Tips For Writing An Email Cover Letter

Rachel Schneebaum

Many job listings these days link applicants to a complete online application form where you can fill out some information about yourself, upload your resume and cover letter (and, in some cases, writing or portfolio samples), and that’s it: you’re done! However, this certainly isn’t the case for all job listings: often, job seekers are directed to email a resume and cover letter (and writing samples etc. if applicable) to the company’s hiring manager or other relevant contact. For these kinds of applications, you don’t want to send a blank email with a cover letter and resume attached: instead, your email itself must serve as your cover letter (unless instructed otherwise).

In most ways, email cover letters contain much of the same information in the same format as regular cover letters. (For more information about how to format a regular cover letter, check out our article about steps for writing a basic cover letter.) However, there are several extremely important differences between email cover letters and the more traditional variety. In this article, I’ll describe several tips for writing a successful email cover letter, or for making your standard cover letter email-ready.

1. Think of your subject line as part of your sales pitch.

Never send an email cover letter with an empty subject line! If a company is currently advertising several job openings, hiring managers have no way to tell, just by looking at an inbox full of emails, which of those job openings you’re applying for. Worse, if the hiring manager’s inbox is full of emails from other applicants who did bother to take this important step, it’s possible the hiring manager won’t bother trying to figure out which position you’re applying for—that is, your application might just be dropped from consideration before even being read. Worst of all, some hiring managers set inbox filters so that emails with blank subject lines are sent straight to their Junk folder, guaranteeing that you’ll be dropped from consideration immediately.

However, instead of just using the title of the job you’re applying for as your subject—like almost every other applicant for the job—you can take advantage of the subject line by using it as an opportunity to sell yourself, to stand out from the others. Don’t use a generic subject line that’s probably indistinguishable from anything else in your hiring manager’s inbox, like this:

“Medicare Risk Adjustment position”

Instead, use your subject line to highlight a skill or accomplishment that makes you stand out, like this:

“Experienced, Certified Medical Coder for Medicare Risk Adjustment position.”

2. Don’t waste your first paragraph.

In any cover letter, it’s important that your first paragraph really catches your potential employer’s attention—that is, you should not just state your name and the title of the job you want. This is even more important in an email cover letter, though, since you have so much less space to expand on your skills and qualifications later. Highlight a few of your most important and impressive achievements, and concisely state how you’ll use the skills that led to those achievements to benefit your new company.

3. Keep your email cover letter short.

Again, you want to keep any cover letter as short as possible without omitting crucial information. In an email cover letter, though, this is even more important. You should aim for no more than two to three (short) paragraphs, or around 150 words. The goal is for your cover letter to be no longer than the screen: the hiring manager shouldn’t have to scroll down or up to learn any new information about you. Because this is extremely short, it’s even more important that your writing is as concise as possible. Leave out any unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and filler words; focus only on your most impressive, most important, and most relevant achievements and qualifications.

4. Use keywords early and often.

One way to take advantage of your email letter’s very short space is to pack that space with keywords: mimic the language of the job listing as closely as you can; and use industry-, company-, and position-related terms. If your cover letter is filed into and scanned by a database, using lots of keywords makes it more likely that your application will be returned by a search—more likely, even, than longer letters that might include more explanatory information but fewer keywords.

5. Don’t use “fancy” or “playful” styling.

Just because you’re writing an email doesn’t mean you should abandon professional formatting: don’t change fonts or font colors, don’t use colorful or image-based backgrounds; don’t include an automated signature full of inspirational quotes, graphics, or other unprofessional items.

6. Don’t use common email abbreviations.

As stated by the above tip, just because you’re writing an email doesn’t mean you can abandon the expectations of a professional business letter—for example, make sure you maintain a professional writing style. Always use proper capitalization and punctuation, even if this isn’t how you usually write emails to friends and colleagues. Avoid emoticons, common email shortcuts and abbreviations, and excessive exclamation points or question marks. Always include a standard salutation (e.g., “Dear Ms. Doe”) and closing (e.g., “Sincerely”).

7. Don’t include attachments unless requested to do so.

Attachments mean extra work and extra reading for employers: some hiring managers even set filters to send all emails with attachments directly to their trash or junk mail folders. (Note, though, that this doesn’t apply if the job listing asks you to attach a resume to your email, for example: always follow the job listing’s requests and guidelines first.)

8. Test your letter before sending; avoid the dreaded, “I accidentally hit send before it was finished!”

A good rule of thumb is to write—and proofread!—your cover letter outside your email program before you copy and paste it into an email; alternatively, you can leave the “To” field blank while you’re working on your letter so that you don’t have to worry about accidentally sending it before you meant to. Even when you’re sure that your letter is typo-free and ready to go, send it to a friend or colleague first to triple-check that everything’s perfect. Don’t forget to make sure that any attachments you need are included.

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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