Complete Guide to Writing a Cover Letter

An interview will get you the job, your resume will get you the interview, and your cover letter will generate interest in your resume. Though many people think that cover letters are a waste of time in the digital age, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Set yourself apart with a well-written cover letter to send with your application.

Why a Cover Letter?
A good cover letter is far more than a re-hash of the information on your resume. It’s a chance to introduce yourself to the employer and make a case for why the company should choose you. While your resume lists all of your experience, it doesn’t necessarily spell out how that experience would translate into the job you want. Use the cover letter to show this.

Cover Letter Formatting
Essentially, a cover letter is a formal business letter, so dust off those skills you learned in elementary school. Your address – without your name – goes in the upper right corner, with the date aligned under the city and state. On the next line, you place the company’s address – along with the hiring manager’s name and title. When starting the letter, use a colon rather than a comma. Using a site that automatically builds cover letters, can be a good way to get the formatting and design correct.

Cover Letter Content
Most cover letters follow the same basic format, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Intramural Training & Education. The first paragraph is a basic introduction that tells which job you’re applying for and where you heard about it. In the next paragraph or two, sum up your experience and how it aligns with the skills the company is currently looking for. Finally, write a brief closing statement about how you’re looking forward to meeting with the hiring manager.

Getting Personal
Whenever possible, you want to find out the name of the person reviewing resumes. This allows you to use their name when addressing the letter. If it’s not possible, it’s acceptable address it to the human resources department or “To Whom It May Concern,” but taking the time to research the right people can help you stand out.

Getting Specific
When talking about how your experience is a good fit for the new position, don’t be afraid to get specific. If the company is asking for someone with managerial experience, let them know how you once managed a team of 30. If they mention needing someone who can use specific software programs, talk about your experience with those programs.
The paragraph in the middle of the cover letter should really highlight why you’re the perfect candidate. Rather than talking about how much you want the job, talk about what you can offer the company. This is also a good opportunity to show that you have some knowledge about the company in general.

Using Keywords
The hiring manager may not read every single word of your cover letter. He or she might just give it a quick skim. This is a good reason to use “keywords” in the letter. Pay attention to the job description and the terms the company uses when listing the required experience, then use those same terms in your cover letter. For example, if the company is looking for someone with “strong written communication,” you might say, “Since I’ve worked with people all over the globe, I understand the importance of written communication,” instead of “I frequently used email and video conferencing to speak with co-workers in different parts of the country.” Even though both sentences convey the same message, the hiring manager is more likely to see the words “written communication” and view you in a favorable light.

Mixing It Up
Good writing is varied. Some sentences should be short while others are longer. You don’t want every sentence to start with the same word, which can make the tone monotonous. In particular, people tend to start almost every sentence in a cover letter with the word “I”. While you undoubtedly want to highlight your experience – which involves talking about yourself – avoid starting every sentence with “I.”

New Job Application, New Cover Letter
Cover letters do have a standard format, but this doesn’t mean that you should use the same cover letter for every job application. Since it’s important to be specific about your experience and the job opportunity, taking a cookie-cutter approach simply doesn’t work. Yes, it takes time to craft a new cover letter each time. However, it shows the employer that you are willing to go that extra mile. It’s this type of thing that’s likely to put your application at the top of the pile.

Notes for Emailed Applications
These days, most people submit job applications online, either through a submission form or by email. When you’re sending an email, it seems to make sense to put the cover letter in the body of the email, then attach the resume. However, Cornell Law School recommends something different. Since the hiring manager is likely to print out your attachments for review, they suggest attaching both a cover letter and resume while leaving a brief message in the body of the email directing the reader to the attachments.

Following Directions
Despite all of this advice when writing a cover letter, there are times when you might deviate from the normal methods. In particular, if the company makes special requests in their job posting, follow their directions. Many companies make these specific requests as a sort of test to see if the applicant is as detail oriented as he or she claims to be. If the job description tells you to use a specific subject header for the email, include a silly sentence in the cover letter, or omit the cover letter altogether, follow their directions.

Your cover letter is a chance to shine, so take the opportunity to convince the employer your resume is worth a second look. By making it personal and specific to the job you want, you’re sure to stand out.