You’re an old pro at crafting your resume to catch employers’ eyes, but a cover letter? Say what now? Everyone has heard of that strange, elusive document before. But chances are, unless you’ve applied for a job or a certain internship, you’ve never had to write one. But fear not! You’re about to learn the ways of writing a cover letter so you can land that job and teach all your friends (and then feel super cool).
Follow this handy-dandy guide to help you write that bomb AF cover letter.
What a Cover Letter IS (a.k.a. What to Do):
Unlike a resume, which just lists your achievements, the cover letter expands on those accomplishments and mentions your other strengths. Make sure you know about the company and position you’re applying to and use that in your writing. Geoffrey Melada, a former newspaper editor and the current communications director for a large nonprofit organization, creates the perfect steps for how your cover letter will face judgment by employers, as he has performed this process many times in his career. Melada listed: “(1) Is it clean? (2) Does it demonstrate that the applicant researched the publication and has a good faith basis for believing they are a good fit, and (3) Does it tell a story?”
The most important thing about cover letters to keep in mind: It’s okay to brag. And actually, you should. Employers first learn about you in your cover letter, so you want it to create a good reflection of who you are and make a good argument for why you should get the job. “The most important thing to remember is to be yourself, but also highlight your strengths and accomplishments,” said American University senior Lindsay Maizland.
What a Cover Letter is NOT (AKA What not to Do):
“A cover letter shouldn’t be a mere recitation of the resume,” said Melada. Also, know that a cover letter is not a biography or even an essay. It’s a letter, just like its name suggests. Your cover letter shouldn’t run longer than a page, if even that. The ideal length ranges to around four paragraphs, which sounds daunting, but if you use the suggested breakdown below, you should be good to go.
Cover Letter Breakdown:
Your first paragraph, otherwise known as the introduction, should introduce you and why you’re writing. Think of it like the opening paragraph of a news story. It should answer all your “W’s”—who you are, what you’re applying for, when you want the position, where you are in your education (as in what school you attend, where it is and what year you’re in) and why you’re the best option to hire.
Example: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. As a proud graduate of Indiana University and current Deputy Director of the Pawnee City Department of Parks and Recreation, I, Leslie, Knope, would be the perfect candidate for the Regional Director of National Park Service Midwest Region City Councilor position starting next year. Graduating summa cum laude from the School of Environmental and Public Affairs of Indiana University, I am versed with knowledge of the position with the National Park Service along with experience from my current position with Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department. My ability to bring in waffles from J.J.’s Diner on occasion will also perk up my team to make them ready for another great day.
In the second paragraph expand upon your first, particularly in terms of your education and experience. “Connect the dots in a cover letter. Explain how the experiences you’ve had and the person you’ve become as a result have led you to the point where you can honestly say you’d [be] of use to the employer,” said Melada. Try to pick the two or three most important or applicable experiences to the job and describe them succinctly. Here you may copy a bit from your resume. It’s also the place where you get to brag the most, so make sure your pride shines through.
Example: From creating a gorgeous park from a pit behind Ann Perkins’s house to bringing my amazing team together to pull off the best Harvest Festival ever despite the rumors of the Wamapoke curse, my ability to bypass difficult obstacles will be extremely useful in the Regional Director Position. Filled with hope, determination and endless smiles, town hall meetings are my forte. An angry voter would like to speak with me about the lack of birdhouses in the park? Please, welcome them into my office.
This paragraph involves discussing your transferrable skills. Here you can show off things not mentioned in your resume and your knowledge about the position you’re applying to. “Be deliberate about which skills you discuss and be specific when explaining why those skills are relevant to a particular job,” said 2017 University of Maryland graduate Adrienne Baer. “You want to show an employer that you’re interested in the job they’re offering, not just a generic job (even if that might be the case).”
Example: I have been knocked down in the past—been called annoying, stubborn and even bossy. But these insults have only made me stronger. I have turned these cruel words into compliments, seeing myself instead of dedicated, persistent, and yes, bossy— because you have to be if you want to be a boss. These traits, along with my abilities to visualize, delegate and of course, compromise, have led to the success of many of my projects and will continue to do so into the future. I will not take no for an answer, and will not give up until I can find a way to get done what needs to get done. I am also friendly, kind and get along well with the others in my department—I like to think we’re all friends, and it doesn’t matter who works for who. This makes me approachable, which helps everything flow well.
This follows a pretty basic formula. Make to restate the position you’re applying for (full title and all). Very briefly restate your credentials and say you’re both qualified for and interested in the job. Always end with a sentence that says something like, “thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.” Finally, sign your name at the end. While you don’t have to physically sign it, closing with “Sincerely, [your name]” not only fits the letter format but gets your name in their head one last time.
Example: For these reasons and more, I believe that I would be the perfect candidate for the Regional Director of National Park Service Midwest Region City Councilor position starting next year. My experience with the Pawnee City Department of Parks and Recreation over the last decade along with all of the projects I have undertaken have given me the experience that I believe is necessary for this role. My love for the environment, public policy and changing the world make me an excellent candidate. I would like to thank you, dear hiring director, for your consideration. I look very much forward to hearing from you soon.
A Few Other Necessary Components for Your Cover Letter:
1. Contact Info
Put your contact info at the top. This should include your current mailing address, email, phone number and if it applies, your website. If you have a header with this information on your resume, copy and paste it to use on your cover letter. Employers will look here to get your info. If you don’t include it, you could lose your chance at a job right at the start.
This is who the letter is written to—basically, the name that comes after “Dear” at the top. With cover letters, they should always address a specific person. Most sites should say who to address it to, but if they don’t, you can use titles like “Internship Coordinator” or “Hiring Manger.” Still, it’s always a good idea to search the website or call first, just in case the name may be hiding somewhere. Plus, you’ll get brownie points for taking the time to actually research this info.
One phrase that often goes in the fourth paragraph that’s worth knowing about, is the “any questions” phrase. Basically, you say, “If you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned here, please contact me at [whatever form you prefer].” This way, if employers have a question, they can contact you – and know that you’ll get back to them.
4. Keep it Professional
This should be a given, but make sure your cover letter looks professional. Use standard margins and one consistent, formal font. The font and font size should stay the same as that on your resume and use something like Times New Roman or Arial, with a size of 10-12 pts. Also, out of courtesy to whoever reads your letter, create breaks between paragraphs (and whole line spaces if you can). But remember: No crazy fonts, no ridiculous sizes, and no weird formats.
When you submit your cover letter (and resume, for that matter) you should send it as a PDF. Not only will saving your document as a PDF preserve the format, it also looks nicer that way. You want it to feel fancy, like you should. You applied for a job, like a real adult person. Congrats!
Ready to start your career journey by nailing that summer internship? Check out four steps that make it easy here.
10 More Tips to Make Your Cover Letter Close the Deal Before Your Resume
Written by Unique Ratcliff
Now that you are sitting at your computer desk about to apply to your dream job, step away from copy and paste. Don’t sell yourself short by rehashing everything in your resume and skipping out on a fantastic cover letter. “When I first started applying to job I used to put a major emphasis on my resume. After about 50 rejection letters later, I decided to spruce up my cover letter a bit, and I finally got the yes that I was looking for. I wish someone would have told me sooner how important a cover letter is,” said Tiffany McGhee, West Chester University alumnus. Learning how to write a decent cover letter will increase your chances of snagging your fantasy job.
1. Research the company thoroughly.
Researching a company goes beyond the starting salary, location and benefits. In order to really connect with a company that interests you, look very closely at the company’s mission statement and what they care about. Surfing through a company’s social media or website creates a vision board of what you should know about the business. This allows you to grasp an understanding of what they expect from their employees and consumers. In doing so, you might even gain a few gems that others may not know exist. Finding out the interests of a few notable representatives from the company will serve as excellent talking points.
2. Remember what you are applying for.
While writing your cover letter, keep the responsibilities of the job in mind. For example, if you are applying for a social media manager position that runs the company’s accounts, you want to discuss your ability to produce content. In doing so, you should understand what type of content the company produces. “What really make a good cover letter is writing something that lets them know that you get them and you want to be on their team,” said Temple University Director for Career Services Lu Ann Cahn.
3. Address your cover letter to a specific person.
“One of the biggest mistakes that students make while writing a cover letter is starting with ‘Whom it may concern,’” said Cahn. While addressing your cover letter you want to always identify the person that you are writing to. Your title should include either Mr./Ms. and their last name. If you are not sure who will receive the letter, address the company or the title of the person you are writing to. Including the name of the person that you are writing to makes it more personable and distinctive.
4. Explain how you connect with the company.
What you can do for a company has the same importance as what the company can do for you. At this point, you have already included your areas of expertise in your resume. “A lot of times students will write a beautiful cover letter that really rehashes everything on the resume. In a way, nothing wrong with it, but it’s nothing right with it,” said Cahn. While writing about yourself, include how you relate to the brand or company. For example, if you are applying to work for a fitness magazine you might want to include how much you value health.
5. Write conversationally and not academically.
Brands set themselves apart by possessing their own voice and style. You should do the same. While writing your cover letter, you want to embody the language of the company. Writing within the context of the company’s persona will prove that you have a connection with the company. Unless you’re applying for a position in academia, ditch the APA jargon while writing. “Students try to use words that they will never use ever in a conversation of writing unless it was in an academic paper. Employers want to know that you cannot send this exact cover letter to anyone else,” said Cahn.
6. Tailor your experiences and skills.
Reference specific items on your resume to showcase your achievements. Oftentimes creating a list of your skills can be a lot easier than describing them. Don’t be afraid to spell them out. Leave the expert skills such as “Microsoft Proficient” or “CPR certified” on your resume. Your cover letter is the place to describe how strong your communication skills are and your readiness to handle the position. Do not be afraid to take this opportunity to humbly brag about yourself.
7. Ditch the repetition.
One of the biggest mistakes that students make while writing their cover letter includes reiterating obvious facts from their resume. “Most students start off with ‘Hi my name is’ or ‘I am a junior studying such-and-such,’” said Cahn. Remember that your name and your title is already written on your resume as well as the header of your cover letter. Instead, mention the interesting facts about yourself that you could not include on your resume. Starting off with a brief story or a significant moment adds more color to the page.
8. Don’t write too long or too short.
According to the Klein Career Services, the standard length of a cover letter should be no more than 1 page (3-5 paragraphs). Similar to a resume, an employer does not want to spend more than five minutes reading. Keep in mind the other hundreds of cover letters that they are reading. “You want it to be a nice form, short, and easy to read,” said Cahn.
9. Have a consistent style.
According to Cahn, employers look forward to cover letters that use the same heading, font style, size and type of paper as your resume. Your cover letter does not have to be an exact replica of your resume, but it does not hurt to place your brand title, or wordmark, onto your cover letter. These distinctive graphics will be hard to forget while going through a pile of cover letters. Incorporating your brand title highlights your outside accomplishments.
10. End strong.
The closing statement will either make or break your cover letter. Remind the employer how and why you are qualified for the job in one sentence. Tie everything together by giving the location of work samples. Avoid language such as “I hope to hear from you soon.” Instead, include a more assertive closing like, “I’d love to discuss the position in further detail.” This will allow the employer to see how interested you actually are.
Find out what employers really want from your cover letter.
We talked to a finance manager from Wells Fargo about what companies look for—and dread—in cover letters.
College Magazine: What do companies look for in cover letters?
Wells Fargo: The ability to communicate clearly and intelligently. The cover letter is a reflection of the person and what they are going to bring to the job. People think they need to describe their entire life history when it’s really about the social graces. Including “thank you so much for taking the time” or “I look forward to speaking with you” within your cover letter is very important, especially for an applicant who doesn’t have a lot of previous experience.
CM: How long should a cover letter be?
WF: It should cover the middle half of the page. Don’t make it any longer than the middle of the page.
CM: What can applicants do to make their cover letters stand out from others?
WF: Applicants should be professional, earnest and personal. For example, a cover letter should begin with, “I am very excited to work for this company,” and include the position the applicant is applying for and other experience relevant to the job. Be sure to address the employers by their first and last names.
CM: Any other advice?
WF: When you go in for an interview, get the business card of the people you meet. Make sure to send a thank you letter in the mail right after the interview.
*Updated on December 28, 2017 to include “10 Tips to Make Your Cover Letter Close the Deal Before Your Resume” by Unique Ratcliff
*Updated on January 9, 2019 to include an interview with a Wells Fargo finance manager on what to include in your cover letter.