What to Write in a Cover Letter

by Anthony Roberts

What to Write in a Cover Letter

You’ve perfected your resume, researched the companies and positions you’re interested in and are excited about, and now you’re ready to apply for that dream job. Everything is all set and you’re ready to get at it! Then, you realize that one little detail you still have to complete… the dreaded cover letter. Let’s get the obvious out of the way. NOBODY likes writing a cover letter. The idea of trying to explain to an employer why they should bring you in for an interview in a few short paragraphs can be extremely frustrating. Of course, you can provide tons of information to explain why you’re the best fit during the interview with ample time to elaborate and answer their questions, but conveying all of that in a brief letter?!?! The cover letter is a step in the application process that most people would love to skip, and sometimes actually do skip when applying. Let’s discuss why a cover letter is not only important, but should be viewed as a tool to use to your advantage rather than a necessary evil that you “have” to complete in order to apply.

Is a Cover Letter “Really” Necessary?

As a career coach for many years, this is a very common question and also a very easy question to answer…YES, IT IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY! Before even discussing what to put in a cover letter, keep in mind that many employers will immediately discard a resume if no cover letter is included. At the same time, I can also say that some employers will barely look at a cover letter and go right to the resume, but do you really want to take that risk when you’re trying to land an interview? Not including a cover letter is a surefire way to drastically reduce your chances to getting a call from an employer. I’ve always found it to be funny when I see an online application that includes a check box if you want to include a cover letter. It makes it look like it’s optional. Always remember that it is never optional.

Another tip when applying is if for any reason you don’t see where to include a cover letter, just make it the first page of your resume document when you upload your resume.

What Should a Cover Letter Even Look Like?

Many people who have never written a cover letter before (and even some who have) will just type what they think is a normal letter and not realize some of the basic rules of cover letter writing that must be followed. In terms of format, the letter should always be in a business letter format with everything left justified on the page. This includes no indentations when starting a paragraph.  Also include your contact information at the top in address block form, the employer’s address block, the date, your greeting, the paragraphs themselves, a closing, and your name. Make sure to sign your name between the closing and your typed name when delivering a letter to someone in person. The greeting should always be to someone. Do some research to find out who it is that you’re sending the letter to and address it Dear Mr. or Ms. (last name) when possible. If for some reason you don’t have a specific name, you can also address it to the manager or human resources if needed. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than the dreaded “To Whom It May Concern” that employers hate to see on a letter. The key is to personalize it as much as possible instead of making it sound like you’re just applying for jobs and the letter is for whoever happens to see it. Sticking with these basic rules will give you a professional looking cover letter while also presenting the person reading it with a positive initial impression. It’s important to keep in mind that the cover letter is oftentimes their very first impression of you, so you want it to be professional and well-written with no errors. A typo in a cover letter can be just as damaging as a typo on a resume.

So, What Do You Actually Write in the Letter?

Now comes the really fun part. Trying to properly explain why you stand out and why they should bring you in for an interview. Typically, a cover letter will be 3 to 4 paragraphs and everything should be on one page. The number of paragraphs can vary slightly, but this is typically around where you want to be. First, let’s cover the easy parts, the first and last paragraphs. These are pretty straightforward. The first paragraph should be brief and tell them simply who you are, the position you are interested in, and how you heard about the position. This lets the employer know the purpose of your letter and resume. The last paragraph is also very simple. It should be a closing paragraph to let them know how they can reach you and to “ask for an interview.” Something like “Please contact me by (phone and/or email) at your earliest convenience to further discuss my qualifications and fit for this role. Thank you in advance for your consideration and I look forward to speaking with you.” This lets the employer know how and when they can reach you and that you are interested in obtaining an interview.

Avoid closing with sentences like “I will follow up with you in a week regarding my application status.” I’ve seen this a lot in cover letters and it can come off as pushy and make the employer feel like you’re going to be stalking them for an interview if you don’t hear back right away. Of course, you can follow up with HR on your application status if you don’t hear back, but it isn’t something you want to tell the employer you’re going to do. It can be taken the wrong way and leave a bad impression.

As for the middle portion of the cover letter, this is 1 or 2 paragraphs explaining your key highlights and qualifications as they relate to the position. You don’t want to simply restate everything on your resume, because they already have that to look at. You want your cover letter to complement your resume and tell your story to them. The resume is pretty straightforward in listing your experience, responsibilities, and career highlights. You want the cover letter to be your personal introduction to them in your own words of what you’ve done and how it would be a benefit to them. Review the job description carefully and explain how you are a match for the position. If you’ve done your research on the company (which hopefully you have at this point), you can also talk about why you are interested in them and what stands out to you. This also will let the employer know that you are interested in working for them and not just getting a job. The more personalized you make the letter in terms of the position and company, the more you’ll stand out to the employer as someone who has put in the time and effort to apply, which is also an initial indication of the type of employee you’ll be.

See, That Wasn’t So Bad, Was It?

The importance of a strong cover letter can’t be understated and should have as much thought and effort put into it as any of your other job search documents. Don’t just write one and send it off with your resume. Review it, review it again, revise if needed, get others to look at it, and make sure it properly explains who you are and the value you can offer the employer. Following a few simple formatting rules and putting in the extra effort to write a great cover letter will undoubtedly give a great first impression to an employer and boost your chances of landing an interview.

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