Your cover letter is essentially your first impression, so here’s how to make it count (without overthinking it).

By Kristine Gill
August 16, 2019

For many job hunters, writing cover letters is the worst part of the application process. Cover letters are often tedious, difficult to write, and overwhelming because it's hard to know what actually qualifies as a good one anymore. Plus, most prospective employees don’t know what specific employers are looking for in a cover letter.

So how do you write a cover letter that’s neat and professional, yet personal enough to stand out from the crowd and convey why you are the best person for the role? Here to dispel your worries are two career experts who break things down from the greeting to the closing paragraph, so you can make your letter shine.

RELATED: The New Rules for Writing a Resume That Will Actually Get You Hired 

The Greeting and Opener

Your cover letter is being judged from the first character on the page, and how you handle seemingly innocuous lines such as the salutation can turn an employer off in a heartbeat. So how do you avoid mistakes here, and how can you follow the rules? 

Address your cover letter to an actual person (when possible).

TopResume career expert Amanda Augustine suggests doing a little research to determine to whom you should address your cover letter. “In an ideal world, you should always address a cover letter to a real person,” she says. “It’s not hard to find out who the head of HR is. If you’re applying to a marketing role, there’s a head of marketing.” When possible, use a name.

If you’re lucky enough to know someone who works at the company, it’s worth sending them a quick, polite email asking if they know who the best person to address your letter is. They might know who will actually be looking at the letter apart from HR (aka your potential direct manager), which will make a big difference. 

But if you can’t find the right name to use, Augustine says go for something a little broader like “Dear hiring manager.” 

Steer clear of super generic, overly formal, or too-flippant salutations.

“Avoid ‘sir’ or ‘madam’—and never use ‘hiya,’” Augustine says. “One is so stuffy and the other is so casual you’re taking a leap of faith in assuming they’re comfortable with that level of familiarity when you don’t really know the person.” 

Amy Klimek, chief human resource officer for ZipRecruiter, adds that using a generic greeting doesn’t set your letter apart. “Job seekers who use these generic greetings miss out on an easy opportunity to convey their interest in the company,” she says.

When in doubt, go for a more traditional format.

Before the internet, an address and date were expected at the top of a letter because these documents typically went through the mail. These days, Augustine says fewer employers care about those details, considering most cover letters arrive via email or through an online application portal. But if you’re unsure about the company culture, Augustine suggests going for the more traditional formats.

Draw the reader in with a good (and relevant) hook.

Most resumes begin by expressing an interest in the job at hand—but the ones that go above and beyond use this first paragraph to draw the reader in. “If you’re a natural writer, you can provide an anecdote about one of your jobs or times during college that demonstrates the hard and soft skills required for these roles,” Augustine says.

But remember, if you go this route, Klimek cautions that the anecdote should have specific relevance to the job at hand. 

“If a job seeker is applying to work in the entertainment industry, they can start the cover letter by telling the story of when, as a child, they cast their neighbors in a homemade ‘feature film,’” she says. “That’s far more impactful than the traditional and generic opener of ‘I’m writing you today to express interest in your open role.’”

Still not sure how to go about it? Augustine suggests finding an expert to help. The same folks who offer resume editing services can also help you pen a great cover letter. 

The Middle (aka The Meat)

Make a great case for yourself.

The second paragraph, or middle section of your cover letter, is by far the most important, Augustine says. 

“It’s not an entire summary of your resume, but you want to pick out a couple of key requirements for the job and explain why you meet them,” she says. “Think: ‘These are your needs and these are my qualifications.’”

Make it more human than your resume.

Unlike your resume, a cover letter is a much more personal explanation of your job history, Augustine says. “Resumes don’t use pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me,’” she says. “Cover letters are an opportunity to show your personality.” 

Elaborate on any confusing resume moments.

You can also use the cover letter to explain any of the gaps or curious employment history outlined in your resume. If you took a year off to start a family or take care of ailing parents, or if you’re looking for a major career shift, this is your chance to explain why.

“Your cover letter gives you an opportunity to explain any of those ‘red flags’ that are going to be on the resume,” Augustine says.

Reframe your potential shortcomings as strengths.

Of course, you’ll want to put a positive spin on those potential red flags, like a gap in time or lack of experience. “You’re not going to say, ‘I don’t have seven years of experience.’ You’re going to say, ‘My role in this company allows me to have more insight on X,’ or, ‘I focus on the same type of customer in my current work,’” Augustine says.

Klimek agrees you shouldn’t linger on a perceived flaw or lack of job experience. “In today’s rapidly changing economy, professionals with ladder-like careers are few and far between,” Klimek says. “Instead of explaining why you lack certain qualifications, focus on how you plan to tap into your strengths to shorten the learning curve, and what unique blend of transferable skills you’d bring to the job.”

Don’t write too much.

Just remember to keep your writing tight and concise—think of it as your highlight reel. “A hiring manager or recruiter will only spend a handful of seconds reading a cover letter,” Klimek says. “Job seekers should aim to make the best impression with the fewest words.”

Your letter shouldn’t go for more than a page, and shorter is better, Augustine says. “The point is to give them a few highlights to whet their appetite,” Augustine says.

The Final Paragraph and Closing

Reiterate your interest, then pass them the ball. 

As you wrap up your letter, it’s appropriate to again express your interest in the position, Augustine says. It’s also an opportunity to invite some kind of further communication. 

“If you think about your cover letter as marketing material, this third section brings it home with a call to action,” Augustine says. “You want to make sure you’re leaving the ball in their court, but giving yourself a follow-up action.”  

That could mean promising to check at a specific future date on the status of your application. Or, if you aren’t sure who will be keeping tabs on your application, this is where you’ll invite them to reach out to you with any questions as they make their decisions. 

Use a simple signature.

Always thank them for their time and consideration before signing your name. As for the sign-off, a tried-and-true “sincerely,” followed by your name never fails.

Common Cover Letter Mistakes

Making literal mistakes.

Misspellings and typos are considered fatal errors in the realm of cover letters. According to Klimek, if an employer spots one, they’re usually unlikely to finish reading. Always proofread your work—it’s best to read it aloud to make sure it’s accurate and flows well— and run it past a friend or, at the very least, an online grammar bot. 

“Most recruiters find it difficult to overlook misspelled words and missing punctuation in a cover letter,” Klimek says. “The kindest possible reading of the situation is that the job seeker lacks attention to detail; however, it’s far more likely the recruiter will interpret these mistakes as an indication of how much, or little, the job seeker cares about the job.”

Using one cover letter for several applications.

Another obvious mistake is to use a general cover letter for a variety of positions. The spectrum ranges from accidentally sending a letter for company A to company B in your haste to get applications out, to simply sending the same generic letter to each and every place you apply. 

“[Recruiters] hate when a cover letter is generic and can be used for any company, but it’s the absolute worst when you’re applying for Coca-Cola, but you mention Pepsi because you didn’t do a find and replace,” Augustine says.

If you want to stand out, you’ll want to make your letter look less like a form you filled out and more like a representation of yourself as an employee.

Using funky fonts and formatting.

And when it comes to design and fonts, Augustine suggests playing it safe. Go with a sans serif font such as Calibri in size 11 or 12. These fonts are easily read by online bots, which are being used more often than ever to scan resumes submitted by applicants before a human hiring manager ever sees them. And to that end, you should also try to incorporate some SEO friendly terms included in the job description if you know you’ll be applying through an online portal, Augustine says. 

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