FAQ About Cover Letter Writing

Cover Letter FAQ

1) What is the purpose of a cover letter?

The primary purpose of your cover letter should be to convince the hiring manager to keep reading your application materials and begin to envision you as exactly the person they are looking to hire.

A cover letter is a chance to demonstrate your sincere interest in the specific job and company for which you are applying. It is also your opportunity to draw attention to the most relevant experiences and qualifications that make you a perfect fit for the position.

Basically, the cover letter is your opportunity to make a persuasive argument about why you should be considered for the job above other candidates that may have similar qualifications. In some cases, your cover letter may also be a place to provide important context to your resume, such as if you are in the middle of a career change or are returning to work after an extended absence.

The cover letter is also a place to inject a little bit of personality into your application materials. Hiring managers are looking for outstanding people to add to their team – showcasing your passion for the work and a positive attitude can be a deciding factor for whether or not you are selected for an interview. 

2) Do I need a different cover letter for every job?

Absolutely. Otherwise you are squandering the opportunity to make a strong case that you are the perfect fit for the exact position. Your cover letter needs to be customized in four ways:

Names and Institutions: If you know the name of the hiring manager, use it in your salutation. You should also name the specific organization in the body of your letter.

Fit for the Company: Do your research to learn as much as you can about the company culture as well as how the department you may be working in fits in the larger company structure. You not only want to demonstrate that you have taken the time to learn about the position, you also want to make a case that you have the passion and personality that will fit the organization well.

Fit for the Position: You want your cover letter narrative to persuade the recruiter that you have a deep understanding for the responsibilities of the job and that you have the precise qualifications to excel in the role. Highlight the work and educational experiences that are most critical to the specific work you will be doing in your new job.

Passion for the Role: Finally, customize your cover letter to demonstrate that you are excited about the specific job. How does it fit into your larger career goals? What aspects of the job will be most satisfying to you? For example, explain how you look forward to improving your community or connecting customers with products that enhance their lives.

Generic cover letters are a big turn off for recruiters. They give hiring managers the impression that you are not as serious about the job as other equally qualified candidates.

3) How long should my cover letter be?

Your cover letter should be no more than one page long. Organize the content into 3-4 paragraphs. Include a date line, address line, salutation, body, and signature line. In terms of a total word count, this can be anywhere from 250-400 words, unless the employer has specified something different.

Use a standard 12 point font such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri. The text should be single spaced with 1” margins. It is fine to add an extra space between paragraphs, particularly if this helps balance the page to use the space well.

Be sure to follow any file formatting instructions that may be specified with the application instructions. Unless you are directed otherwise, put your cover letter (and resume) in PDF format.

4) What should I include in my cover letter?

Your cover letter should include only relevant information, such as:

Contact Information: Include your email address and phone number. A physical address is usually not necessary, and it takes up valuable space.

Personalized Salutation: Take the time to try to find out the name of the person who is in charge of the hire, generally a hiring manager or the director of the department where you are applying. Look on professional sites such as LinkedIn or call the administrative assistant in the office to see if you can get a name.

Referral: If you happen to be referred to the job by someone inside the company, this is information that should be included in your cover letter.

Company and Position Specifics: The body of your letter needs to include a strong indication that you have researched both the organization and the role you are applying for, along with reasons why those specifics are a strong fit for you. This is a chance to demonstrate to the recruiter that you know exactly what you are getting into and have confidence that it is a strong match for your qualifications, experiences and passions.

Your Unique Selling Point: What is it about you that will set you apart from other candidates? This may take the form of highlighting your most relevant skills, describing a pertinent accomplishment, or expressing a unique perspective concerning the mission of the company and/or role.

Context: If you are in the middle of a career change or have a recent long gap in your work history then you can explain that in your cover letter. Frame it in a positive way and add details demonstrating that it makes you a stronger candidate.

Closing: In two or three sentences, finish your letter with a closer that summarizes your primary persuasive argument for why you are the best candidate, a sincere thank you for their consideration, and a polite request for follow up.

5) How should I write my cover letter in the context of a career change?

The objective is the same, i.e. put your best foot forward and, conversely, don't shoot yourself in the foot.

Address the Why: The cover letter is your chance to tell a story about why a career change is so important to you at this juncture in your career. Be honest and persuasive to encourage the recruiter to give your resume serious consideration. Employers want to hire a strong fit – this is your dream job so don’t be afraid to put that on the table.

Transferable Skills: Highlight the skills you have that will transfer from your previous work experience to the new position. It is important to be as specific as possible. For instance, mention specific technology or software you have mastered which are key to the job description. Overly broad transferable skills such as “strong communication” are less effective than more targeted examples.

Exemplary Accomplishments: If you have an example of an accomplishment that will demonstrate your outstanding performance and willingness to go above and beyond, this can be a part of a compelling narrative about your strength as a candidate.

Value Added Framework: The narrative of your cover letter should emphasize the fact that your career shift actually gives you an advantage over more traditional candidates. For example, explain how you will bring a fresh perspective to problems or have a deep sense of commitment to the work due to your previous experiences in another field.

Keep It Positive: Avoid any temptation to complain about your previous career, colleagues or place of employment. Hiring managers are looking for people that see opportunities rather than those focused on what is lacking. 

6) How should I address the fact that I was away from the workforce in my cover letter?

Not all employment gaps need to be addressed in your cover letter. A few months of unemployment, for example, does not need to be discussed. Even longer gaps such as a year may not require an explanation. In addition, you may be able to de-emphasize the gap by being less specific with the dates. For example, not using months on the resume itself or using a functional resume format.

Whether or not to mention a work gap is a judgement call that you need to make. To decide, ask yourself if you can frame the time off as a positive period of professional growth. If the answer is yes, then it may be worth mentioning.

If you decide to engage the topic in your cover letter, here are some tips to do it well:

Keep It Short and Sweet: Try to keep the explanation down to 1 or 2 sentences. Dwelling on a gap may leave the impression that it is a bigger deal than it is.

Focus on Growth: Did you take classes, travel, or volunteer during your gap? These kinds of activities highlight the fact that you used the time away to add to your skillset or perspective.

Positive Framing: Try to frame your return to the workforce as a clear decision you are making to head off the perception that you might not be serious. For example, if your time off was contained, such as caring for children or a sick relative, then make sure to explain that you are excited to jump back into your work and that you missed the sense of personal satisfaction that your career gave you.

Don’t Apologize: Read over your cover letter after you write it to be sure you do not come off as apologetic or ashamed. This just isn’t going to help the person reading your letter respect you and see you as a strong candidate.

7) What are some common mistakes to avoid when I write my cover letter?

Below are recurring mistakes most often flagged by recruiters:

Generic Letter: By far the most common mistake people make with cover letters is failing to customize it to the organization and the specific position. Every single job that you apply to needs a separate cover letter. The letter must demonstrate that you have taken time to research and craft a letter that directly draws attention to yourself as an excellent fit for the opening.

Restating Your Resume: Be very selective about pulling information from your resume. After all, that is already available to the hiring manager. Instead, choose only the most relevant items and only those that contribute to a narrative that is designed to persuade the reader of your excellent fit for the company and the role for which you are applying.

Grammar, Style and Spelling Mistakes: Take the time to carefully proofread your cover letter at least three times. Even a single error can be enough for some recruiters to filter your application to the bottom of the stack. Likewise, remove any repetition and words that take up space but don’t add valuable information. Your style should be concise, clear and direct.

Egocentric: Although your application materials are absolutely a chance to be confident about your qualifications, skills and education, it is a mistake to make it all about you. Try to put yourself in the position of the hiring manager, imagine what they need most in terms of an employee, and present yourself as a solution to those needs. Likewise, beware of TMI (Too Much Information). While showing a little personality in your letter is fine, it can easily go over the line.

8) What is an “uninvited” cover letter and should I write one?

An uninvited cover letter, also known as a cold contact cover letter, is a letter sent directly to a hiring manager without reference to a specific job advertisement. The purpose of this type of letter is to make yourself known to decision makers within an organization so that they can keep you in mind for future job openings. In some cases, an uninvited cover letter can even result in the creation of a job in order to attract top talent – you!

The most effective uninvited cover letters will demonstrate strong research of the organization and their needs, position you as exceptionally qualified to fill those needs, and encourage the hiring manager to reach out to discuss the possibilities. If you decide to write a cold cover letter, be sure to include an up to date resume that will detail your work history, education, and accomplishments.

Cold cover letters have a low probability of working out in the short term, so they are not a substitute for a more traditional job search if you are unemployed. However, they are a good investment of your energy if you choose only organizations that you are sincerely passionate about working for.

9) How should I write my cover letter if I apply for a position abroad?

Foresee any obstacles or hesitations and find a way to address them subtly. Put forward the idea that hiring you is worth it, even if it may entail a bit more effort.

Style Conventions: Americans in general have a relatively high tolerance for informal communication and individual style differences. In fact, sometimes bucking conventions can even get you noticed. However, many European countries expect a strict adherence to style in formal documents. Some countries, but not others, require photographs with application materials. Research the expectations for the exact country you are applying within and pay attention to the details.

Language Conventions: Research issues such as spelling (center vs. centre) and grammar (when to use the Oxford comma) that may be different than in other English speaking countries. Failure to do so will make you look ignorant and/or lazy. Likewise, colloquialisms can be lost in cultural translation, or worse, perceived as offensively informal and are best avoided.

Communicate Your Commitment: Relocation is costly and time consuming. Even if you plan to cover the cost yourself, the employer will incur some expense simply waiting for you to get settled in the event of an offer. Make sure your cover letter expresses a long-term commitment to the job so that you will be perceived as a worthwhile investment despite the fact that you currently live in another part of the world.

Demonstrate Knowledge and Interest in the Culture: Without coming off as pandering, do try to convey that you have a keen interest in not only the job, but also the larger cultural context where you will be working should you receive an offer. For example, referencing your passion for travel or another successful international work experience can go a long way to alleviate the hiring manager’s concern about your ability to adapt to a new cultural environment.

10) What is a “hook” and how can I include one in my cover letter?

The purpose of your cover letter is to grab the attention of the recruiter and persuade them to take their time reviewing your resume all the while already envisioning you in the job. Your cover letter should tell a story about you, and it should contain a compelling element known as the hook to capture the curiosity of the reader.

There are several tried and true methods to accomplish this in a cover letter:

Organizational Needs: If you can clearly articulate a known need from the perspective of the hiring manager, and then position yourself as a solution, this is a powerful hook. It not only expresses expertise about the exact position you are applying to, it sets you apart from the majority of candidates.

Press Releases: Do your research on the company website and in the news to find out the latest about the organization. Maybe they have recently participated in a community fundraiser, experienced a newsworthy growth benchmark, or had a change in leadership. If you can naturally connect your fit for the company by mentioning a recent event, it shows the hiring manager you are really on the ball.

Express Sincere Passion: Recruiters are looking for talented people that not only have the right qualifications, but also have the drive and passion to go above and beyond. One way to build a hook into your cover letter is to share about how some key aspect of the organization’s mission is in line with your personal goals, desires to have an impact on the world, or career ambitions.

Personality and Cultural Fit: Some organizations make a huge investment in cultivating a company culture that promotes certain values such as diversity, internationalism, or creativity. Tapping into this can be a way to demonstrate your strong fit for the position.

Creativity and Humor: This is perhaps the riskiest way to grab attention and stand out from the pack. It can easily backfire if you go too far. However, if done well, it can be extremely effective.

Following are links to articles that address other frequently asked questions:

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