Cover letters are almost always important when applying for a job, but in a competitive market they can make an even bigger difference. An effective cover letter is what can end up getting you a job interview over other applicants, so making sure that yours catches the attention of hiring managers and recruiters is essential. If your cover letter isn’t intriguing, chances are no one will bother to even look at your resume.
Review these cover letter tips to learn how to get yours to do some of the heavy lifting for you during a job search, taking you from applicant to employee.
Pro tip: Make sure your cover letter and resume stand out to potential employers. With TopResume, you can work one-on-one with a professional writer to create both a cover letter and resume that are guaranteed to land you a job interview.
What to Include in a Cover Letter
No matter what kind of professional you are or which industry you work in, most cover letters follow a similar format. Generally, your cover letter can be divided into these sections.
Heading and Contact Information
Your cover letter should have a heading at the top of the page that includes your full name (first and last is fine), address, phone number, and professional website or portfolio link. You can also include a link to your LinkedIn profile if you have one.
After your own contact information, most cover letters include a space for the hiring manager’s contact information, such as their name, position, company name, and business address. The contact information in this section should be for the person your cover letter is addressed to.
Whenever possible, use the hiring manager’s actual name instead of “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Hiring Manager,” or “Dear Sir or Madam.”
The introductory or opening paragraph in your cover letter is where you:
- Introduce yourself with an engaging first sentence
- Specify which role you are applying for
- Mention where you heard about the position — especially if it was referred to you by a mentor or current employee of the company
- Briefly highlight why you are a great candidate
A good first paragraph is short and professional, and communicates important information. Take a look at this example:
As a highly-skilled customer service manager with seven years of experience building and leading teams, I would like to submit my application for the position of Customer Service Manager at XYZ Company. I was made aware of the position through my colleague and mentor, Ron Potter, and believe that my management experience, professional communication skills, and excellent problem-solving abilities make me a great fit for your company.
Your second and third paragraphs are where you have an opportunity to explain your qualifications in greater detail. Use quantifiable achievements whenever possible, and make sure to choose accomplishments that are relevant to the job that you are applying for.
Use the job description to inform what you include in the body of your cover letter to help figure out which skills and abilities to highlight. For example, if the job description is specifically asking for someone to build and manage the company’s Facebook profile and you have past experience with that, let hiring managers know. Say something like: “As a Social Media Coordinator for PreviousCompany, I grew the company’s Facebook likes by 250% in three months.”
Your body content shouldn’t exceed two or three paragraphs, so focus on the most prominent experience you want to highlight and let your resume speak to the smaller details.
A great tip is to use the body content in your cover letter to communicate what you can do for the hiring company, and to back up your claims using your past experience. Don’t focus on what the company can do for you or simply summarize your resume.
Your conclusion or closing paragraph is where you summarize why you want to work for the hiring company, indicate where or how they can find more information — for example, in your resume and by reaching out — and thank the hiring manager for their time.
Most cover letter conclusions look something like this:
As someone who is both personally and professionally passionate about user experience design, I would love to have an opportunity to contribute to your team. I have attached my resume, where you can read through more details about my work experience and education. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Just below your final paragraph, add a sign-off line — like “Sincerely,” “Regards,” or “Best” — and your name, and you’re set.
Tips for Writing a Great Cover Letter
Do these things to create a cover letter that stands out for all the right reasons.
1. Tailor Your Cover Letter for Each Job Application
Each job description is unique, so your cover letter should be too. Customize it to reflect the varying skills, abilities, and job requirements that different companies are looking for. If your cover letter sounds generic or doesn’t reference the specific job duties or competencies listed in the job posting, it’ll be obvious to hiring managers and prospective employers that you didn’t bother to take time to personalize your application.
But, you don’t need to create a cover letter from scratch every time you apply for a job. Instead, create a master cover letter with a standard format, and customize a new version of it for each job you apply for. Don’t forget to update key details like the company name and the hiring manager’s contact information.
2. Tell Your Professional Story
A cover letter can be a great way to elaborate on your resume and tell your professional story. From your education to work experience, include relevant pieces of information from your resume to really drive home why you’re the right person for the job.
Use examples of the career growth you’ve experienced and how that has helped you to become the well-rounded and skilled professional that you are today.
Don’t feel like you need to list every one of your jobs in detail; that’s what your resume is for. Instead, cherry-pick the information that best matches the job description and paint a picture of how you would use this experience to improve and support the company you want to work for.
3. Show How Your Experience Is Relevant
Job seekers don’t always have the luxury of applying for jobs in industries they have work experience in. Sometimes you might have to branch out and apply for a role you’re familiar with but in an industry you’ve never worked in before. For example, a salesperson with a background in the software industry might apply for a sales position at a furniture store or car dealership.
If you’re in a similar situation, you’ll need to use your cover letter to show a potential employer how your experience is relevant, even if you aren’t completely familiar with the industry. Explain how your skills in a previous role translate to being effective in the role you’re applying for.
Just because you have experience in one industry doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful in a different one. After all, a lot of skills can be applied to a variety of businesses and organizations, regardless of their specialties.
Take writing, for example. A writer with experience in digital publishing has skills that apply to higher education, digital marketing, blogging, and any other role that involves written communication.
How you highlight the experience you have is key to building a link between what you did before and what you want to do now. Use specific, quantifiable achievements and accomplishments to demonstrate your abilities as a professional regardless of the industry. An effective cover letter should talk about how you could use what you have learned to grow and support the company you’re hoping to work for.
For example, saying “I was the top salesperson at Previous Company for two years in a row, with sales averaging 15% higher than my peers” shows that you have what it takes to be the best. It doesn’t matter whether you were selling cars or software subscriptions — including an accomplishment that shows off your qualifications is still impressive.
4. Learn About the Hiring Company
Researching the hiring company can help you to learn about its mission statement, what products or services it sells, and its target audience. This information can help you to personalize your cover letter and explain how you can add value to the company.
For example, if you learn that the hiring company puts a lot of emphasis on customer service and high-quality web experiences, that’s an indication that you should make a connection to those areas in your cover letter.
The same goes for connecting your experience to the company’s industry, customer base, and products or services. Take anything that you have in common with the hiring company and address it in your cover letter. This demonstrates how and why you’ll be a great fit, helping hiring managers to picture you as their latest hire.
Your research is also useful if you end up getting an interview. The more you know about the company, the more prepared and eager you look.
5. Explain Employment Gaps or Job-Hopping
Job losses happen, whether they’re your choice or not. If there are employment gaps on your resume or you have a history of job-hopping, your cover letter is a good place to explain.
There’s no need to go into significant detail or to offer excuses or explanations. If you were laid off or the company you worked for decided to downsize, mention it and move on. Don’t write a paragraph about how you were treated unfairly or how you’ve been struggling since.
The same goes for job-hopping. If some of your positions were temporary, contract-based, or internships, clarifying why you have so many jobs on your resume will help an employer feel more at ease about whether you’ll stick around if they choose to hire you.
Be prepared to discuss employment gaps or your lack of long-term job history in an interview.
6. Use Words and Phrases From the Job Posting
When reading over the job description, pay attention to how skill requirements and technical skills are worded and mirror them in your cover letter.
For example, if the job posting says the company is looking for a self-starter, make sure to tell them you’re a self-starter by using that exact phrase in your cover letter.
The same goes for software or online platforms. If the job posting says the company is looking for someone to manage its Instagram page, make sure that you put your professional Instagram experience in your cover letter.
Aside from creating an obvious connection between you and the job description, using phrasing and keywords from the company’s posting can help your application to perform better in applicant tracking systems. Many human resources professionals use software to help them sort through and search for job applications.
Including hard and soft skills from the job posting itself can help to ensure that when a hiring manager runs a search for a “self-starter” with “Instagram” experience, you’ll show up in the results. It’s also important to note that you meet any job requirements, like the education level or years of experience, that are specifically requested in the job posting.
Pay attention to the job title that is used in the job description as well, and be sure to reference it in your cover letter.
7. Be Positive
Your cover letter isn’t a place to complain about previous employers or coworkers. Don’t talk about how you almost got a promotion or started a course and never finished it. Talk about what you have done and how you have helped your previous employers to be successful.
Speaking negatively about past managers or companies is a major red flag to potential employers, so avoid it altogether.
Regardless of your writing skills, you should always go above and beyond to make sure your job applications are clean, correct, and concise.
After you’ve written your cover letter and read through it, use an advanced writing tool like Grammarly to check for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. Unfortunately, spellcheckers built into word processors like Google Docs and Microsoft Word often miss word usage issues (like “to” vs. “too”) and other errors, so it’s best not to rely on them for your cover letter.
Once you’ve gone over your cover letter with Grammarly or another tool, have a friend or family member take a look. Fresh eyes can catch embarrassing mistakes that aren’t technically errors, like forgetting to change the company name or job title from a previous version.
9. Be Professional
When it comes to your cover letter, use plain, professional language. You don’t need to be overly formal but you should avoid slang, jargon, and informal language like “gonna” or “gotta.”
Make sure that your email address is appropriate for a job application and that any websites or social media profiles you link to are directly related to the job you are applying for and are up to date. Don’t link to personal social media pages — outside of LinkedIn — unless you have a good reason to.
10. Match the Job Posting’s Tone
Some companies get creative with their job postings and go for a more energetic or engaging tone, while others prefer to stick to more standard, straightforward descriptions.
Try to pay attention to and match the tone in the job description with your cover letter. This will demonstrate your ability to be perceptive and to adjust how you communicate based on subtle queues.
It can also be a great way to show your enthusiasm for a position while highlighting that you’d not only be a perfect fit based on your work experience but your personality as well.
11. Don’t Go Over One Page
Your cover letter shouldn’t be longer than one page. Regardless of your qualifications and experience, limit yourself to a one-page maximum so that hiring managers and recruiters can get a solid but succinct overview of your professional abilities and accomplishments.
If your cover letter does go over the one-page standard, hiring managers may not bother to make it to your resume.
Remember to use your cover letter and resume together. Your cover letter should entice potential employers and your resume should reel them in. Leave role details and responsibilities from your past for your resume unless they’re mentioned in the job description you’re applying for.
12. Pay Attention to Unique Application Requirements in the Job Posting
Some employers like to sneak in extra application requirements in job descriptions, like asking you to find the typos in a post or requesting that you address a specific question in your cover letter. Some employers request certain fonts or text sizes while others ask for a book recommendation. These unusual requests are a way for employers to screen applicants for their attention to detail and ability to follow instructions.
Read through the job description multiple times before writing or adjusting your cover letter. Make a list of any requirements or requests so that you can check them off as you go.
The job posting can also give you important details about how to apply, when the deadline is, and what format to use when sending your application.
13. Use a Cover Letter Template
While the words you use are essential in getting your message across, formatting is also extremely important when it comes to your cover letter. Details like font choice, white space, and headings can make your cover letter stand out and put emphasis on the most important information.
You can find free cover letter templates through Indeed, Google Docs, and Microsoft Office. Choose a clean cover letter format with a modern design and lots of space for content. If you don’t care for the free options you see, you can buy cover letter templates for a few dollars on Etsy.
Try to make sure that your resume and cover letter match so that they’re easy to group together again if they get separated on a hiring manager’s desk.
14. Experiment With Different Styles and Formats
Different professions allow for different applications. A graphic designer may want to show off their design skills as part of their cover letter format while a tradesperson may be more comfortable with sticking to the basics. More colorful and design-heavy cover letters may also be more appropriate for creative roles like a marketing position, as opposed to government openings.
Find a style that suits your personality and the types of roles you typically apply for and customize the format to suit your needs.
15. Send Your Cover Letter as a PDF
Unless otherwise specified, always send your cover letter as a PDF. When you save a document as a PDF, it locks fonts, formatting, and content so that it doesn’t end up losing its visual appeal from one inbox to another.
This is especially useful when using cover letter templates because some use atypical fonts that not every word processor can display properly. Sending a PDF ensures the recipient sees your cover letter the way you intend it to look.
There’s no perfect cover letter format out there. Different hiring managers prefer different things, so it’s essential that you customize your job application for each job you apply for — especially in a competitive job market. Concentrate on being clear, consistent, and confident in your application.
Pay attention to what prospective employers are looking for and focus on showing off your most prominent and relevant skills in your cover letter to increase your chances of getting an interview.
Do you have any cover letter tips to share as a job seeker or hiring manager?