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How to write a cover letter

Key takeaways

  • A cover letter should answer 3 essential questions: why this role, why this company, and why you.
  • Sending a cover letter isn't always necessary, but it can bring your work experience and accomplishments to life in a way a resume can't.
  • Keep it brief, error-free, engaging, convincing, and honest.

Putting together a resume might be more intuitive than knowing how to write a cover letter. Even the most sophisticated resumes generally boil down to a list of a candidate's work experience, skills, and education. Cover letters are more open-ended—they could go in a lot of different directions. Where to begin? Let these cover letter tips guide you on writing an engaging note that could get you noticed.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter gives the reader a little info about you, which role you're interested in, why you'd like to join that employer, and why you're a good fit for the open position. It's an opportunity to go more in-depth about some of the accomplishments mentioned on your resume and show how your qualifications would translate to success in the role you're applying for. That seems like a lot of info, but no matter how far along you are in your career, stick to a few paragraphs on a single page for your cover letter.

If you're emailing your job application, your cover letter could be in the body of the email. If you're applying via a company portal or an applicant tracking system, you may need to paste your cover letter into a text field or attach your cover letter as a .doc or .pdf file. Be sure to follow the instructions.

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Do you need a cover letter?

Are cover letters necessary? It depends. In some industries, it's a must, and in others, a rare sight. Some applications specify not to send a cover letter, and in that case, don't. In pretty much all other cases, it could be a good idea to send a cover letter. Because many applicants skip submitting them, knowing how to write a cover letter and including it with your application could separate you from the pack.

Still, draw in a reader quickly and then get right to the point: Hiring managers and recruiters don't have a lot of time to read cover letters. So prove to them why you're a good fit for the open role, showing exactly what you bring to the table that other candidates might not have—or might not have mentioned because they didn't submit a note.

How to write a cover letter

There are many ways to write a cover letter that could convince a hiring manager or recruiter to meet with you. You could simply introduce yourself, say in a few lines what you're all about, and then move on to explaining which role you're interested in and why, what interests you about the company, and why your skills and experience fit their needs. If you're changing careers, devote a paragraph to explaining how your skills and experience are transferrable to the industry you're trying to break into. If you have a long resume gap, you could spend a sentence or two explaining why, such as taking time away from work to be a caregiver, focus on a hobby, or recover from an illness.

Or you could tell a story with your cover letter. If you're stuck on what that could look like, here's an engaging format you could try:

Step 1. Start with a time you achieved something in a previous role that's relevant to the job you're applying for
Consider beginning in the middle of the action to make your reader want to keep going to find out what happens next. A good cheat: Lead with the word "when." For instance, for a junior sales role, your cover letter could open with a line like: "When my manager set a goal for me to double revenue in the next year, I …" and follow that with steps you took to achieve that goal. End the paragraph with what those efforts resulted in: you hitting or even surpassing that goal.

Step 2. Set up a smooth transition
To transition from the intro paragraph to this next one, you could say, "That's why I would be a good fit for X role at Company Y." Then, share how you found out about the role—perhaps on a professional networking site or job aggregator. If someone at the company referred you for the position, get their permission to mention them by name. Round it out by explaining why this role and company interest you.

Step 3. Connect your experience with what the employer is looking for, based on the job description
You could impress a recruiter or hiring manager if you go one step further, working in details from news stories about the company and the company's own social media and website. For example, "I would be excited to show your existing clients, such as Company A and Company B, how your new X product could benefit them. Because of my relationships with Companies C and D, I would also be able to show them the value of X product as well as your flagship Y product, which they don't currently use."

Step 4. Highlight another couple of successes or experiences
Just be sure to go deeper on these examples than your resume does, and relate them back to the open role.

Step 5. Close strong
End your cover letter by thanking the reader for their consideration, requesting a chance to meet with them, and sharing your phone number and a professional email address so they can get in touch. Plus, make sure you've addressed anything the application instructions noted, such as your willingness to relocate or work in a hybrid environment.

Here are a few do's and don'ts to also keep in mind while writing your cover letter.

Cover letter tips

  • Customize your note for each position you apply to. You don't have to start from scratch each time, but the exact same cover letter won't work for multiple openings.
  • Stick to the truth. As many as 80% of people have lied on a job application.1 But you could risk your reputation and future opportunities if you fib.
  • Express your enthusiasm. Make it clear why you're eager to join their organization.
  • Proofread. Nearly 60% of resumes and cover letters have a typo or grammatical error, and that could take you out of the running.2
  • Show, don't tell. It's better to give examples of times you were detail-oriented and hardworking than to say, "I'm detail-oriented and hardworking."
  • Don't choose a tough-to-read typeface. Simple fonts are best for readability.
  • Don't bring up salary or benefits, unless the application instructions ask you to share your expectations.
  • Don't talk bad about a previous job or manager you had.
  • Don't focus too much on yourself at the expense of what you'd bring to the role.
  • Don't send a cover letter if an application specifically asks you not to.

If the application instructions don't specify whether to write a cover letter, consider sending one anyway. A cover letter allows you more space to make your case for getting an interview—and isn't that your whole goal in applying for a job?

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More to explore

1. Donna Svei, "5 Tips to Make Your Résumé More Noticeable Without Lying," CPA Practice Advisor, March 23, 2023. 2. Dr. John Sullivan, "Rejecting Resumes With Spelling Errors: A Silly and Costly Hiring Mistake," ERE Recruiting Conference, February 10, 2020, https://www.ere.net/rejecting-resumes-with-spelling-errors-a-silly-and-costly-hiring-mistake/#.

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