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How to write a cover letter - 11 tips for success

Whether you are a seasoned professional looking for new creative opportunities, or a recent graduate entering the job market, these days you need to know how to write a cover letter if you want to get that dream job. It isn’t enough to have a standout resume or CV. You need an introductory email or cover letter to go with it.

And not just an “I’m applying for XYZ job, and here is my resume” email. That misses the point because the combination of a cover letter and resume can be one of the best ways to market yourself.

Think of your cover letter as both tool and opportunity. You want it to make the hiring manager take notice of you, and gain you a coveted spot on the to-be-interviewed list. Blow your cover letter, and you risk being screened out. With the following step-by-step guide, covering both wrong and right ways for each section, you’ll soon master the skill set to craft a perfect cover letter.

The greeting

“Dear Hiring Manager” is too generic, and using “Dear Sir” when the person reading your cover email could be a she is a bad call. You need to find out the name of the person who screens applicants, his or her title (Ms.? Mr.? Dr.?), as well as his or her position. Usually, a quick web search yields the information you need. You can also phone the receptionist.

This looks much more professional:

Ms. Antoinette Nelson

Manager, IT Support Services

Persephone Corporation

Re: the job

The person you are writing to may be recruiting for several positions at once. Make that person’s life easier. Include a quick reference to the job you’re applying to upfront. It’s as simple as adding:

Re: IT Analyst position

Dear Ms. Nelson,

The first paragraph

“I’m applying for the Systems Analyst position” is unnecessary, because it’s obvious with the “Re: Systems Analyst position.” Besides, that’s boring, and you want to stand out.

Instead, tell why you’re applying for this particular job, in this particular company. Give a real reason—and one that does not reflect your own self-interest, i.e. the high salary range being offered. If someone has referred you to a particular manager, mention her name and company. You are looking to forge a connection right from the start. If you don’t have a reference, consider leading with a question: “Are you looking for a proven IT professional? One with cutting-edge skills and dedication to customer service?” Tell why the position is your dream job, and why you’re uniquely qualified.

If you’re struggling to get the words down, it may be because you haven’t done your homework. Research the company. Check the news. Find out which charities they support. You can then admire—and be inspired—by what they do:

Consuelo Rivas at SafeTech suggested I get in touch with you. I have long admired what Persephone is doing in the Twin Cities—working with underprivileged youth—to prepare them for STEM careers. In fact, my experience with a Persephone mentor now inspires me to join the tech company that changed my life.

This opening paragraph for a recent graduate works because it intrigues and connects with the hiring manager.

The second paragraph

Here’s where you give a short career summary and you tell the hiring manager why you should be selected for the job.

“I’m a recent graduate with a 3.8 GPA” won’t make you stand out. Don’t regurgitate your resume; the recruiter can read. Your cover letter is made to supplement your resume, not repeat it.

Instead, try telling a story that makes you desirable, that shows you would make a good addition to the team. Humans are wired to appreciate a good anecdote. If you make an assertion, support it. If you’ve led a team, what you’ve learned would make a great example. If your work ethic is superior, or you’ve demonstrated customer service that went above and beyond, tell that story (bonus if it makes the recruiter laugh). Comb for resume highlights and explain what one or two of those experiences taught you.

If you don’t have all the requirements for the position, don’t apologize and don’t mention them. There’s no need to point out potential failings.

As a direct result of that experience, I made better choices as a teenager. I took all the math and science courses I could, and I made stellar grades. That led to a full four-year scholarship at Rensselaer, where I stayed an extra year to get my Master’s Degree. Ms. Rivas supervised me at SafeTech during my summer internship. She taught me that it takes more than skills and straight A’s to succeed; it takes total dedication to getting the job done right. I found that out when I assisted Ms. Rivas for the 17 hours and the 5 lattes it took to accomplish a tricky database transfer.

This paragraph works because it’s personal and it deepens the connection to the recruiter. It also lets her know that the applicant has figured out what it takes to advance in her chosen profession.

The conclusion

Three paragraphs are fine. If you’ve done your job with the cover letter, the hiring manager will want to know you better. The concluding paragraph gives you the opportunity to seal the deal. This won’t: “I look forward to hearing from you.”

Why? It’s reactive rather than proactive. It says you’ll wait to hear from the recruiter. Instead, show you’re a go-getter. In today’s tight job market, words do count. The hiring company needs employees who can communicate clearly and concisely. Your cover letter then serves two purposes; it introduces you and it passes that test (the one you probably didn’t know you were taking).

Here’s a better way:

I’d love to show you what I can do. I’ll call Thursday morning next week. You can reach me at 612-555-6162, or at betinaduran@gmail.com. Thank you for your time and consideration—and for being a company that cares about children.

Not only has the applicant thanked the manager for her time and consideration, but she did it in a way that demonstrates her passion and commitment. You can do the same thing, by choosing your verbs carefully (“love” conquers “like”). The applicant remembered to include contact information, so the hiring manager doesn’t have to go searching for it. And she promised to follow up. Finally, she has connected once more and shows that she is future-thinking.

The most desirable employee is always going to be one that learns fast, who can quickly adapt to new technologies coming down the pike, and who looks for the better answer instead of the easy one.

Following are a few more housekeeping tips which will ensure your cover letter reflects you in your best light.

Read your letter out loud

Does it flow? Did you stumble over a long-winded sentence? Your sentences should have varied structure. Did your (winning) personality come through? Does it sound like you? And most importantly, did you communicate why the company needs you rather than the other way around?

Proofreading makes the difference

It’s not enough to run your cover letter through the spell-checker (although you should). It won’t catch every mistake or typo. These are common usage errors: confusion over its/it’s, there/their/they’re, your/you’re, affect/effect, and insure/ensure. If grammar isn’t your thing, give the letter to a friend to review. Check your verbs. Are they active voice or passive voice (overusing was)? Some great active verbs are: create, launch, navigate, analyze, rescue, and organize. If they seem familiar, it’s because they’re the verbs that resonate on your resume or CV.

Check your descriptions. Words that will make you sound great are integrity, enthusiastic, committed. Avoid saying “I’m responsible,” or any other platitude that the hiring manager would expect. Avoid clichés—find a fresher way to say what you mean. Too many superlative adjectives may cause eye rolls.

Keywords count

If the company is hiring for a position that requires a certain skill set, use those exact keywords, in the exact order, in your email. These days, particularly at large companies, applicant-tracking software is frequently used, and the program is searching for those keywords. If it doesn’t find them, your email and resume won’t go any further. Do your best to insert the keywords organically.

Take the time to do it right

Don’t use the same cover letter for everyone, only altering the heading, the greeting, and the position you’re applying for. It risks reading as generic. Remember, your introductory email needs to be personal and connect with the reader. An investment of thirty minutes, both to research and tailor that cover letter, will be time well spent.

Sample cover email

Ms. Antoinette Nelson

Manager, IT Services

Persephone Corporation

Re: IT Analyst position

Dear Ms. Nelson,

Consuelo Rivas at SafeTech suggested I get in touch with you. I have long admired what Persephone is doing in the Twin Cities—working with underprivileged youth—to prepare them for STEM careers. In fact, my experience with a Persephone mentor now inspires me to join the tech company that changed the course of my life.

As a direct result of that experience, I made better choices as a teenager. I took all the math and science courses I could, and I made stellar grades. That led to a full four-year scholarship at Rensselaer Polytechnic, where I stayed an extra year to get my Master’s Degree. Ms. Rivas supervised me at SafeTech during my summer internship. She taught me that it takes more than skills and straight A’s to succeed; it takes total dedication to getting the job done right. I found that out when I assisted Ms. Rivas for the 17 hours and the 5 lattes it took to accomplish a tricky database transfer.

I’d love to show you what I can do. I’ll call Thursday morning next week. You can reach me at 612-555-6162, or at betinaduran@gmail.com. Thank you for your time and consideration—and for being a company that cares about children. Someday (maybe soon?) I hope to be in a position to be a mentor.

Best wishes,

Betina Duran

Final advice

Remember, a perfect cover letter is your chance to express your personality. By making a connection, it should convince the hiring manager that you would make a fantastic addition to the team. Following these tips, you’ll know how to write a cover letter for a resume. Do it right, and you’ll be one step closer to landing that perfect job.

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