What Are The Parts Of A Successful Cover Letter

Rachel Schneebaum

Just like a resume, a cover letter should include several important sections. Though it might seem easier or more natural to think about a resume in terms of sections (after all, each section is marked by a headline), thinking about your cover letter in terms of its component sections can help you make sure your cover letter includes all the right information so that you stand out as an ideal job candidate.

In this article, I’ll go through several sections your cover letter should include. Just like the sections of a resume, some of the topics you can (or should) include in each section depend on the kind of job you’re applying for, the method of your application, and whether there’s anything in your resume that needs to be explained or expanded on.

Cover Letter Salutation

Though it might not seem particularly important, the first line of your cover letter can make the difference between getting a job offer and getting your application thrown out before the hiring manager even reads on to your first sentence. So how can you ensure that your salutation makes your reader, well, keep reading? The answer is simple: direct your cover letter to the individual who is reading it. That is, don’t use a general salutation such as “Dear hiring manager” or “To whom it may concern.” If you start your letter off with something general, you’ve demonstrated to your reader that you don’t care enough about this particular application—or this particular job, this particular company, etc.—to do your research. Instead, search the company’s website for the name of the person in charge of hiring. If the description of the job you’re applying for doesn’t include contact information, you can try calling the company to ask who’s in charge of hiring for the job opening you’re interested in. If you can find a name, address your letter directly to that person.

Cover Letter Introduction

In your first paragraph, you must introduce yourself and name the company and job title you’re applying for. This, too, might seem like a fairly straightforward part of the letter. However, there are successful and unsuccessful ways of including this information.

Here’s an example of a bad (and very common!) first paragraph:

“My name is [your name] and I am interested in applying for [position you’re applying for] at [company].”

Yes, this sentence includes the necessary introduction; however, it doesn’t do anything to make you stand out from every other applicant who began their cover letter with an almost identical sentence. Remember: by introducing yourself, you’re trying to sell yourself as a candidate. You don’t need to tell a hiring manager your name: after all, your name is already all over your job application. Instead, think of your introduction as a very brief sales pitch—your cover letter’s version of the “branding statement” at the beginning of your resume. In one or two sentences, describe what makes you special and what you have to offer as an employee. Focus on the skills, achievements, and personality traits that you’re most proud of and that you feel best illustrate your capability and uniqueness. Similarly, you don’t need to tell a hiring manager that you’re “interested in” the position in question: the fact that you’re submitting an application is evidence enough of your interest! Instead, explain what talents and results you intend to bring to that position.

3. Body Of Your Cover Letter

There’s a lot of information you can include in the body of your letter—that is, the next three paragraphs or so—and a lot of it depends on the specifics of your resume and experience. So, let’s start by identifying the kinds of information that you shouldn’t include here:

  • Don’t just repeat everything that’s already listed in your resume. Doing this looks bad to employers for several reasons. First, it seems lazy: if you’re not willing to put in the effort to write a new document (rather than just rehashing your resume), how much effort would you put into the job you’re applying for? Second, it seems like you don’t have much to offer. Your resume doesn’t allow much room for you to include everything that makes you an ideal candidate. So, if you don’t have anything more to add in your cover letter, it looks like all you are as an applicant is what’s on your resume.
  • Don’t describe why you want the job or what you hope to gain from the job. Employers don’t care that this is your dream job for reasons x, y, and z; they care about what you have to offer as an employee. You don’t stand out as a job candidate by explaining that you want the job more than your competitors; you stand out by being more qualified and better suited to the position. In addition, showing your potential employer exactly why and how you can and intend to benefit them is a much stronger demonstration of how much you want the job than telling them how much you want it.

So, the body of your cover letter should continue and expand on the sales pitch you made in your introduction and in your resume. There are several topics you might want to focus on in order to do this most successfully.

If there’s any particular project or accomplishment that you think is most impressive, that best illustrates the skills you have to offer in your new position, or that you’re particularly proud of, your cover letter is a space where you can explain that project or accomplishment in more detail than a bullet point or two on a resume allows. Explain the context in which you completed the project, the special skills your brought to the task, how your results were better than any other employee’s, how those results directly benefited the company by increasing its customer base or yearly profits, etc. Again, you don’t want to just repeat whatever you said about this project on your resume: you want to add to what’s on the resume in a way that makes you look even more impressive and makes that project/accomplishment seem even more relevant to the work you’ll be doing in your new job.

If there are any gaps in your resume—if you have a gap of several years in your “Work History” section, say, or if you lack any of the qualifications listed in the job description—your cover letter can be a space for you to explain these gaps in ways that cast them in a positive light. For example, if you were unable to work for several years due to injury, you can use your cover letter to explain how you remained dedicated to your career during this time: maybe you took online courses on issues related to your field; maybe you taught yourself new skills in order to make yourself an even better employee than you were previously; maybe you wrote and published articles related to issues in your industry; and so on. If you don’t have demonstrated professional experience with a certain programming language required for the job, you can explain how fast you are at teaching yourself new skills, how all your (extensive, demonstrated) coding knowledge was self taught, how you’ve begun a certification course in that programming language, etc.

Whatever your resume gaps might be, make sure you sell them rather than merely try to excuse them. In the first case, you’ve shown not only that your employment gap hasn’t set you behind in the workplace, but also that you remain career-motivated even when unable to work and constantly push yourself to be even better at your job. In the second case, you’ve shown that your dedication and willingness to learn will not only make up for a lack of experience, but also help you contribute to the company in ways beyond the job description.

Here are several important tips to keep in mind while writing the body of your cover letter in order to make it as effective and compelling as possible—you might note that many of them are the same kinds of details that improve resumes:

  • Focus on accomplishments you’ve achieved rather than duties you’ve performed—and don’t worry about being modest! Describe yourself and your achievements in terms of superlatives whenever possible
  • Always be as specific as you possibly can—especially when you can include numerical information
  • Use industry-, company-, and position-specific keywords throughout your cover letter in case of a database search; when possible, use the same words and phrasing found in the job listing
  • Also note that your cover letter is an opportunity for you to show off your writing skills—try to let your individual voice and personality come through in your writing (though not at the expense of professionalism)

Closing Your Cover Letter

Close your cover letter by thanking your reader(s) for their time and their consideration of you for the position. You might also indicate that you hope for, or will plan for, some sort of followup communication—this depends in part on your industry and the particular company involved.

Finally, use a formal phrase to sign off: “Sincerely” always works nicely.

If successful, your cover letter will confirm and elaborate on the skills and qualifications listed in your resume, eliminate any lingering doubts a hiring manager might have harbored about a gap in your resume, and demonstrate your dedication both to your career and to this specific company.

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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