A cover letter is your chance to inject a bit of personality into the job application process, highlight additional information that’s not on your resume, and connect with your interviewer. But according to Alison Greene of Ask a Manager, many cover letters fall flat, relying on ineffective gimmicks and wasting a great opportunity. Here’s how to write a good cover letter.
Why Cover Letters Are Usually Part of the Job Application Process
Employers don’t just want to hire people who can check all the boxes necessary to fill the job. They want people who will fit into their organization and, ideally, people whom most other team members will like. A cover letter tells employers a lot about you, if you put in the effort. When reading your cover letter, a hiring manager will look at:
- Whether you used a form letter or wrote your own
- How well you might connect with workplace culture
- Your attention to detail, including your ability to use spell check
- How well you explain any gaps or uncertainties in your career history
- Whether there’s anything about you that stands out or that makes you a uniquely good fit for the role
- How easy you might be to manage and work with—Are you friendly and collegial, or does your cover letter portray someone who may not fit in?
How a Cover Letter Can Help You
A cover letter gives you a chance to tell the interviewer a bit about yourself and explain things you can’t otherwise address in the resume. The value of a cover letter varies from job to job. For example, when you apply for a job in an organization to which you have a unique connection and there’s information in your career history that might make you more compelling, a cover letter can be very helpful. In other situations, it’s less useful but still affords a chance to let your personality shine through. This opening greeting to the employer varies in utility from job to job, but it’s never useless. Moreover, if the job requires it, this is a clear signal that the interviewer wants to learn more about applicants than that which is visible in their resume alone.
Some things you might include in your cover letter include:
- An explanation of any career gaps—for example, if you left the workforce to raise children
- Any personal connection you have to the organization
- Volunteer or recreational work that might be relevant to the role
- Key career highlights that don’t fit into your resume
- Media coverage of work you’ve done
How to Write a Cover Letter: Winning Strategies
These simple strategies can help you write the best possible cover letter, regardless of the job for which you are applying:
Don’t reiterate information you’ve already shared
A cover letter is not the place to repeat information in your resume. That’s a waste of the limited space cover letters afford. Even if you don’t have a compelling story to tell about this specific role, consider how you can make a connection with the interviewer. What skills can you highlight or expand upon?
Avoid gimmicks and cliches
Gimmicky lines are never as clever as they seem and can make you appear ignorant of workplace cultural norms. Steer clear of phrasing such as “If you’re looking for … ” or “You’ve found your candidate if … ” It’s up to the interviewer to determine whether you’re the right candidate. Don’t tell them what to think. Your job is to give the employer the information they need to make that assessment.
You might be tempted to lead with a story, a question, or some other attention-grabber. These can be annoying rather than intriguing. Open your letter by stating the role you’re applying for. If you’re open to other roles, be clear about that.
Don’t make demands
The interviewer gets to decide whether to call you or hire you. Don’t demand that they get in touch with you within a specific time frame or give them other instructions about what you want or expect them to do.
Establish a connection, where possible
If you have a special connection to the organization, share that. A nurse applying to a cancer treatment center where she once received cancer care should share this information. But don’t manufacture an artificial connection or try to turn generic information into a close personal connection.
Show instead of telling
You don’t know if you’re the best candidate for the job, so don’t use that claim. And if you’re punctual, a good team player, or innovative, don’t use these descriptors. Give examples. Highlight previous performance reviews, programs you started at your current workplace, awards you received, or personal connections you formed with people your organization served. Anyone can brag about themselves. Those who have done something worthwhile can and should share what they’ve done.
Your resume should focus on achievements. Your cover letter can be an extension of these achievements, telling a compelling story or giving information that neatly sums up your approach to work.
Address any confusion
If anything in your resume is unclear, be sure to address it. For example, if there is overlap in jobs or a significant career gap, explain why this is. If you’re a freelancer who tackles multiple roles at once, make this clear.
Keep it brief
Be respectful of the interviewer’s time. Put the most important information in a single paragraph or two, and keep the letter to under a page. Wordiness sometimes signals an inability to succinctly express yourself. So ask someone you trust to help edit the document if you can’t seem to condense it.
Never, ever send a cover letter that has spelling or grammatical errors. Spell check often misses errors, so read the letter yourself, and then ask at least one other person to review it too. Serious errors can cost you the job, particularly if the role requires exceptional writing skills or a keen attention to detail.
Be mindful of social and workplace norms
Employers want staff who don’t have to learn the norms around professional behavior. Steer clear of any behavior that could be a red flag or that might alienate your reader:
- Unless you know for a fact that she prefers otherwise, only ever address a woman as Ms. or her professional title (Dr., Col., etc.)—never Mrs.
- Never make off-color jokes that rely on stereotypes. Because humor is personal and subjective, jokes are usually out of place in a cover letter.
- Never address the letter to “Dear sirs” or “Dear gentlemen.”
- Don’t assume that the reader shares your religious, political, or socioeconomic affiliations.
Don’t be overly familiar
It’s one thing to make a connection with the interviewer over a shared interest—such as a commitment to animal welfare if you’re applying to an agency that advocates for it. It’s quite another to be overly familiar or to make assumptions about what the reader enjoys or thinks. Don’t rely on stereotypes, and don’t talk to the interviewer like they are your friend.
Ready for a New Career?
A compelling cover letter begins with the right experience. A quality education can help you get your foot in the door and begin building a resume you can be proud of. Whether you’re looking to break through education-related career ceilings or hoping to jump-start a career in an entirely new field, SNU is here for you. We specialize in the unique needs of adult learners. Subscribe to our blog for more tips to help you excel in school and at work.