How to Write a Cover Letter in 5 Simple Steps
Last Updated: May 24, 2022
Learning how to write a cover letter can set you apart from the competition. Research shows that many hiring managers say that including a cover letter is an effective way for job seekers to get noticed in a competitive job market. Another fact? Under half of job seekers include one with their applications.
Many people never study cover letter tips because they don’t understand the purpose and value of cover letters. So, let’s review three common questions job seekers have about cover letters before we get into the specifics of what to write in a cover letter:
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter is a one-page business document that is typically submitted along with a resume or CV as part of the job application process. If you are unsure of how long a cover letter should be, the ideal length of a cover letter is between 250-400 words.
What is the purpose of a cover letter?
Cover letters serve several purposes. First, writing one allows you to introduce yourself to a recruiter or hiring manager. In it, you have the opportunity to summarize your skills and experience as they relate to the position. Also, if you have special circumstances, such as making a career change or gaps on your resume due to a layoff, a cover letter allows you to explain your unique situation to the hiring manager. What goes in a cover letter will change slightly from job to job since you’ll always want to highlight your most relevant skills and experiences for the role at hand.
Can writing a cover letter help my job search?
The short answer is yes. Taking the time to write a cover letter for a job you want can show off your communication skills and distinguish you from similarly qualified candidates. All it takes is a little time to study our tips for cover letters and you’ll know exactly how to write an application letter that will get you noticed.
The structure of a strong cover letter
Now that you understand the value, it’s time to learn cover letter basics. If you get confused about what a cover letter should include, remember that while the content of each letter should be customized for each job you apply for, the sections and basic organization of your resume cover letter should remain the same.
Here is what to include in a cover letter, section by section:
Your header sits at the top of your cover letter. This is where you put your name and contact information, including your telephone number and professional email address.
This is where you say hello to the person reading your cover letter.
In a single paragraph, outline why you are applying to the job. It should be succinct but entice the hiring manager to learn more by mentioning critical skills and experience directly related to the role.
The largest part of a cover letter, this section should be two to three paragraphs long. Use this space to connect critical information from your resume to the requirements outlined in the job posting.
This section summarizes the contents of your letter in a few sentences.
How to write a cover letter for a job in 5 simple steps
Do your research.
To write a great cover letter, a little legwork goes a long way. The best cover letters make it clear that the job seeker has done their homework. When you are learning how to write a cover letter for a job you want, there are three items to research to accomplish this:
Study the job ad.
Reading the job ad several times is critical to understanding the role. Doing so helps you to determine the skills and experience the employer deems most critical so that you can focus the contents of your letter on those needs. A thorough study of the job ad should tell you exactly what to include in a cover letter. Make note of critical keywords, skills, experience and required educational qualifications. These will be addressed later when you write your cover letter.
Research the company culture.
Understanding the vision and values of a company can also help you how to write a cover letter for each job application. Understanding the company culture can help focus your cover letter. For one, a company’s website can often give you clues to the organization’s culture. Casual language can indicate a more relaxed workplace, for example, while a company that uses very straightforward, professional language is likely to be a more conservative environment. Doing research can also help you determine what’s important to the company’s leadership. If a company places a high value on community service on its web page, you could add a line or two about your own volunteer experience to show you share that value.
Read recent news.
It’s also helpful to read recent articles and press releases about the company. You might find information about awards or new clients the company has won. These are often available on a company’s website and may help you glean a kernel of information you can use in your cover letter. Taking the time to do this research can help you learn what to put in a cover letter and stand out from the competition.
Study job-specific cover letter examples.
If you are new to writing a cover letter, seeing industry- and job-specific cover letter examples can help you organize your thoughts. Study them and our selection of resume examples for keywords, top skills and ideas for adding details like data and metrics to your cover letter.
Prepare to personalize the content.
Now that you have done your research and know the skills and experience the employer considers most critical to the role, write notes about your background that address the requirements outlined in the job ad. Remember, not every cover letter should be identical and what should be in a cover letter will vary slightly depending on the needs the employer outlines in the job advertisement.
Specifically, jot down examples from your professional past where you have used the skills to accomplish a goal. For example, if “project management experience” is a requirement, think about a project you have successfully led that requires coordinating multiple departments, skills, or processes to achieve a goal. If you have little to no work experience, consider using examples from school, sports or volunteer work to accomplish this.
Here are four other ways to consider personalizing your cover letter:
Find the name of the hiring manager.
Your cover letter’s opening line – and the first thing a hiring manager will see – is your greeting. Look at the job posting to see if the name of the recruiter is listed. If a name is listed, this is who to address the cover letter to. But, who do you address a cover letter to if the hiring manager’s name is not listed in the job ad? The best way to address a cover letter without a name is to do some research on LinkedIn and the company website to identify the right person. Whenever possible, avoid the generic “To whom it may concern” greeting.
Read the job ad for specific instructions.
Before you start your cover letter, study the job ad for any specific information your cover letter requires, such as salary expectations or other specifics, such as that your letter is submitted in a certain file format. Not including these stated pieces of information can disqualify you from consideration.
Connect the dots.
A recruiter wants to know at a glance that you have the skills and experience required to perform the role. Make a list of ways your qualifications and skills match the job requirements to show you are the right person for the job.
If you are coming to a job through a referral for the role or another personal connection to the company, you’ll want to mention that in your cover letter. Often, doing so will make a recruiter pay attention to your application.
Choose a cover letter template.
How to write the sections of your cover letter.
You’ve done the work; now, let’s put it all together by writing the five sections of your cover letter. Again, a cover letter should be no more than one page long or somewhere between 250-400 words.
As you write, one important thing to keep in mind: A cover letter should outline what you can offer the employer, not what it can do for you. In other words, don’t use your cover letter to discuss your career goals.
Read on for more writing tips and example text. Study it to learn how to write a good cover letter.
- Always use a professional email address. Silly or provocative email addresses can leave a bad impression.
- Research shows that recruiters tend to be biased against candidates who use very old-school email providers, such as AOL or Hotmail. If you use one of these providers, sign up for a Google email address to use in the job search.
- If you have a LinkedIn profile or an online portfolio, add it here. Research shows that 21% of recruiters like having those links in the header of a resume.
This is where you greet the person who will be reading your cover letter. Use their name whenever possible.
- When the hiring manager’s name isn’t listed, check the job ad to see if it mentions who you would be reporting to in the role. If it’s the Director of Marketing, for example, a quick Google search will likely help you find the name of the right person.
- If all else fails, search LinkedIn for the name of the company’s recruiter and address your letter to that person.
- If your search turns up nothing, “Dear hiring manager” is always a better option than “To whom it may concern.”
A common mistake that job seekers make in this section is using a dull opening, such as, “My name is Janet, and I am applying for the receptionist role advertised online.”
Recruiters are reading many cover letters for the same role. To get noticed, you’ll need to include information that will entice the recruiter to continue reading. Here is a better opening paragraph for this applicant’s cover letter:
“My name is Janet, and I was intrigued by your job ad for a receptionist at Valley Veterinary Hospital. As a long-time volunteer at my local ASPCA, I would jump at the chance to put my skills to use at a facility that cares for cats, dogs and their families.”
- Be sure to mention the name of the role you are applying for and introduce yourself.
- Use this space to entice a recruiter to read more by mentioning why you are interested in the role.
- Keep this section concise. It should be no more than one paragraph.
Use this space, which should be two or three short paragraphs at most, to expand on your experience and qualifications by expanding on — not repeating — information from your resume. The main goal of your cover letter body paragraphs should be to paint you as the right person for the position.
- This section should be no longer than two or three short paragraphs.
- Use this section to get into the nitty-gritty; provide the hiring manager with specifics about how your experience, skills and education connect to the role’s requirements.
- Stay on message by only including information directly related to the job to which you are applying.
Savvy job seekers know that a cover letter’s closing paragraph is just as important as the rest of the letter. After all, this section contains the last words a hiring manager might read before deciding whether to offer you a job interview. Make it count!
Instead of writing something like, “Thank you for reviewing my resume,” use this section to summarize why you are the best candidate for the position. Here is one example of a strong closing paragraph:
“Thank you for taking the time to review my credentials. I genuinely believe that my five years of experience in human resources would make me a valuable asset to your team. I’m particularly excited about the chance to learn more about your diversity and inclusion programs and how I can contribute to that effort using my special training.”
- Express your enthusiasm. Hiring managers want to talk to applicants who seem genuinely excited about the role.
- Succinctly summarize your value. Bring your most relevant and most impressive credentials to this section of the cover letter.
- Show gratitude for their time. Hiring managers often read dozens of applications for a single role. If they have made it to the end of your letter, it deserves a thank you.
Proofread and send to a friend.
Simple mistakes can ruin all of your hard work. As the last step, always use a grammar and spell-check tool before sending out your cover letter. Then, read it from top to bottom out loud to make sure everything makes sense. Send your letter to a trusted friend for a second look with a fresh set of eyes as an extra safeguard.
How to write a cover letter for different scenarios
Seeking first job
It can be tricky to write a cover letter when you are new to the workforce and have little to no work experience. However, writing one is especially important for this type of job seeker. When your resume is limited, a cover letter can help you fill in the gaps by pointing out the skills, education and training you possess that will make you a great fit for the role. Study our example above to learn how to make a cover letter for your first job.
College graduate with some work experience
If you are a college graduate with some work or internship experience, a cover letter is a valuable tool in the job search. It will help you draw a direct connection between your experience and education and the role requirement to make it easy for a hiring manager to see why you deserve an interview. Study our example above to learn how to write this type of cover letter.
If you have an employment gap on your resume, a hiring manager will likely wonder what happened. In this case, a cover letter can be an excellent tool for explaining your situation. In the body of your cover letter, briefly mention why you stepped away from the workforce, such as a layoff or raising children. Keep it brief; the purpose of the cover letter is to focus on your credentials and what you’ll bring to the table. Read our cover letter example above to learn more about writing a cover letter when you have employment gaps on your resume.
When you are making a career change, your cover letter offers you the space to explain your experience and your goals. Remember, the letter should focus on what you’ll offer the employer, so keep your explanation about why you are making the change brief. Focus the bulk of your cover letter on highlighting your transferable skills and relevant work experience. Study our career change cover letter example to learn how.
Seeking a promotion or transfer within the same company
A cover letter is critical even when you are seeking a promotion or transfer with your current employer. The focus of this type of cover letter is to highlight your transferable skills and experience. Also, mention your accomplishments within the company to remind hiring managers of your value. Read our cover letter example above to learn how to write this type of letter.
Sometimes what it takes to get a job is a little help from your network. Learning how to write a compelling cover letter to those in your social and professional networks who might be able to help is a great skill that can help you get your foot in the door. Study our networking cover letter examples above to learn how to craft this type of document.
If you’ve had your eye on a company you’d like to work for but don’t see any appropriate job openings, that shouldn’t stop you from reaching out. Writing a cover letter that succinctly summarizes your credentials and what you have to offer can sometimes crack open a closed door. Read our cold call cover letter examples above to see how to execute this type of letter.
Job not yet posted
Have a lead on a great role that will open in the future? There’s no need to wait for it to post to the job board. Writing a strong cover letter that outlines your qualifications could help you get noticed before the masses get the memo. Study our cover letter example above to learn more about how to write this type of correspondence.
Cover letter writing do’s and don’ts
DO study the job ad. This will allow you to focus the content of your letter on the skills and experience that matter most to the employer.
DON’T use tired language. Recruiters receive many cover letters every day, which means they read the same overused words and phrases repeatedly. Avoid cliches like “fast learner” or “team player.” Instead of relying on these overused platitudes, paint a picture by giving potential employers examples from your past that demonstrate your achievements.
DO add data and metrics. To pack a punch in your cover letter, add numbers to show employers the impact your work has had on past employers. Using metrics is key to learning how to write a resume that will get you noticed. This technique should be carried over to your cover letter to help draw attention to your most noteworthy professional accomplishments.
DON’T add personal information. Including details like your age, marital status, religion or political beliefs can invite unconscious bias into the hiring process and is never recommended.
DO focus on the employer’s needs. The content of your cover letter should focus on your skills and experience and what you can do to add value to the company. Adding information about your professional goals could give the employer the impression that the role you are applying for is merely a stepping stone.
DON’T lie or embellish. Everything in your cover letter should match your resume and be 100% true. Untruths or exaggerations will almost always be discovered during a background check, so keep your information honest.
DO use a positive tone. Keep the tone of your letter professional and upbeat, especially when writing about a current or past employer. However, don’t make jokes. What is funny to you could be off-putting to a recruiter.
DON’T discuss salary. Unless you have been asked specifically to state your desired salary, don’t mention money. Some states have made it illegal for recruiters and hiring managers to ask about salary history, so never include information about your current salary.
More about how to write a cover letter
Cover letter FAQ
How do you write a cover letter with no experience?
While cover letters are usually used to highlight the work experience listed on your resume, you can successfully write a cover letter even if you have no work experience. If you are a recent graduate or new to the workforce, focus your cover letter on the soft skills and transferable skills you have developed in other areas, such as summer jobs, sports or volunteer work. Soft skills, in particular, are valuable to employers because they are difficult to teach. Highlight strong communication skills, collaboration with others, and strong leadership skills to impress employers. If you have relevant hard or technical skills, be sure to highlight those skills, even if you didn’t acquire them through work experience.
Do you need to include an address on a cover letter you submit online?
When learning how to make a cover letter for a resume, many applicants wonder if they need to provide a physical address in the cover letter heading. The short answer is no. Modern cover letters allow candidates to skip the addition of a snail mail address in the header of their cover letters since most communication will happen via email and telephone. However, if you are looking to relocate and currently live a significant distance from the job, add your city and state to the top of your cover letter and mention your desire to relocate to alert the hiring manager.
What are employers looking for in a cover letter?
Employers are looking for a cover letter that draws a direct line between your experience and skills and the requirements of the role. Use the real estate on your cover letter to elaborate on key points from your resume and use data and metrics whenever possible to show an employer what you’ll bring to the table if you are hired.