Do you need to write a cover letter to apply for a job? In most cases, the answer is yes. Your cover letter may make the difference between obtaining a job interview or having your resume ignored, so it makes good sense to devote the necessary time and effort to writing effective cover letters.
Here's all the information you need to write a cover letter that will get your application noticed. Review these tips for what to include in a cover letter, how to format it, and examples of many different professionally written cover letters.
What is a Cover Letter?
Before you start writing a cover letter, you should familiarize yourself with the document’s purpose. A cover letter is a document sent with your resume to provide additional information on your skills and experience.
The letter provides detailed information on why you are qualified for the job you are applying for. Don’t simply repeat what’s on your resume -- rather, include specific information on why you’re a strong match for the employer’s job requirements. Think of your cover letter as a sales pitch that will market your credentials and help you get the interview. As such, you want to make sure your cover letter makes the best impression on the person who is reviewing it.
A cover letter typically accompanies each resume you send out. Employers use cover letters as a way to screen applicants for available jobs and to determine which candidates they would like to interview. If an employer requires a cover letter, it will be listed in the job posting. Even if the company doesn’t ask for one, you may want to include one anyway.
It will show that you have put some extra effort into your application.
The Different Types of Cover Letters
There are three general types of cover letters. Choose a type of letter that matches your reason for writing.
When you are applying for a job that has been posted by a company that’s hiring, you will be using the “application letter” style.
What to Include in Your Cover Letter
A cover letter should complement, not duplicate, your resume. Its purpose is to interpret the data-oriented, factual resume and add a personal touch to your application for employment. Find out more about the differences between a resume and a cover letter to make sure you start writing your cover letter with the correct approach.
A cover letter is often your earliest written contact with a potential employer, creating a critical first impression. Something that might seem like a small error, like a typo, can get your application immediately knocked off the list. On the other hand, even if your cover letter is error-free and perfectly written, if it is generic (and makes no reference to the company, or to any specifics in the job description) it is also likely to be rejected by a hiring manager.
Effective cover letters explain the reasons for your interest in the specific organization and identify your most relevant skills or experiences. Determine relevance by carefully reading the job description, evaluating the skills required and matching them to your own skills.
Think of instances where you applied those skills, and how you would be effective in the position available.
Review a list of what to include in a cover letter for a job before you get started.
What to Leave Off Your Cover Letter
There are some things that you don’t need to include in the cover letters you write. The letter is about your qualifications for the job, not about you personally. There is no need to share any personal information about yourself or your family in it. If you don’t have all the qualifications the employer is seeking, don’t mention it. Instead, focus on the credentials you have that are a match. Don’t mention salary unless the company asks for your salary requirements. If you have questions about the job, the salary, the schedule, or the benefits, it’s not appropriate to mention them in the letter.
One thing that’s very important is to not write too much. Keep your letter focused, concise, and a few paragraphs in length. It’s important to convey just enough information to entice the hiring manager to contact you for an interview.
If you write too much, it’s probably not going to be read.
Customize Your Cover Letter
It is very important that your cover letter be tailored to each position you are applying to. This means more than just changing the name of the company in the body of the letter.
Each cover letter you write should be customized to include:
Which job you're applying for (include the job title in your opening paragraph)
How you learned about the job (and a referral if you have one)
Why you are qualified for the job (be specific)
What you have to offer the employer, and why you want to work at this specific company (match your skills to the job description, and read up on the organization’s mission, values and goals to mention in your letter)
Thank you for being considered for the job
Here’s more on how to personalize your cover letter.
Cover Letter Writing Guidelines
Here's an outline of the items that should be included in every cover letter. Before you get started, it can be helpful to review some cover letter samples, just so you have a visual of how everything fits on the page.
These cover letter examples, both written and email, are designed for a variety of different types of job applications and employment inquiries. Do be sure to take the time to personalize your letter, so it’s a strong endorsement of your ability to do the job for which you’re applying.
A cover letter should begin with both your and the employer's contact information (name, address, phone number, email) followed by the date. If this is an email rather than an actual letter, include your contact information at the end of the letter, after your signature.
Your contact information should include:
First and Last Name
City, State Zip
Begin your cover letter salutation with "Dr./Mr./Ms. Last Name." If you are unsure if your contact is male or female, you can write out their full name. If you do not know the employer's name, simply write, "Dear Hiring Manager." This is better than the generic and formal, “To Whom It May Concern.”
Review information on how to choose the right cover letter greeting to select one that works for the job and company you’re applying to.
Begin your introduction by stating what job you are applying for. Explain where you heard about the job, particularly if you heard about it from a contact associated with the company. Briefly mention how your skills and experience match the company and/or position; this will give the employer a preview of the rest of your letter. Your goal in the introduction is to get the reader's attention. To get started, see examples of engaging opening sentences for cover letters.
In a paragraph or two, explain why you are interested in the job and why you make an excellent candidate for the position. Mention specific qualifications listed in the job posting, and explain how you meet those qualifications. Do not simply restate your resume, but provide specific examples that demonstrate your abilities.
Remember, actions speak louder than words, so don’t just “tell” the reader that you are, for example, a great team player with strong communication skills and an excellent attention to detail. Instead, use tangible examples from your work experience to “show” these traits in action. Here’s more information on what to include in the body section of a cover letter.
In the closing section of your cover letter, restate how your skills make you a strong fit for the company and/or position. If you have room (remember, just like your resume, your cover letter should be no longer than one page - here's more information on how long a cover letter should be) you can also discuss why you would like to work at that specific company.
State that you would like the opportunity to interview or discuss employment opportunities. Explain what you will do to follow-up, and when you will do it. Thank the employer for his/her consideration.
Use a complimentary close, and then end your cover letter with your signature, handwritten, followed by your typed name. If this is an email, simply include your typed name, followed by your contact information, after the complimentary close.
Format Your Cover Letter
Your cover letter should be formatted like a professional business letter. The font should match the font you used on your resume, and should be simple and easy to read. Basic fonts like Arial, Calibri, Georgia, Verdana, and Times New Roman work well. A font size of 10 or 12 points is easy to read. Standard margins are 1” on the top, bottom, and left and right sides of the page.
Add a space between the header, salutation, each paragraph, the closing, and your signature. You can reduce the font and margin sizes to keep your document on a single page, but do be sure to leave enough white space for your letter to be easy to read.
Follow these cover letter formatting guidelines to ensure your letters match the professional standards expected by the hiring managers who review applications.
Edit and Proofread Your Cover Letter
Remember to edit and proof your cover letter before sending it. It may sound silly, but make sure you include the correct employer and company names - when you write multiple cover letters at once, it is easy to make a mistake. Printing out and reading the letter aloud is a good way to catch small typos, such as missing words, or sentences that sound odd.
Always double-check the spelling of your contact's name, as well as the company name. Here are more tips for proofreading a cover letter. If possible, enlist a friend or a family member to help proofread your cover letter, as two pairs of eyes are better than one and even professional proofreaders don’t always catch their own mistakes.
Ready to Get Started? Write a Cover Letter in 5 Easy Steps
A well-written cover letter will help get your application noticed and help you secure an interview. Take the time to personalize it so it shows the employer why you're a solid candidate for the job. Here's how to write a cover letter in five simple steps.
Every time you send out a résumé, you’ll need to have a great cover letter to send along with it. It’s a good idea to customize your cover letter for each job you’re applying for. The cover letter is another way of introducing yourself to a potential employer. What it says about you can be the difference between getting in the door and missing your chance.
Before You Write
Each cover letter takes preparation. Here we’ve outlined some things to keep in mind when preparing to write your cover letter:
- Think about yourself and your experiences. Then think about how you would like to relate your experience to the organization you’re writing to. Which of your talents, skills, personality traits and accomplishments should this particular organization know about? Brainstorm a list for yourself.
- How did you hear about this opportunity? If it was through a personal contact, write down the name. If through an advertisement, write down where and when you saw it, and list the specific points the ad wants you to include.
- What do you know about the organization you’re writing to? What attracted you to it in the first place? Maybe it’s personal (a friend worked there), or maybe you are impressed with what the organization does or admire their unique work philosophy. Do some research about the company online or through trade magazines, etc.
- Whom are you writing to? It’s always best to write to a real, live person (with a title) if you can, so if you’re not responding to an ad that includes a specific contact, try to look up the name of someone in particular to write to. Be sure to spell both name and title perfectly. If you cannot find a specific person to write to, try “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Human Resources.” Avoid gender-specific salutations such as “Sir” and “Ma’am.”
The Right Format
Busy people don’t want to read long letters from people they don’t know. The cover letter should be one page long, and in standard business letter format. This means that you may indent your paragraphs or not – but not indenting gives a bit more room. Leave wide margins (minimum 1 inch) and use a clean, simple font like Arial or Times New Roman. Don’t be tempted to use a tiny font just to fit everything on one page; 10- or 12-point type is best. Write clearly and avoid hyphenated words at the end of a line.
Compose the Letter
- Paragraph One: The first paragraph is the most important. Because it will be the first thing your potential employer reads, it has to make a great impression. Start out by telling how you heard about the job – friend, employee, newsletter, advertisement, etc. This is especially important if you’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance. For example, if a friend recommended that you write someone he knows at a company, don’t start with “My friend, John Peterson, told me you have a job opening so I thought I would write.” That will not “wow” anyone. Instead, try something like “I was thrilled when my friend, John Peterson, told me there was an opening for an assistant photographer at your company.” Show a little excitement and passion for the potential employment; then follow this with a few key strengths you have that are pertinent to the position you’re looking to obtain.
- Paragraph Two: Here you should describe your qualifications for the job – skills, talents, accomplishments and personality traits. But don’t go overboard. Only pick the top three talents or characteristics that would make you stand out as a candidate. Your résumé is there to fill in the details. When writing this, think about how you can contribute to this company and why your specific skills, talents and accomplishments would be best for the company.
- Paragraph Three: Describe why you think you’d fit into the company – why it would be a good match. Maybe you like their fast growth, know people who already work there or you’ve always used their products. Companies feel good if the candidate feels some connection to them and has a good understanding of how the company works, even before he or she is hired.
- Paragraph Four: Mention the enclosed résumé, give them a reason to read it in-depth (e.g., For my complete employment history and applicable computer skills, please see the included résumé) and ask for an interview. Suggest a time and a way for you to follow up. Make sure you give the reader ways to easily contact you.
- Proofread carefully. No mistakes are allowed! No misspellings, no incorrect dates, no grammatical errors. None. Even a single mistake indicates carelessness to the employer and may disqualify you before your résumé has been reviewed. If spelling and grammar aren’t your strong points, ask for help. Having a second pair of eyes proofread your résumé and cover letter can help you catch mistakes you may have missed.
- Write individual letters. Personalized communications are always the way to go, so take the time to tailor each letter to the organization and person to whom you’re writing. “Stock” or “generic” letters are easily recognizable to recruiters and send the message that you don’t care enough to personalize them.
- Appearance counts. Invest in nice stationery. Use “Monarch” size paper (7 1/4” x 10 1/2”) if you like, or the standard size (8 1/2” x 11”). Always use a quality printer and send originals, never photocopies or corrected versions.
- Forget photos. Unless you’re an aspiring actor or model, don’t enclose a photo. It gives the screener one more arbitrary reason not to call you for the interview.
- Use simple, clear sentences. Choose every word carefully. Constantly ask yourself, “Is there any way I can say this more clearly?” And, “Am I communicating my ideas to the best of my ability?”
- Keep copies of your résumé and cover letter. You’ll need to have them handy when you follow up later. Always keep a supply of clean, unwrinkled résumés on hand during the process of interviewing for jobs.
Make Your Cover Letter Stand Out
- Be yourself. A “formula” approach is fine, but each letter should reflect your personality and your enthusiasm. Let it shine through. Take pride in who you are and what you’ve done. The reader is looking for a human being, a person who knows what he or she can offer and can express it well.
- Clearer expression. Most people come close to expressing what they really want to say but usually miss the target. Take the time to craft your words and sentences to mean exactly what you intend and you’ll be in great shape. Ask others to review your letter/résumé to ensure that you’re communicating what you want to say.
- Write in the active tense. Active verbs are the key when writing cover letters and résumés. Instead of saying, “...my best attributes include team play and motivating people,” say “I’m a dedicated team player who can motivate people…” The latter promises a go-getter employee – someone who can take action instead of waiting to be led by the hand.
- Writing to a department or title. It’s always best to write to a real person with a real title. The exception to this is when you’re answering an ad and specific contact information is not provided.
- Using “Dear Sir.” Many cover letter readers are women. If you cannot get the name and title of someone to write to, it’s safer to use either a job title or generic title like “Dear Human Resources Manager,” or “Dear Sir/Ma’am.”
- Overusing “I.” It’s okay to refer to yourself, but not in every sentence. Remember to use “you” even more. Show the “you” to whom you are writing that you’re more concerned with meeting his or her needs than meeting your own.
- Exaggerating your experience. Don’t “stretch” anything you say. Be completely truthful while still presenting yourself in the best possible light.
- Forgetting to give the employer a way to contact you. Never forget to include your phone number or email address or both. How will the employer let you know about your upcoming interview if he or she can’t call and tell you about it?
- Forgetting to sign the letter or to attach your résumé.
September 12, 2008
John D. Smith Human Resources Manager Mom's Marmalades, Inc. 123 Main Street New York, NY 10000
Dear Mr. Smith:
I was thrilled when Tom Townsend, a mutual friend, suggested I write to you about opportunities at Mom’s Marmalades. As a self-starter who’s already had some strong experience as an entrepreneur, I’m interested in a marketing internship with your company.
I am hardworking, analytical and like taking initiative. In the past year I have accomplished a lot:
- Received one of only three prizes in school science fair
- Worked weekends two years straight as a telephone call center representative
- Managed a small online bookstore that grossed over $600 in sales in four months
I’ve always believed in the quality of your jams and have enjoyed them since I was seven years old. I would love to be a part of the specialty foods business, especially at Mom’s Marmalades.
Enclosed, please find a copy of my résumé. I will give you a call next week to see if we could set up a time to discuss my becoming a part of your company for the summer. Feel free to call me at (212) 555-5555 or send email to email@example.com.
I look forward to speaking with you soon.Sincerely, (Signature) Joe P. Higgins
Online Cover Letter
With more employers posting jobs online, it’s likely you will be faced with submitting an online cover letter through email. Generally speaking, an online cover letter should always be used whenever responding to a job posting found online or if specifically requested by the employer. While online cover letters are just as important as print cover letters, and follow the same basic rules, they come with some special considerations.
- Online cover letters are shorter. An online cover letter should be two to three paragraphs and under 150 words. The idea is that your cover letter should not be any longer than one screen in length (the employer should be able to read it in full without having to scroll down his or her screen).
- Make the most of an email subject line. Don’t just leave the subject line blank or insert a job number unless that’s what you’re instructed to do. Use the subject line to sell yourself. For example, if you’re applying for a sales position, in your subject line say something like “Experienced Salesperson for Executive Sales position.”
- Use plain styling. While some email allows special formatting, many will not recognize specialized text, bullets, tabs, boldface text or formatted text.
- Email your cover letter to a friend before sending it to your employer. This will give you an opportunity to make sure the formatting and content look okay on the receiving end.
- Use job-specific keywords. As with online résumés, using critical keywords will enhance the likelihood that your cover letter and résumé will get noticed in a future database search.
- Maintain a professional tone. Email is often written more casually. Remember that this is not an email to your friend or family member. Avoid using abbreviations, slang, wild colors, emoticons (happy faces, hearts, etc.), inspirational quotes as part of your signature or any other everyday email techniques.
Online Cover Letter Example
Subject Line: Experienced Entrepreneur for Marketing Internship position
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am writing in response to the job posting on the Mom’s Marmalades website for a marketing internship position in the New York City office. As a self-starter who’s already had some strong experience as an entrepreneur, I can offer Mom’s Marmalades:
- Two years’ entrepreneurial experience, including the opening of an online bookstore
- Computer proficiency, including Microsoft Word, Excel and Photoshop
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills
I’ve always believed in the quality of your jams and have enjoyed them since I was seven years old. I would love to be a part of the specialty foods business, especially at Mom’s Marmalades.
My attached résumé provides additional information on my background and qualifications. I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible to arrange a time for an interview.
Thank you for your consideration.