Cover Letter Writing Techniques

It’s practically unheard of nowadays to apply for a job or an internship without submitting a cover letter. Companies are flooded with resumes, and candidates need to stand out in order to avoid unemployment. Students especially have it tough: according to a 2013 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 13% of recent college graduates are unemployed and an additional 44% take jobs they are over-qualified for.

In today’s competitive job market, it is crucial that students come prepared to the job search with dazzling resumes and eye-catching cover letters. To help students master the process, NerdScholar debunked eight resume myths and then asked career experts for the best ways to make a cover letter stand out. Follow their tips to land the interview.

 

[Want more career advice? Check out our Job Search Guide for Gen Y.]

 

BEFORE YOU BEGIN WRITING YOUR COVER LETTER…

 

1. Understand your purpose.

The first step in writing a cover letter is to understand what a cover letter is used for and why you need to write one. Ed Hallenbeck, career consultant at Union Graduate College, says “the purpose [of a cover letter] is to provide an engaging personal introduction, to connect your unique qualifications to the specific qualifications for the position, and to pique the employer’s curiosity enough that they want to look at your resume.” Above all, it should answer one question: Why should this company hire you?

 

2. Create a Venn diagram of ideal skills and attributes.

Meghan Godorov, assistant director for career development at Mount Holyoke College, advises students to take a unique approach to writing a cover letter. “It can be tough,” she says, “to organize your thoughts about why you are applying and what makes you a good fit for each and every cover letter that you are writing.” A Venn diagram, Godorov says, will help you determine which of your skills and attributes align with a specific job or employer. The diagram is comprised of a “you” circle and “job/employer” circle. In order to understand which skills you should highlight in your cover letter, “take a look at the job or internship description and pull out key words and phrases they have listed to describe their ideal candidate for the role,” she says. After you have filled in the “you” circle with your skills and attributes, identify a few that align with the “job/employer” circle. “You can then place those items in the space where the circles overlap. Those themes will serve as the content” for your cover letter.

Hallenbeck also recommends that applicants make a list of the ideal qualifications the company is looking for in a candidate. “Make note of how you meet and/or exceed each one.” He says to identify “stories of accomplishments and achievements that provide evidence of your skills,” and then draw from these as you begin the writing process.

 

3. Research, research, research!

Hallenbeck notes that while “your resume is customized to a career, your cover letter is customized to a position.” Putting time into researching the company and specific position is crucial when writing a cover letter; without it, your cover letter will quickly end up in the “no” pile. Steve Hassinger, career services director at Central Penn College, says that “very few job seekers take the time to research the company prior to writing a cover letter or attending a job interview.” He says that showing you have done your homework as to the company’s needs and values will go a long way in the application process.

Rich Grant, internship coordinator at Colby College, also advises students to learn about the organization by speaking with people who work there. Informational interviews will lend a job seeker further insight into daily life at the company.

 

DURING THE WRITING PROCESS…

 

4. Be specific and show initiative.

The first rule of thumb in writing a cover letter is to address the company formally and outright, Iesha Karasik, career services director at Pine Manor College, says. You should be sure to direct your cover letter to a specific person, too. If a hiring manager or contact liaison is not explicitly stated, “use the Internet or call the company directly to get the contact person’s name and title,” Karasik says. This will not only show the employer your initial interest in the position, but also your seriousness as a candidate.

Karasik says to be clear and concise in asking for an interview. The point of the cover letter, after all, is to persuade the employer that you are the best candidate for the job. Having a clear call to action—in this case, for an interview—followed by your detailed contact information, is key to clinching your spot as a viable candidate.

 

5. Use key words when referencing your qualifications and past experiences.

Once you have researched the company and scanned the job posting for key words, be sure to incorporate these phrases into your cover letter. The best way to do this is to include the key phrases and industry jargon in descriptions of your skills and experiences, Reesa Greenwald, director of the career center at Seton Hall University, says. Godorov adds that proper use of specific career and industry keywords will showcase your knowledge and passion for the field.

 

6. Avoid overselling yourself.

Don’t come off as cocky when listing your experience, Hassinger advises. Though your cover letter should portray you as a skilled candidate, it is more important that you show how the company will benefit from your expertise. One way to do this is to rephrase most of your sentences that begin with “I” so that they reflect the company instead. Framing your cover letter to address the needs of the company, Hassinger says, will show how you are the best candidate for the job without explicitly saying so.

 

7. Address the company’s values.

Employers want to hire someone who will be a good cultural fit and can help the company meet its goals. “It is not enough to look at a position and the qualifications and say you’d be a good fit,” says Godorov. Make sure you convey why and how you would add value—a key factor in the hiring process, she says. “Perhaps make a note of their great leadership program and opportunities for growth and development within that that also attracted you to the company,” apart from the job listing.

Grant says customizing cover letters for every job application is important. “It’s okay to use a previous letter as a starting point, but every letter you send needs to be unique. Write the letter from the audience’s point of view. In doing so, Grant says, “you will be writing about how you will address their needs, not how you will fulfill your own needs.”

 

8. Scrap generic phrases and be original.

VA Hayman Barber, director of experiential education and career services at Johnson & Wales University, advises job applicants to choose their words carefully. Don’t just throw something generic together without getting some guidance from a career center, family, or friends. “Your writing represents you,” she says. “If you take the time to be creative about the words you use, it’s a reflection of your writing and attention to detail.”

Barber says these rules also apply to online profiles that a hiring manager might see. “Spending time updating your LinkedIn profile is just as important as the detail you put into a cover letter and resume. Use social media to your advantage, especially if you are getting some attention with things like blogs, marketing events, or leadership positions.” Barber also says that adding a link on your cover letter to your LinkedIn profile or including a short quote from a previous employer shows extra creativity—the kind that will land you the interview.

 

[Next step? Nail the first-round interview using our expert phone interview tips.]

Meghan Godorov currently serves at the Assistant Director for Career Development and Pre-Law Advisor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. She also owns a career consulting business called MLG Career.

Rich Grant is the Interim Internship Coordinator at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He also serves as President of the Maine College Career Consortium.

Reesa Greenwald is the Career Center Director at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. 

Ed Hallenbeck is a Career Consultant at Union Graduate College in Schenectady, New York.

Steve Hassinger is the Career Services Director at Central Penn College in Summerdale, Pennsylvania.

VA Hayman Barber is the Director of Experiential Education and Career Services at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, Colorado. 

Iesha Karasik is a Career Development Consultant at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.


Job Interview image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Infographic courtesy of Sorority Secrets

Ah, the dreaded cover letter. Every time you sit down to write one, you probably browse cover letter examples online, get overwhelmed, and think something to the effect of: Does anyone really read these? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if I could just let my resume speak for itself?

First off: Yes, we can assure you that cover letters do, in fact, get read. In fact, to some hiring managers, they’re the most important part of your application. And yes, while it would be easier to let your resume speak for itself, if that was the case you’d completely miss the opportunity to tell prospective employers who you are, showcase why they should hire you, and stand out above all the other candidates.

Ready to get started? To make sure your cover letter is in amazing shape (and is as painless as possible to write), we’ve compiled our 31 best cover letter tips of all time into one place.

Read on—then get cover letter writing.

1. Don’t Regurgitate Your Resume

Instead of just repeating yourself (“I was in charge of reviewing invoice disputes”), use your cover letter to describe additional details that you weren’t able to squeeze onto the single page of your resume: “By resolving invoice disputes, I gained a deep analytical knowledge—but more importantly, I learned how to interact calmly and diplomatically with angry customers.” A cover letter gives you the freedom to use full sentences—instead of bullet points—so use them to expand upon your resume points and tell the story of why you’re the perfect fit for the company.

2. Think Not What the Company Can Do for You

A common cover letter mistake? Talking about how great the position would be for you and your resume. Frankly, hiring managers are aware of that—what they really want to know is what you’re going to bring to the position and company. On that note:

3. Clearly Show What You’re Capable Of

Beyond explaining what you’ve done in the past, show hiring managers what you can do in the future. “Determine the key requirements and priorities for this job, and make it instantly clear to the reviewer that you can deliver the goods on these key things,” says Jenny Foss, job search expert and founder of JobJenny.com. “Consider crafting a section within the letter that begins with, ‘Here’s what, specifically, I can deliver in this role.’ And then expound upon your strengths in a few of the priority requirements for that role.”

4. Showcase Your Skills

When you know you have the potential to do the job—but your past experience doesn’t totally sell you as the perfect one for the position—try focusing on your skills, instead. Here’s a template that helps you do just that.

5. …Not Necessarily Your Education

Many new grads make the mistake of over-focusing on their educational backgrounds. At the end of the day, what hiring managers care about most is your work experience (and yes, that can be volunteer or internship experience, too)—and what you can walk through the door and deliver on Day 1.

6. Don’t Apologize for Skills You Don’t Have

When you don’t meet all of the job requirements, it’s common for job seekers to use lines like, “Despite my limited experience with marketing…” or “While I only have work experience doing administrative tasks…” But why apologize? Instead of drawing attention to your weaknesses, try to focus on the skills you do have, says career expert Lily Zhang. “Stay positive, focus on your strengths, and immediately launch into your transferable skills and infectious enthusiasm for the position.”

7. Highlight the Right Experiences

Not sure what skills and experiences you should be featuring? Drop the text of the job description into a word cloud tool like Wordle, and see what stands out. That’s what the hiring manager is looking for most.

8. Tell a Story

What brings you to this company? Did you used to sing along to all of its commercials as a kid? Did the product make some incredible difference in your life? Do you sometimes pull into the parking lot and daydream about what it would feel like to work there? Stories bring your background and experiences to life, so feel free to tell them. (Just, you know, keep them short and to the point.)

9. Use a Few Numbers

When it comes to the job search, numbers often speak louder than words. “Offer stats to illustrate your impact on companies or associations you’ve worked for in the past,” suggests career expert and founder of ProfessionGalMegan Broussard. “Employers love to see numbers—it shows them that you speak their language and that you understand what they’re looking for in an employee: results.”

10. Consider Testimonials

If you have great feedback from old co-workers, bosses, or clients, don’t be afraid to use it! A seamless way to integrate a positive quote from a previous manager or client is to use it as evidence of your passion for your area of expertise. For example, “I have developed a keen interest in data science during my years working various political campaigns (as my past supervisor once said, I love Excel more than anyone she knows).”

11. Cut the Formality

“Don’t be overly formal (‘I wish to convey my interest in filling the open position at your fine establishment’),” writes career expert Mark Slack. “It makes you seem insincere and even robotic, not anything like the friendly, approachable, and awesome-to-work-with person you are.

12. Think Custom, Not Canned

Most companies want to see that you’re truly excited about the position and company, which means creating a custom letter for each position you apply for. “When a recruiter reads, ‘Dear Hiring Manager, I am so excited to apply for the open position at your company, where I hope to utilize my skills to progress in my career,’ he or she immediately recognizes it for what it is—a stock cover letter that you’ve mass-distributed to every place in town,” says Muse career expert Katie Douthwaite. And then probably throws it in the trash.

13. Start With a Template

That said, there’s nothing that says you can’t get a little help. Our easy, downloadable cover letter guide will walk you through, step-by-step, how to create a cover letter that rocks.

14. …Or Some Inspiration

Having trouble getting started? Check out 31 examples of how to start your cover letter in an engaging, attention-grabbing way or these eight examples of awesome cover letters that actually worked.

Give yourself a little (or big) boost by running your application by an expert

Talk to a Cover Letter Coach Today

15. Be Open to Other Formats

If you’re applying to a more traditional company, then the tried-and-true three-to-five-paragraph format probably makes sense. However, if you’re gunning for a more creative or startup job—or need to explain to the hiring manager, say, how your career has taken you from teaching to business development, a different approach could be appropriate. Here at The Muse, we’ve seen cover letters use bullet points, tell stories, or showcase videos to (successfully) get their point across. This professional even turned hers into a BuzzFeed-style list!

16. But Don’t Go Too Far

Like this guy did. Just—don’t.

17. Consider Adding a Headline

One formatting idea from The Undercover Recruiter? Add an eye-catching headline to your letter, like “3 Reasons I’m an Excellent Fit for the Marketing Manager Position.” Again, no one says you have to follow the tried-and-true format, and this can be an easy way to catch the hiring manager’s eye quickly.

18. Be Real

“Honest, genuine writing always goes much, much further than sticking to every dumb rule you’ve ever read in stale, outdated career guides and college textbooks,” explains Foss.

19. ...And Normal

We can’t tell you how many cover letters we’ve seen from people who are “absolutely thrilled for the opportunity” or “very excitedly applying!” Downplay the adverbs a bit, and just write like a normal person.

20. Cut the Fluff

Avoid, at all costs, describing yourself as a “team player” or a “people person,” says Broussard. “Instead, show off your skills with descriptive statements like ‘I’m an expert communicator with experience bringing together diverse departments to develop a cohesive program.’ It’s longer—but it’s also stronger.”

21. Write in the Company’s “Voice”

Cover letters are a great way to show that you understand the environment and culture of the company and industry and prove that you’ve got what they are looking for. So, always keep in mind who will be reading your cover letter, and tailor it to what you know will get them excited. Spending five or 10 minutes reading over the company website before you get started can be a great way to get in the right mindset—you’ll get a sense for the company’s tone, language, and culture, which are all things you’ll want to mirror as you’re writing.

22. Boost Your Confidence Before Writing

Writing guru Alexandra Franzen offers a simple mind trick that will dramatically change the way you write cover letters: Pretend. “Pretend that the person you’re writing to already loves and respects you. Pretend that the person you’re writing to already believes that you’re worthy and valuable. Pretend that the person you’re writing to doesn’t need a big sales pitch,” she explains. Then, write. Your words will come out so much easier. (Here’s more on how to do it.)

23. Have Some Fun With It

News flash: Cover letter writing doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, there are plenty of ways to spice it up! Hoping for a job at a startup? Making your cover letter more creative—whether you use a spunkier tone, play with the format, or make it more visual—will likely improve your chances of getting a call back. Applying for a corporate position? Stick with the traditional format, but make it more conversational, or include a story about how you first came in contact with the company or how much you love it. Much more fun, right? (Here are a few other ways to make cover letter writing suck less.)

24. Don’t Let Your Fear of Bragging Get in the Way

If you tend to have a hard time writing about yourself, here’s a quick trick: Imagine you’re someone else writing a letter about yourself. Think from the perspective of a friend, mentor, or previous employer—someone who would only sing your praises—and then write the letter from her point of view. If it helps, you can even write the letter in third person (i.e. “Erin would be a great fit for this position because…”). Just make sure you’re very careful about going back through and changing it to first person when you’re done!

25. Have Someone Gut Check It

Have a friend take a look at your cover letter, and ask him or her two questions: Does this sell me as the best person for the job? and Does it get you excited? If the answer to either is “no,” or even slight hesitation, go back for another pass.

26. Keep it Short and Sweet

There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general, for resumes and cover letters alike, don’t go over a page. “According to the Orange County Resume Survey, almost 70% of employers either want a half page cover letter (250 words) or ‘the shorter the better,’ approach,” writes Slack.

27. Don’t Start With Your Name

Because, well, the hiring manager can see it already on your resume. Get right to the point with what you can bring to the job.

28. But Do Include the Hiring Manager’s Name

Use the person’s first and last name, including a “Mr.” or “Ms.” (e.g., Mr. Jack Smith). Never use “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear or Sir or Madam”—nothing could be more generic (not to mention archaic). For more on addressing it correctly, read these cover letter rules.

29. Unless You Don’t Know It

OK, sometimes, even after hours of online searching (try these tips), you still might not be able to definitively figure out who exactly the hiring manager for the position you’re applying for is. If you can only find a list of executives and you’re not completely confident who the hiring manager is, use the head of the department for the position you’re applying for. If you really don’t have a name to use, try to still be as specific as possible in your greeting. Consider using “Senior Analyst Hiring Manager” or “Research Manager Search Committee”—something that shows that you’ve written this letter with a particular audience in mind.

30. Edit

We shouldn’t have to tell you to run your cover letter through spell-check, but here’s an even better step: Check out how the wording sounds to others using Hemingway. Drop your text onto the page, and the color-coded app will give your writing a once-over. Is a sentence too wordy, overly complex, or totally unreadable? It’ll be highlighted in red until you revise it. Tend to overuse the passive voice? Every instance of it will show up in green. The site will even recommend when you can use shorter or simpler words (Why take up precious resume space with “utilize” when you can say “use?”).

31. But Care Most About Standing Out

Perhaps the best piece of cover letter wisdom we can offer you comes from Foss: The most memorable cover letters are written by people who care less about the rules and more about standing out to the hiring manager. “Next time you sit down to write a cover letter, vow to not get uptight about all the tiny little ‘rules’ you’ve picked up along the way,” she writes. “Instead, buck convention. Be memorable. Nail the stuff that will make you a true standout.”

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