How To Write A Cover Letter

Rachel Schneebaum

Like a resume, your cover letter needs to immediately catch and hold your potential employer’s attention. This means you need to highlight things about yourself that are impressive and unique—and, more importantly, you need to explain how you intend to use these unique, impressive traits and skills to benefit the company you’re applying to.

Depending on your particular situation—especially if you’re changing careers, if you’re a new graduate, if you have a gap in your work history, etc.—you might want to include additional explanatory information in your cover letter (for more information, see our article about possible cover letter components). However, in this article I will describe a step-by-step process that most people in most industries can follow to produce a cover letter that encourages your employer to keep reading and to stay interested in you as an individual.

I’ll go through each paragraph of your cover letter and describe the information you should include. Note that for the sake of time and brevity, each paragraph in your cover letter should be no more than around two or three sentences long: remember, you’re writing a sales pitch, not an essay!

1. First Paragraph

Many job seekers waste their first paragraph. For example, an extremely common first paragraph simply states something like, “My name is [your name] and I am hoping to be considered for [the position you’re applying for].” That’s it! Now, it is important to identify yourself and to identify—as specifically as possible—the position you want. However, notice how this sentence could’ve been written by any applicant if you just change the name. There’s nothing unique or compelling about this sentence at all. Worse, it’s probably the first sentence your employer will read about you! Instead of catching your employer’s attention and making an immediate, positive first impression, you’ve done . . . well, nothing, really.

The structure of a successful cover letter is similar to that of a successful resume in that both should highlight your most important skills and qualifications early and often. This is most important in your first paragraph, because it sets the focus that you’ll return to in the rest of the letter. Because you’re making a first impression, you want to focus on two or three of your most standout qualities, and briefly describe how you intend to use those qualities to benefit the company. Instead of simply stating your name, describe your best professional skills and personality traits. Instead of simply stating that you’re “interested in” a position, explain how you’ll use those skills and personality traits as a benefit to the (specific) company in that (specific) position.

2. Second Paragraph

In your second paragraph, provide more detail about the qualifications you have for this position. Expand on the skills, experience, or personality traits you mentioned in your first paragraph. When describing your skills and experience, there are several things to keep in mind (again, note that these are some of the same tips that make for more successful resumes):

  • First, always be specific. One way to do this is to expand on particular achievements listed in your resume. For example, instead of just stating that you have strong communication skills and an excellent sales record, explain more about the time you singlehandedly doubled company profits one quarter. Using individual examples from your resume instead of generalities serves two important functions: it grounds and connects you to your resume, highlighting and giving more life (and believability) to the particular bullet point(s) you described. It also makes you stand out as an individual: any applicant can say that they have strong communication skills and an excellent sales record, and any applicant can say that they doubled their company’s profits; however, the unique thoughts, ideas, and actions that led to your success are yours alone.
  • Second, focus on achievements and accomplishments rather than duties and responsibilities. When describing your achievements, make sure you use strong action verb phrases rather than passive “duties” talk: that is, don’t use phrases such as, “I was responsible for…” etc.
  • Third, use keywords. When writing your cover letter, use the same words and phrases from the job listing you’re answering—these are most likely to show up in a database search program (which some employers now use to scan cover letters as well as resumes). In fact, you should even try to mimic the overall writing style of that job listing. You might think this is likely to come off as obvious and cheesy; however, using the same kind of wording and phrasing demonstrates to employers that you “get it,” that you’ll be a good fit for the company.

3. Third Paragraph

In your third paragraph, relate your achievements, skills, qualifications, etc., to the particular company you’re applying to work for. Here, it’s important that you’ve done your homework: read the company’s website and get a sense of its mission and its stated (or implied) “corporate culture.” In particular, pay attention to anything noteworthy the company has accomplished recently, any new projects it’s starting, and so on. Take note of this information—again, being as specific as you can—in your cover letter. Try to show that you are a perfect fit for that mission and culture; that you’ll be a huge benefit to some project in particular; or that you’ve been following the company in the news and have been impressed by its success in a particular domain, and that you’re eager to contribute your own talents to increase that success; etc.

This third paragraph shows the employer that you know something about the company, that you haven’t just applied anywhere at random. It also shows that you’re a dedicated enough individual to put some research into your application—the same kind of dedication that, hopefully, you’ll put into your job at that company.

4. Fourth/Last Paragraph

Many cover letter-writing experts agree that your last paragraph should be proactive. Don’t just passively say that you hope to hear from someone at the company soon; instead, ask for an interview. Show that you’re confident in your qualifications and that you intend to pursue follow-up yourself: notify the employer that you plan to call within a specified time to schedule your interview.

(Note that if you do this—if you tell an employer that you will be following up—then you’d better actually follow up!)

Note, also, that some hiring managers are adamant that they hate having applicants call about the status of their application or the possibility of interview. So, if you can, try to get a sense of your employer’s preferences—by asking someone who works at the company, checking whether there’s anything in the job listing or the company website asking applicants not to follow up, etc. If you can’t find that suggests following up is a bad idea, and if follow-up by applicants is common in your industry, the you’re better off being proactive about it (within a reasonable time period!) than not. If you’re already a top candidate, you won’t be denied an interview just because you called to ask about one! On the other hand, asking for an interview might just get your application a second look.

A good cover letter shows off your qualifications in relation to the company and position you’re applying for as quickly and concisely as possible. If you follow the steps above, your cover letter should encourage your employer to keep reading, to look over (or reexamine) your resume, and hopefully even to schedule you an interview.

About The Author

Rachel Schneebaum

Rachel Schneebaum is a PhD candidate in philosophy, with a graduate minor in cognitive science, at the University of Arizona. She graduated from Williams College in 2009 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in both English and Philosophy. Rachel hopes to more effectively help students decide on, prepare for, and eventually succeed at their dream jobs.

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