Do you need to write a cover letter to apply for a job? In most cases, the answer is yes. Your cover letter may make the difference between obtaining a job interview or having your resume ignored, so it makes good sense to devote the necessary time and effort to writing effective cover letters.
Here's all the information you need to write a cover letter that will get your application noticed. Review these tips for what to include in a cover letter, how to format it, and examples of many different professionally written cover letters.
What is a Cover Letter?
Before you start writing a cover letter, you should familiarize yourself with the document’s purpose. A cover letter is a document sent with your resume to provide additional information on your skills and experience.
The letter provides detailed information on why you are qualified for the job you are applying for. Don’t simply repeat what’s on your resume -- rather, include specific information on why you’re a strong match for the employer’s job requirements. Think of your cover letter as a sales pitch that will market your credentials and help you get the interview. As such, you want to make sure your cover letter makes the best impression on the person who is reviewing it.
A cover letter typically accompanies each resume you send out. Employers use cover letters as a way to screen applicants for available jobs and to determine which candidates they would like to interview. If an employer requires a cover letter, it will be listed in the job posting. Even if the company doesn’t ask for one, you may want to include one anyway.
It will show that you have put some extra effort into your application.
The Different Types of Cover Letters
There are three general types of cover letters. Choose a type of letter that matches your reason for writing.
When you are applying for a job that has been posted by a company that’s hiring, you will be using the “application letter” style.
What to Include in Your Cover Letter
A cover letter should complement, not duplicate, your resume. Its purpose is to interpret the data-oriented, factual resume and add a personal touch to your application for employment. Find out more about the differences between a resume and a cover letter to make sure you start writing your cover letter with the correct approach.
A cover letter is often your earliest written contact with a potential employer, creating a critical first impression. Something that might seem like a small error, like a typo, can get your application immediately knocked off the list. On the other hand, even if your cover letter is error-free and perfectly written, if it is generic (and makes no reference to the company, or to any specifics in the job description) it is also likely to be rejected by a hiring manager.
Effective cover letters explain the reasons for your interest in the specific organization and identify your most relevant skills or experiences. Determine relevance by carefully reading the job description, evaluating the skills required and matching them to your own skills.
Think of instances where you applied those skills, and how you would be effective in the position available.
Review a list of what to include in a cover letter for a job before you get started.
What to Leave Off Your Cover Letter
There are some things that you don’t need to include in the cover letters you write. The letter is about your qualifications for the job, not about you personally. There is no need to share any personal information about yourself or your family in it. If you don’t have all the qualifications the employer is seeking, don’t mention it. Instead, focus on the credentials you have that are a match. Don’t mention salary unless the company asks for your salary requirements. If you have questions about the job, the salary, the schedule, or the benefits, it’s not appropriate to mention them in the letter.
One thing that’s very important is to not write too much. Keep your letter focused, concise, and a few paragraphs in length. It’s important to convey just enough information to entice the hiring manager to contact you for an interview.
If you write too much, it’s probably not going to be read.
Customize Your Cover Letter
It is very important that your cover letter be tailored to each position you are applying to. This means more than just changing the name of the company in the body of the letter.
Each cover letter you write should be customized to include:
Which job you're applying for (include the job title in your opening paragraph)
How you learned about the job (and a referral if you have one)
Why you are qualified for the job (be specific)
What you have to offer the employer, and why you want to work at this specific company (match your skills to the job description, and read up on the organization’s mission, values and goals to mention in your letter)
Thank you for being considered for the job
Here’s more on how to personalize your cover letter.
Cover Letter Writing Guidelines
Here's an outline of the items that should be included in every cover letter. Before you get started, it can be helpful to review some cover letter samples, just so you have a visual of how everything fits on the page.
These cover letter examples, both written and email, are designed for a variety of different types of job applications and employment inquiries. Do be sure to take the time to personalize your letter, so it’s a strong endorsement of your ability to do the job for which you’re applying.
A cover letter should begin with both your and the employer's contact information (name, address, phone number, email) followed by the date. If this is an email rather than an actual letter, include your contact information at the end of the letter, after your signature.
Your contact information should include:
First and Last Name
City, State Zip
Begin your cover letter salutation with "Dr./Mr./Ms. Last Name." If you are unsure if your contact is male or female, you can write out their full name. If you do not know the employer's name, simply write, "Dear Hiring Manager." This is better than the generic and formal, “To Whom It May Concern.”
Review information on how to choose the right cover letter greeting to select one that works for the job and company you’re applying to.
Begin your introduction by stating what job you are applying for. Explain where you heard about the job, particularly if you heard about it from a contact associated with the company. Briefly mention how your skills and experience match the company and/or position; this will give the employer a preview of the rest of your letter. Your goal in the introduction is to get the reader's attention. To get started, see examples of engaging opening sentences for cover letters.
In a paragraph or two, explain why you are interested in the job and why you make an excellent candidate for the position. Mention specific qualifications listed in the job posting, and explain how you meet those qualifications. Do not simply restate your resume, but provide specific examples that demonstrate your abilities.
Remember, actions speak louder than words, so don’t just “tell” the reader that you are, for example, a great team player with strong communication skills and an excellent attention to detail. Instead, use tangible examples from your work experience to “show” these traits in action. Here’s more information on what to include in the body section of a cover letter.
In the closing section of your cover letter, restate how your skills make you a strong fit for the company and/or position. If you have room (remember, just like your resume, your cover letter should be no longer than one page - here's more information on how long a cover letter should be) you can also discuss why you would like to work at that specific company.
State that you would like the opportunity to interview or discuss employment opportunities. Explain what you will do to follow-up, and when you will do it. Thank the employer for his/her consideration.
Use a complimentary close, and then end your cover letter with your signature, handwritten, followed by your typed name. If this is an email, simply include your typed name, followed by your contact information, after the complimentary close.
Format Your Cover Letter
Your cover letter should be formatted like a professional business letter. The font should match the font you used on your resume, and should be simple and easy to read. Basic fonts like Arial, Calibri, Georgia, Verdana, and Times New Roman work well. A font size of 10 or 12 points is easy to read. Standard margins are 1” on the top, bottom, and left and right sides of the page.
Add a space between the header, salutation, each paragraph, the closing, and your signature. You can reduce the font and margin sizes to keep your document on a single page, but do be sure to leave enough white space for your letter to be easy to read.
Follow these cover letter formatting guidelines to ensure your letters match the professional standards expected by the hiring managers who review applications.
Edit and Proofread Your Cover Letter
Remember to edit and proof your cover letter before sending it. It may sound silly, but make sure you include the correct employer and company names - when you write multiple cover letters at once, it is easy to make a mistake. Printing out and reading the letter aloud is a good way to catch small typos, such as missing words, or sentences that sound odd.
Always double-check the spelling of your contact's name, as well as the company name. Here are more tips for proofreading a cover letter. If possible, enlist a friend or a family member to help proofread your cover letter, as two pairs of eyes are better than one and even professional proofreaders don’t always catch their own mistakes.
Ready to Get Started? Write a Cover Letter in 5 Easy Steps
A well-written cover letter will help get your application noticed and help you secure an interview. Take the time to personalize it so it shows the employer why you're a solid candidate for the job. Here's how to write a cover letter in five simple steps.
Skip the “Dear Sir or Madam” in your cover letter and zero in on exactly how you’re going to solve whatever problems the hiring company has.
Do hiring professionals even read cover letters for senior candidates anymore? Some say yes; some say no, they don’t bother unless the resume in question has grabbed their attention.
The simple answer is that you should assume your resume will merit a look at your cover letter ; always include one (either as a separate document or an e-mail that acts as one); and make it exceptional, so you stand out from the crowd. Ladders talked to hiring and career management professionals to find out exactly how a good cover letter is laid out and what it contains.
The salutation is your first chance to make contact with a hiring professional, but it’s one spot where laziness often wins out over due diligence. We’re talking about the “Dear Sir or Madam” approach. What this generic salutation says isn’t positive: Namely, that the author couldn’t be bothered to find out the hiring manager’s name.
Abby Kohut, president and staffing consultant at Staffing Symphony, suggests job seekers can easily locate the right person online: “To find the name of the hiring manager, try searching on Google or LinkedIn,” she said. “Even a good guess scores you points because it indicates that you tried harder than everyone else.”
Why do you want to work here?
Kohut recommends that job applicants make sure to mention the name of the company in the letter, followed by an explanation of why they’re interested in working there. “Make sure that you really mean what you say,” she said. “Recruiters have a way of sensing when you are being less than truthful. Our goal is to hire people who sincerely want to work at our company — it’s the job of your cover letter to convince us.”
Bombastic claims are just as bad as insincerity. Brooke Allen, a hiring manager at Maple Securities, said he hates it when job seekers claim in their cover letters that they’re his “best candidate.” “How can they know without evaluating all my candidates?” he asked.
You also need to make a sales pitch as to why the employer should want to work with you, Kohut said.
“Your letter should explain what you can do for your ‛customer,’ not what you are selling,” she said. “The key is to give the reader a small glimpse into your background, which encourages them to want to learn more by reading your resume.”
Length and format
Job coach and author Susan Kennedy, of Career Treking, provided this outline for a good, succinct cover letter:
Introduce yourself and state why you’re writing; you are enthusiastically presenting yourself for a job, and your background makes you the best candidate. List a referral source if possible.
List your value to the company. Describe how you will contribute to the company from Day One. This should be based on research of the company and job. Share knowledge of the company’s goals, accomplishments and opportunities.
Call to action. Ask for the interview and state when (exactly) you will follow up.
If you are responding a job posting, Kennedy recommends a column approach. Below is a sample of how that might look, with bulleted lists of requirements and descriptions of how your background matches them:
Job Requirements: 1-2 years of general accounting experience.
Your experience: Tracked expenses and all financial reporting for a government subcommittee.
Job Requirements: Attention to detail.
Your experience: Edited manuscripts to ensure American English vs. British English.
Kennedy notes that cover letters “can also be used to bridge your background and the job.” She offered up an excerpt from the cover letter of a client with a degree in political science who wants to get a job in the video-gaming business:
“As you can see, my resume is attached. But what you won’t see on my resume is my passion for video gaming: it is how I see the world. My analytical skills and attention to detail will enable me to help solve the caller’s problems and ensure a high-quality product.”
Perfect spelling and grammar are mandatory
A cover letter is “a writing-skills evaluation in disguise,” Kohut said. “When recruiters are faced with large stacks of resumes for new positions, you’ll never make the first cut if they notice even one spelling or grammar mistake on your resume or cover letter.” Make sure that even an e-mail is scrupulously proofread.
Tactics hiring professionals love
Sometimes a gesture can impress a hiring professional. Kohut was once beguiled by a candidate who read her LinkedIn profile and saw that she had won a ping-pong tournament. “He sent me a ping-pong paddle in the mail and wrote a cover letter with ping pong-themed language in it,” she said, including sentences like these:
- “I’d like to get in the game.”
- “I bring energy, intelligence and motivation to the table.”
- “I now feel compelled to drive home positive business results.”
For Allen, the most effective cover letters are those that do one of the following two things in one sentence or two: They make a compelling statement that begs a response, or they ask a question that must be answered.
A good approach is to ask for clarification of a point that makes it clear they have done their homework, as in: ‘Your ad said X while your Web site said Y … Could you help me understand Z?’ ” he said. “I believe the goal of the job seeker is to start a conversation rather than just throw a resume into a pile.”
Tactics that hiring professionals hate
Allen said that cover letters or cover e-mails should not only be “well written with proper spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization,” but they should also leave out abbreviations or emoticons.
Phrases like “i dunno,” lolh,” “i dnt cf,” “!!!,” “dgms,” “WTF” and using all capital letters have no place in professional correspondence, he said.
“I am not against people who are into texting, if they use it when they text,” he said. “But I like the full expressiveness of our language and the keyboard.”
Abbreviations are also inappropriate. They’re not expressive, Allen said, and using them risks confusing your reader, who might not know what their spelled-out versions are.