What is a 'Cover Letter'
A cover letter is a written document submitted with a job application explaining the applicant's credentials and interest in the open position. Since a cover letter is often one of only two documents sent to a potential employer, a well- or poorly-written letter (or email) can impact whether the applicant will be called for an interview.
Breaking Down a Good 'Cover Letter'
A good cover letter complements a resume by expanding on resume items relevant to the job, and in essence, makes a sales pitch for why the applicant is the best person for the position. Career experts advise job seekers to spend time customizing each cover letter for the particular position, rather than using a generic missive. Although this requires extra effort, it can be very helpful in allowing an applicant to stand out above the competition.
Common Cover Letter Mistakes
A perfect resume is often sabotaged by a poorly thought-out or mistake-heavy cover letter. Whether you are including the letter as per required submission guidelines, or you simply want to emphasize your interest in the job, make sure that you avoid making these seven blunders. (For more, see 10 Resume Red Flags.)
- Getting Names Wrong
Although you are probably applying to a number of different jobs in your search, you obviously don't want to share this information with hiring managers; you want them to think their position is The One. But nothing screams "form letter" than to have the wrong company name or position on the cover letter, probably because you forgot to change it from the last job you applied for. This bit of carelessness is not only sloppy – it's probably the surest way to not get an interview.
- Restating Your Resume
The purpose of the cover letter is to identify your skills and explain how your previous experience is applicable to the desired position. Simply restating all of the facts on your resume, without going into an explanation of why your expertise and background are pertinent, defeats the purpose, and in fact makes it redundant. The cover letter has to build on the information presented on the resume, not just summarize it.
- Unreasonable Length
Keep your letter tight. Although you may have much useful information to offer, keep in mind that recruiters will often go through hundreds of applications. They simply do not have time to read through a three-page missive, even if you feel all of the information is important. The absolute maximum length for a cover letter, including the headings, should be one page. Typically, it should be shorter. (What changes when you're looking for a job online? Find out in 5 Tips For Finding Your Perfect Job Online.)
- Adding Unnecessary Information One trick to keeping the letter succinct: Focus on your relevant qualifications to the role. If applying for an accounting position, the fact that you have graphic-design skills should not be prime focal point. It's also best to leave off positive but personal things like your IQ – while undoubtedly important for any role, adding it to your cover letter is just plain weird. And recreational accomplishments, interests and hobbies are rarely worth mentioning, unless they relate in some way to the job or company: If applying to a sporting goods manufacturer, for example, saying that you're an avid golfer could add an interesting personal touch.
- Identifying Weaknesses
Speaking of unnecessary information: Talking about your shortcomings is not only complete waste of space, but also counterproductive. While "What are your greatest weaknesses?" is a common interview question, there's no reason to bring them up ahead of time. Your cover letter is all about identifying the strengths that make you so right for the role.
- Sounding Arrogant
Although you're trumpeting your strengths, try to ensure that your cover letter does not portray you as arrogant. Excessive overuse of the words "I", "me" or "my" can make you sound conceited (not to mention having a limited vocabulary and poor writing skills). Yes, the cover letter is ultimately about you and your accomplishments, but you have to find a way of saying "I'm the best" without actually saying it. (For more, see Top 8 Ways To Get Your Resume Thrown Out.)
- Spelling and Grammar Mistakes Typos and grammatical errors are a key issue, signaling you didn't even bother to proofread your own letter. And no, you can't rely on your computer's spelling and grammar checks – because it won't catch words that are correctly spelled, but incorrectly used (like "it's" and "its"). Also unprofessional-looking: typographical inconsistencies, like conveying a dash with "--" in one place and with "—" in another. This lack of attention to detail is frowned on, no matter what your field.
How to Write a Great Cover Letter
Your cover letter provides information to a prospective employer on who you are professionally. This includes your job interests, professional goals, knowledge and skills gained over the years, career goals, and achievements. The cover letter should be a one-page document that provides clear and concise details as to why you want the job. To create a great cover letter that will grab the reader’s attention, be sure to follow the following rules:
- Personalize Letter for Each Role
For each role that you apply to, whether within the same company or with different companies, personalize your letter to the advertised role. Your cover letter should not be generic. Not only include your strengths and skills, but also explain why you’re the perfect candidate for the job position. This means that for each job that you apply to, you have to write a new cover letter. The company wants to believe that you took the time to read about and understand the role. It may be tedious and time consuming to write multiple letters, but it will be worth it in the end.
- Include Contact Information
Ensure that your cover letter has the name of the individual hiring a candidate for the role. It could be a department manager or the HR lead. In any case, make sure you have information on who the hiring manager is by either checking the company’s website or calling in. This way, you can open the letter with a proper greeting. Be sure to add your contact information on your cover letter, even though it may already be included in your resume.
- Use Simple Words
You want to clearly communicate your worth and why you should be considered for the job position that you’re applying to. Using complex words and sentences would most certainly fail to convey your intentions with the company. If the manager or HR representative reading the letter cannot decipher your ‘big’ words, s/he will probably not bother with the rest of your application.
- Quantify Accomplishments
Remember that the cover letter should not rehash your resume, rather it should provide more information on areas on your resume that are relevant to the job that you are applying for. For these areas, be sure to quantify your accomplishments. For example, while your resume may state that you used a marketing analytics tool to drive more clients to sign up for your employer’s services, a cover letter will expatiate on this by adding that your strategy brought in an additional 200 clients monthly and increased revenue to $10,000. This way you can set yourself apart from the other job candidates with vague accomplishments.
After you’ve written the letter, proofread it multiple times to ensure that there are no typos or grammatical errors. Also, ask a trustworthy person to proofread as well and recommend any areas that should be added or excluded from the letter.
A cover letter literally “covers” your résumé or CV: it’s your opportunity to say why you want the job and to present yourself as a candidate in a way that impresses a prospective employer and makes you stand out as a prospective employee. Employers may receive hundreds of applications for a job, so make sure your cover letter creates the right impression.
Click on one of the below headings for more information:
Example cover letters
Speculative job applications
Letters requesting an informational interview
- Tailor your letter to the requirements of the job. Read the job posting carefully.
- Research the organization. This will show prospective employers that you really are interested.
- Keep it brief. Your goal is a clear and concise explanation of your suitability for the job. Your résumé is the place for more details.
- Use keywords. Make sure the same keywords you used to describe your skills and experience on your résumé are also present in your cover letter.
- If you know who you’re writing to, use that name, exactly as it appears in the job posting. If no name is provided, write Dear Hiring Manager.
Read more top tips for cover letter writing.
Use formal letter format for a letter you’re mailing or handing to someone in person. If you’re emailing your cover letter, omit both your own return address and the address of the company. Application instructions may tell you what to put in your subject line. If not, make sure to include the job title and one or more keywords, if you have room.
Your first paragraph should open with a clear statement of the job you’re applying for, by title and reference code if one is provided.
- State where you saw the job posting or how you heard about it.
- If you heard about it through someone who already works for the company or someone known to the company, mention that person by name and position.
Your second paragraph should briefly outline your current situation.
- Mention your current job, if you have one, and any previous jobs that are relevant to the position you’re applying for.
- Pick up on the job requirements stated in the posting and focus on any of your current skills or responsibilities that correspond to those requested. For example, if the job description says that management skills are essential, briefly state any management experience you have.
- If you’re still studying, focus on the relevant aspects or modules of your courses.
Your third paragraph explains why you want the job and why you’re the right person for it.
- Be clear and positive. You might state that you are ready for greater challenges, more responsibility, or a change of direction, for example.
- Outline the qualities and skills that you believe you can bring to the job or organization, making sure they match the job posting.
- If you are still in school or have very little experience, paragraphs 2 and 3 can be combined.
Your final paragraph should let your readers know:
- When you’re available for an interview
- How to reach you (include email address and phone number, even though it’s also on your résumé)
- Whether you’ll follow up and when, or that you look forward to hearing from them. Some postings will specify “no phone calls”; be sure to respect these instructions.
Always thank the recruiter or employer for their time or for consideration.
Example cover letters
Here are three examples of job application cover letters:
To view their corresponding résumés, visit Writing a résumé.
Speculative job applications
If you know that you want to work for a particular company or organization but they don’t have any openings, consider submitting a speculative application. This should consist of your résumé, tailored to the type of job you’re interested in, together with a cover letter of application.
- Keep your letter short and positive; say why you are particularly interested in working for the organization in question and outline what skills, qualifications, and personal qualities you have to offer.
- If possible, address your cover letter to the person in the organization who is charge of recruiting new staff. You can find this out by consulting the organization’s website, by phoning, conducting online research elsewhere, if the website doesn’t provide the information you’re looking for.
Here’s an example of a speculative job application letter (pdf).
Letters requesting an informative interview
Another valuable job-hunting technique is to request an informational interview. Here, you’re asking to speak with someone in an organization you’re interested in, so your letter will be similar to the one you’d write for a speculative application. The main differences would be:
- In your first paragraph you’ll request an informational interview to learn more about this company in particular and the field in general. You might write something like I’d welcome the opportunity for an informational interview at your convenience.
- You’ll only have one body paragraph, outlining your qualifications for and interest in working in this field.
- In your final paragraph, you’ll offer to follow up to try to arrange a convenient time to meet or speak.
Back to Applying for a job.
You may also be interested in:
Writing a résumé
Writing an impressive job application