Let’s be honest: almost no one likes writing cover letters. As a result, most cover letters are boring, generic, and poorly done. There’s a lot to get right when learning how to write a cover letter, and when you do get it right, you greatly improve your chances of standing out in a pool of applicants, and hopefully, snagging an interview. Read on and learn how to write a cover letter that transforms your job search.
Cover Letter Basics
A cover letter has a single goal: to pique the interest of a recruiter or hiring manager, and make them want to continue on with the reading of your attached resume. Learning how to write a cover letter means you get a chance to tell your story—about where you’ve been, where you hope to go, and what you’ve done in other positions that will allow you to flourish in the role you’re applying for.
Even though your cover letter will contain information that’s on your resume, it should not be a reiteration of your resume. While it should focus on relevant accomplishments, use the cover letter to showcase your personality and the skills that specifically apply to the position. A cover letter should be much shorter than a resume, and have a conversational (yet professional) tone.
Your cover letter also has another purpose: to show that you can fit in with the company culture. Your industry—and your research of the targeted company’s culture—will dictate how far you can go with taking creative chances with a cover letter (for example, colored fonts). In creative fields, you can take a few more risks, but in conservative fields (think finance), you need to keep it straight and simple. Classic cover letter fonts to consider using include Times New Roman, Arial, and Cambria. You need to make your cover letter easily readable; using a font like Bauhaus 93 won’t accomplish that goal! Let’s look at the basics to keep in mind when learning how to write a cover letter.
Common Cover Letter Mistakes
Bad email subject line
David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising,” famously said:
On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
This is just as true if you replace “headline” with “cover letter email subject line.” If you are sending a cover letter via email, the cover letter can’t achieve its goal if the recipient doesn’t even open it!
I once surveyed dozens of recruiters for the most effective email subject lines—the ones that convinced them to quickly open the cover letter email, and there were two trends: either a direct mention of a resume for an intended position, or a clever, curiosity-building line that hooked the reader in.
Over-reliance on a standard cover letter
Most people have a standard cover letter that they use for each position they apply to. Unfortunately, employers and recruiters can spot generic letters from a mile away. This is one of the many reasons why you must school yourself in how to write a cover letter! A generic, one-size-fits-all cover letter is one of the surest ways for your application to end up in a wastebasket.
While it’s okay to have a cover letter template to start with, you must personalize/customize each cover letter to the job you’re applying to. For example, do whatever it takes to avoid using the opening salutation “To whom it may concern” by instead researching (via LinkedIn) the hiring manager’s name, or the department head’s name.
A boring read
Sadly, most cover letters are boring. You want to get the hiring manager’s attention, not put him or her to sleep! You don’t need to tell jokes or print it on neon paper, but do make sure that it is readable, and relates to real information that they care about—in particular, what you can bring to the role, and what you can do to do to help the company succeed. If the job description asks a question—like what’s your proudest career accomplishment—answer it. Show that you read the job description, and show that you put real thought into your cover letter.
How to Transform Your Job Search with Your Letter
Use the Job Description as a Guide
Luckily, almost every job comes with a guide regarding what to cover in the cover letter: the job description. Read it carefully, and then write a cover letter that is a direct response to the description, addressing the key requirements listed. Focus on the requirements that you can tie directly to past or present job experiences.
Talk about Why You Chose the Company
If there is a specific reason you want to work for this company or organization, make note of that in your cover letter, especially if it is particularly compelling or original. Just don’t go overboard: your application should ultimately focus on how the employer will benefit from you, not how you will benefit from your employer.
Talk about Your Relevant Skills
This has been touched on already, but one of the most important things you must do when learning how to write a cover letter is write about the skills you have in your arsenal, how they tie to the job, and how they will help you succeed in the job. Since you can’t just reiterate what’s in your resume, go deep on one or more of your skills, and write about how you became a better employee—how you learned something new about yourself and what you’re capable of, and how that helped you grow. Tell a compelling, interesting, relevant story, and you’re bound to make the cover letter reader sit up and take notice.
How Long Should a Cover Letter Be?
Cover letter length is something that many novices get wrong when learning how to write a cover letter. Experts agree you should try to keep your cover letter to around 3-4 paragraphs, tops. Recruiters and hiring managers have many, many cover letters to read—most on an almost-daily basis—and do not have time to read novel-length cover letters. Keep your cover letter succinct and to-the-point so that it can quickly communicate that you’re right for the job.
Try to think of your cover letter as being an asset to your application rather than a silly requirement. Learning how to write a cover letter can transform your job search by getting you noticed. LiveCareer has several tools to help you get on the right path. Get some inspiration by taking a look at the cover letter examples from a wide variety of fields. Then, try the cover letter builder to create a cover letter that could transform your job search! LiveCareer also has a terrific article dedicated entirely to how to write the first paragraph of your cover letter. Check it out!