When you’re writing a cover letter, all of your deepest insecurities can surface.
You start to question your writing skills, your professional experience and, really, your entire life.
How do you introduce yourself? Do you repeat what’s on your resume? How much should you talk about yourself? How can you mirror your whole being on to this one page?
We talked to several career-advice specialists who say a cover letter is really only as complicated as you make it. To tackle yours head on, you first need to understand its purpose.
What Is a Cover Letter?
All those questions swimming in your head? They’ll settle down when you start to understand the purpose of your cover letter.
First, think about a cover letter just as it is: It’s a one-page brief that physically (or virtually) covers a copy of your resume.
Second, think about your cover letter as a way to emphasize the most relevant points presented in your resume and to provide extra context. Your resume should point out your transferable skills; those are the skills or experiences you have that will translate to your success.
Your cover letter then explains those skills with a little more flavor, color and personality. It also proves you have the communication skills you need for the job.
Think of the cover letter as you would a short commercial, as a quick piece that captures your audience’s attention, says Loren Margolis, CEO of Training Leadership Success, a global consulting firm specializing in executive coaching and leadership development.
As creepy as it might sound, Margolis says you want it to be like you’re whispering in the reader’s ear: “Hey! Look at this! Look at me!”
Three Types of Cover Letters
You’re probably familiar with the classic cover letter you send when applying for a particular job. But there are actually three types you might write during a job search.
“You can call them all cover letters,” said Erica Stallings, program director for career advising and counseling at Florida State University. “And typically they’re all going to be followed by your resume.”
But they all serve different aims.
Networking Cover Letter
This is a more personalized version of a cover letter that you would send to someone with which you are trying to forge or strengthen a connection. It could be a LinkedIn message or body of an email — with your resume attached, of course — so it should be short and to the point.
“You don’t want to write a dissertation in an email,” Stallings said.
In it, you might request an informal coffee meeting to discuss how they landed a job, inquire about having that person become your mentor or ask if you can shadow them on the job. Keep it personal, and be specific about what you want from the letter.
Prospecting Cover Letter
A prospecting cover letter is aimed at helping you develop a connection at a company and let’s you inquire about a variety of open positions — not just a single job posting. It should be about a page long and be addressed to the recruiter or HR manager at the firm in which you are interested, Stallings said.
Basically, you’re reaching out to see if a company has any openings rather than targeting a specific job description you might have seen.
Traditional Cover Letter
This is what you’ve probably attached to your resume when applying to jobs in the past. And this is the type we’re focusing on in this how-to guide.
How to Format Your Cover Letter
With cover letters, it’s easy to get hung up in the details. Many of us are really good at that.
For that, here are some important details to consider before diving into the meat of the letter:
Set your document to 1-inch margins. Stick with the traditional 12-point font, though you don’t have to opt for the classic Times New Roman. You can mix it up — perhaps with Georgia or Cambria.
Either way, make sure the font you choose matches your resume. If you’re in a more creative field like graphic design, put your skills to work — just don’t get too crazy with, like, Comic Sans (*shudders*).
If you’re attaching your cover letter to an email (preferably in the same document as your resume — your cover letter on the first page, resume on the second), you’ll want it to read like a letter. For that, add your traditional headings: your name and your contact information, the date and the company’s name and its contact information.
If you’re simply copying and pasting the cover letter into the body of an email, which is fine, go ahead and delete all that other stuff and start with “Dear…”
Speaking of “Dear,” always, always personalize your cover letter. Never write “Dear Sir or Madam.”
“That’s just so spammy,” Margolis says. Instead, find the hiring manager’s name.
If you’ve exhausted your search, opt for the name of the recruiter. Or you could even go as far as calling the company and its hiring department and asking who the hiring manager is.
“Even if it’s the wrong person, have a name,” Margolis says. “You have to have a name.”
But don’t just make it up. Say you’re applying for a brand manager position but can’t find the brand director. Maybe the vice president of the department is listed on LinkedIn. Go with that name.
Or, if you’re not comfortable with that, just direct it to the specific department, said Alaina Rahaim, assistant director of career readiness at the University of Tampa.
Sign off with a simple “Sincerely” or “Best regards.” Don’t take a chance hitting a nerve with your reader. Even “Warm regards” could feel too touchy-feely.
Keep it all to a page — or less, even. Remember, this is your commercial. How long do you pay attention to a commercial? No more than 20 seconds — two minutes if it’s the Super Bowl. Many times, hiring managers won’t even look at a cover letter if it’s over a page.
How to Write a Cover Letter in Three Simple Steps
Google “cover letter,” and you’ll get pages upon pages of templates and best practices and theories and expert opinions.
So, no, there’s no singular universal answer as to the best way to write a cover letter. But there’s no need to make it more difficult than it has to be.
A Quick Note About Keywords
If you’ve read our advice on how to write a resume, then you probably understand the importance of keywords — important words or phrases repeated throughout a job listing. You should also include these throughout your cover letter.
To keep it simple, Margolis suggests a three-paragraph “You, Me, We” approach.
Paragraph 1: You
“One of the biggest errors people make is that they talk all about themselves,” Margolis says.
However, your first paragraph should be about you — as in the recipient, the potential employer, the company.
If someone referred you for the position or you have some sort of connection to the company, mention that in the first sentence, Margolis says. That could be something like: “So and so, from this-and-that company, recommended I apply for this role.” But mention the specific role. This is important.
So name drop. That hooks ’em. It’s called networking.
If you weren’t referred, just start by saying you’re excited, pleased or delighted to apply for the position.
Next, state how you found out about the position. Was it your connection? A LinkedIn posting? The company’s website?
Now, mention what excites you about the company. You’ll need to do some research on this part. Is the company a leader in the marketplace? Known for its innovative products? Perhaps it was recently ranked on a “Best Places to Work” list. Or maybe it won an award. Then get more specific about the department and what it’s doing.
Bottom line: This part has to be tailored to the company and the position.
Paragraph 2: Me
That’s you now!
For this paragraph, Margolis suggests choosing two to three transferable skills. Remember, those are the skills that can easily translate to your success in this new role.
And start bragging.
“It’s the gracious brag, graciously patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘I believe my two years of experience in x will lend to success with your team,’” Margolis says as an example.
You want to use more concrete, specific examples in this section, too, offering more details than your resume. Be as straightforward as saying, “For example…”
“It’s OK to repeat your resume; you’re just shedding a different form of light on it,” Margolis says.
Tie this paragraph up with a nice little bow of a conclusion sentence, something as simple as, “I’d be excited to bring these skills to your team.”
Paragraph 3: We
Margolis says there’s not a whole lot left to say in the paragraph. Even two sentences, done right, can suffice.
This is where you tie it all together. You plus me. We.
Discuss how your skills and ambition align with the company’s goals and values — and make sure you do your homework so you really stand out, said Rahaim.
Talk about the next steps. Mention meeting for an interview or attending the company’s open house.
Then mention how you’ll follow up. Will you call next week? Email?
If that doesn’t feel appropriate, you can always thank the recruiter or manager for their time.
6 Things to Avoid in Your Cover Letter
We’ve all heard those cover letter horror stories and the “Crap, I didn’t attach it” mutterings.
These, however, are six simple things Margolis encourages applicants avoid.
1. Jargon and/or Acronyms
Just write it out.
Even if you’re entering a job in healthcare policy, Margolis says by way of example, don’t use ACA — just write out the Affordable Care Act.
2. Slang or Shortcuts
This doesn’t work. Ever. Even if you’re using it ironically.
Although brevity is the soul of wit,
you’ll you will want to avoid contractions so you come off as polished as possible.
“I think it’s more professional to spell it out,” said Rahaim.
4. Negative Comments
Even if it’s intended to be positive, avoid the “I’ve seen reports of your company’s poor culture in the news, and I really think I can help” comments. Further, don’t mistakenly say anything negative about yourself, such as: “Although I haven’t done this type of work before, I am willing to learn.”
“I think that’s sad,” said Rahaim. “Off the bat you’re focusing on the fact that you’ve ever worked in the field.”
Just leave it sunshine and roses.
5. An Old AOL Email Address
Whatever you do, be sure to send your cover letter from a professional email address. This could be some combination of your first and last name.
6. Silliness or attempts at humor
It might be tempting to flex your witty wordplay to catch a recruiter’s eye, but using humor or silliness can also backfire for job hunters. Without verbal or physical cues, jokes can lack context and come off as weird nonsequieters.
“When you’re writing it and someone’s reading it there’s no guarantee how someone will take it,” said Rahaim.
Final Words of Cover Letter Advice
Remember: Every cover letter is going to be different, depending on your field, your position and you.
However, Margolis suggests always asking yourself two questions before submitting your cover letter:
1. “If I were the recipient of this letter, would I want to read it?”
You should feel proud of your cover letter — not like it’s an extra burden you’ve slapped on top of your resume.
2. “Can I use the ‘Three Cs’ to describe it?”
The “Three Cs” are concise, compelling and effectively communicating your value.
Check, check and check?
Spend some time proofreading and revising. Read your cover letter aloud (a trick I use in all my writing) or have a friend or family member read it.
Then, stop banging your head against the desk and overthinking it — just send it!
Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.
Data journalist Alex Mahadevan (@AlexMahadevan) contributed to this post.