter isn’t to give the recruiter a recap of your work history (your résumé should accomplish that and you don’t want to be redundant), but to intrigue them enough to offer you an interview.
Research and brainstorm first
Before you start writing your cover letter, familiarize yourself with the role and its requirements. Read the job listing carefully and pull out the most important information, like which of your specific skills to highlight in your cover letter and how your experiences have prepared you for this role. Then, spend some time on the company’s website to get a strong sense of the company’s culture, values, and mission.
Once you thoroughly understand everything the role entails, brainstorm the most effective way to communicate your suitability for the role in your cover letter. Brainstorming is a key part of the writing process. As you brainstorm, determine all the possible topics to include in your cover letter and ways to emphasize your competency for the role.
Personalize the greeting
The first thing the recruiter or hiring manager will notice in your cover letter is whether you addressed it to them personally.
It’s not always easy to find the recruiter’s or hiring manager’s name, but it’s always worth your time to do so. If their name isn’t listed in the job posting, take some time to find it. You can likely find it on the company’s website. If that doesn’t yield results, try LinkedIn.
If you absolutely cannot find a relevant name, a generic greeting like “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear [Company Name] Team” is acceptable. But do this as a last resort—it’s always best to directly address the person who will be making the hiring decision.
Grab the reader’s attention
Just like a book needs to grab its reader’s attention within the first few pages, your cover letter needs to grab attention within the first sentence or two. Remember, the recruiter is going to be reading lots of cover letters—cover letters that will contain pretty similar content. If your cover letter doesn’t captivate them from the get-go, you could end up getting overlooked.
You can grab the reader’s attention by starting with an interesting fact about yourself:
- “At the last two universities I worked at, I ended up playing Santa at the holiday party. Maybe it’s because I’m jolly, maybe it’s because I love cookies, but I like to think it’s because I spearheaded the most successful alumni giving campaigns each year.”
Or you can highlight a unique way one of your job skills has come in handy:
- “As a project manager, I’m no stranger to connecting people to keep projects moving forward. But I never imagined I’d be managing an effort to get a beached pontoon boat moving forward—until my company fishing trip last year.”
Just make sure your sizzling opener relates to your fitness for the role you’re seeking.
Showcase your most relevant strengths and skills
You’ve probably been told to “show, not tell” in writing assignments before. Your cover letter is no different. Instead of listing your strengths and skills (remember, your résumé does that), tell stories that show these assets in action.
Use the same techniques you used to grab your reader’s attention in your opening lines. For example, you may highlight a major career accomplishment by first describing the circumstances that led to you taking action and achieving a specific result.
Anecdotes like these demonstrate why you’re the perfect person for the job.
Make it as much about the employer as it is about you
This one can be tricky. The key here is to not simply write a letter about yourself, but communicate the benefits you offer the employer as you do so.
Here’s where your initial research into the company’s culture pays off. The person (or team) tasked with filling the open position isn’t just looking for somebody who can do the work; they’re looking for somebody who fits into the existing company structure and culture. By writing your cover letter in a way that mirrors their brand style, you’re communicating that you understand who they are and the kind of person they’re looking for. If the copy on their company website has an understated, simple style, stick to similarly simple, straightforward writing in your cover letter. If they have more of a hip, edgy feel, you have room to go outside the box a bit in your cover letter.
If a current employee at the company referred you to the role, mention that in your cover letter. But don’t just mention their name—include a sentence or two about why they specifically reached out to you and recommended you pursue the role.
Show your enthusiasm about the role
Throughout your cover letter, use language that communicates your passion for the kind of work you do. Your word choice plays a big role in shaping how recruiters perceive your attitude toward your work experience and your enthusiasm for the role.
When you’re highlighting your past achievements, use specific language and action words. Take a look at the difference between these two sentences:
- I was a manager to a team of four salespeople.
- I ran a nimble sales department.
Or consider the difference between these:
- After sixteen years as a bank teller, I decided I’d rather be an electrician.
- After more than a decade as a bank teller, I pivoted to a new career and began my electrical apprenticeship.
With words like “ran,” “nimble,” and “pivoted,” you paint a more dynamic picture than you do with words like “was a manager” and “decided.”
Here’s another easy way to make your writing more dynamic: use the active voice. Instead of “under my leadership, 50 loans were prepared,” say “under my leadership, our team prepared 50 loans.”
When you use the active voice, you’re owning your accomplishments.
Ask for the interview
You’ve also got to ask for an interview. Do this in your last paragraph before signing off. Asking for an interview directly can be awkward, but it’s a crucial part of your application letter. Here are a few ways to phrase the interview request:
- “I would like to meet in person to discuss this position further. Please contact me at [insert phone number] or [insert email address].”
- “I’m looking forward to meeting with you to discuss my fit for this role further.”
- “I hope you’ll consider me for this position. Please contact me at [insert phone number] or [insert email address] to schedule an interview.”
Although you need to be direct, avoid presenting yourself as presumptuous or entitled in this section of your cover letter.
When it’s time for your sign-off, keep it simple. Stick with one of the basics, like “sincerely” or “best.”
Cover letter dos and don’ts
When you’re writing your cover letter, keep these important points in mind:
Do keep it objective. You’re not asking them to hire you, you’re demonstrating why you’re the best candidate for the role.
Don’t use overly formal, stiff, or complex language. Although a cover letter should never include slang or otherwise overly casual language, it should feel friendly and personable. Grammarly’s tone detector can help you get your professional vocabulary and phrasing just right.
Do have another person read your cover letter and give you constructive feedback before you send it to the recruiter. This can be your partner, your friend, your parent, or anybody else who knows you well enough. These close readers can help you determine where to add or remove information, how to accurately showcase your achievements, and that your application letter covers everything necessary for the specific position you’re seeking.
Don’t reuse the same cover letter for every job. Your cover letters can be similar and you can even use one cover letter as a template for others, but recruiters know when they’re reading generic cover letters. Show each recruiter that you read the job description carefully and you’re genuinely interested in the job by writing them a personalized cover letter that specifically addresses the role and company.
Do work keywords into your cover letter. You can find these keywords in the job listing. Typically, they’re the job title, department, industry, and specific tasks. Many large companies use software to screen applicants and these programs look for specific keywords in cover letters.
Don’t write a long, rambling cover letter. Keep it under a page in length with short, manageable paragraphs. Grammarly Premium includes formatting suggestions, like identifying when you’ve written a hard-to-follow paragraph, and engagement suggestions, which can help you rewrite sentences to better hold the reader’s attention.
Alongside your résumé, a cover letter is how you can communicate your work experience and skills to each potential employer. Invest in your career and increase your likelihood of scoring the interview by mastering the art of the cover letter.
This article was originally written in 2013 by Karen Hertzberg. It’s been updated to include new information.