How to Write a Cover Letter
We all know that making a good first impression is important, especially when it comes to applying for a job. That’s why you should spend a lot of time and effort making your resume as good as possible, because that’s the first impression a hiring manager will have of you, right? Well, actually, it’s your cover letters that makes the introduction.
It’s important to remember that you’re not advertising yourself to the world. Instead, you’re trying to impress the specific hiring manager for each job application. With that in mind, there are two core principles to adhere to: make it easy to read, but make it attention grabbing.
It sounds contradictory, but it essentially boils down to knowing where in your cover letter you can customize it and where you should keep it simple. This article will help walk you through how you can write effective cover letters by focusing on format, design, and content.
Cover Letter Format and Content
The format of your cover letter establishes its structure. When it comes to impressing the hiring manager, having a neatly organized cover letter can help you stand out in their eyes as much as what you actually write in it. It speaks to your attention to detail and your professionalism. It also helps make it easy to read, which makes their job easier – and showing them that you can make their job easier goes a long way to impressing them. Readability is more important when it comes to the format of your cover letter than standing out, which is why we advise that you keep your cover letter short, simple and concise.
First, the header on your cover letter should match what you use on your resume so that both are formatted with the same structure. The same holds true for whatever font and paper style you use. As far as content, however, avoid repeating any of the same information from your resume verbatim.
Second, you should make sure your cover letter is as concise and easy to read as possible. In total, the word count should be in the 250 to 350 word range, and each paragraph should be no longer than four sentences. This can be difficult at times, as you’ll really need to keep your points short while still hitting all the important information. One tip to help keep it concise is to use a bulleted list – when you list previous achievements or relevant skills, for example, put them into a list with 3 to 5 bullet points.
Here are the various sections you will need to fill in your cover letter:
Ensure the header of your cover letter matches the one from your resume. Follow the header with the date you are submitting your cover letter, and also include the job posting reference number or title. Avoid starting your cover letter with a signature block with the company’s address; this is an outdated practice because we no longer physically mail cover letters to hiring managers.
Addressing the reader
The best method to use is to address it to the hiring manager by name, as you’ll already be showing your dedication and resourcefulness. However, finding out for certain who that is for the job opening in question can be difficult. Here are some tips and tricks you can use to get that name:
- Check the job ad in case it gives explicit instructions that you should follow, such as to whom you should address your application; it might also list the contact e-mail (e.g., [email protected]).
- See if you know someone who works at the same company and ask them if they know who the hiring manager for that job opening is, or if they don’t mind finding out for you.
- Look for a list of the company’s employees on their website or LinkedIn and see if a hiring manager in the department to which you’re applying is mentioned.
- Try calling the company or sending them an email asking to whom your application should be addressed.
Now, assuming you found out what name to use, there are a couple of different ways to address them in your cover letter. Most of the time it’s best to be respectful and address them as Mr. or Ms. However, if the name you found doesn’t have a clear gender and you don’t know for sure (e.g., Alex or Terry), you’ll be better served using their full name.
Unfortunately there will be times when, for whatever reason, you can’t find or use the hiring manager’s name. There are a number of options to use when addressing your cover letter to someone you don’t know. The general consensus is that most hiring managers prefer “Dear Hiring Manager”, followed by “To whom it may concern” and “Dear Sir or Madam”.
The most important part of this section is the opening line, which is where you need to make the best impression to grab the interest of the hiring manager. We recommend that you open up with an anecdote about a highlight in your career that’s relevant to the job you’re applying for. If you can, try and use an anecdote that illustrates the value you can bring to the job and the company.
During my first job as an IT manager I spearheaded the development of [Software ABC] that increased the efficiency of our online production by X% within 8 months. I am very interested in bringing the same knowledge and expertise to the integration of your company’s new [Software Information system] that your job listing says will be the focus for your job opening.
After the opening line, your introductory paragraph should mention the specific job you’re applying for and how you heard about the opening. Did you hear about it from a friend, family member, or someone in your network, or did you find it on a job board or an advertisement? If you heard about it from someone in your network that also works for the same company, that’s definitely something you should play up. Finish off the paragraph by stating why you’re interested in the job and the company, unless you managed to already do so in your opening anecdote.
I’ve been an avid user of your software since I tried to teach myself how to program as a teenager, so I was ecstatic to see on Indeed.com that you have an opening as a software developer.
I am acquainted with Jane Smith, a financial analyst on your staff, and she has urged me to contact you. She has told me of the exciting new project you are developing, and I would love the opportunity to help you reach and outperform your goals.
Doing some research on the job opening and the company will serve you well for this section, so take advantage of anyone in your network – or even with the company itself – to give you vital inside information.
Here you can give a more direct list of your skills and accomplishments, preferably in bullet form to maintain readability. What you include in this list should be what you think is most likely to make you appealing to the hiring manager. You can draw from your resume a bit here, but again be sure you only borrow and introduce, not outright copy.
In the final paragraph you should reinforce a couple of key points, and then establish your initiative. To start this paragraph, state the skills you have that most qualify you for the job, and establish your ‘call to action’. The latter is where you establish your confidence and initiative, and how you do so depends on your level of confidence.
The safe option is to let them know the methods they can use to contact you that you prefer, such as through LinkedIn, email, or a phone call. If you’re feeling more self-assured, you can say that you will make a follow-up phone call or email to set up a job interview by a certain point in time – as long as the job ad does not explicitly tell you not to contact them directly in such a manner. If you do decide to be more assertive, be absolutely sure you do call them within the time frame you gave.
My experience and expertise in computer and information systems, specifically with business intelligence and data warehouse systems, aligns well with this job opportunity. I look forward to you contacting me directly to set up an interview through a phone call or email – whichever is most convenient for you.
My skills as a medical technologist with specialized diagnostic procedures and specimen analysis should be very suitable for your company’s [name of position mentioned in job ad] role. I will make a follow-up phone call with you in the next two weeks to set up an interview.
Finally we come to the closing line, where you should seek to end as strongly as you began. While the general purpose of your closing statement should be to reaffirm your interest in the job and the company, it should be as open, personable and sincere as you can make it. Here, along with your opening statement, is where you can really add a personal touch that can help you stand out in the eyes of the hiring manager.
I love working as a Pharmacy Technician, and after researching your company and the job opening, I have become very excited by the opportunity to work for you.
I have heard nothing but great things about your company and its culture, and I would be honored to join your firm as a chemical engineer.
Cover Letter Design
Your cover letter layout and design involves things like font, spacing, and paper. The absolute principle involved with good cover letter designs is readability, so every decision you make should be with that in mind. You don’t want the hiring manager viewing your cover letter to be annoyed because the font is too small or the paper is too glossy. If anything makes the cover letter even slightly difficult to read, you’ve likely lost their interest. Here are the different areas of design you’ll have to consider:
Font types can be broken up into two categories: serif, and sans serif. Serif fonts like Times New Roman are easier to read on a printed page, whereas sans serif fonts like Arial are easier to read on screens. However, bear in mind that a hiring manager might print yours off before reading it, so the safe option in general is a serif font. For size, stay within the 10 to 12 point range. Don’t even try and play around with colours – stick with black. Whatever style you choose for your cover letter, make sure to use the same on your resume for consistency.
As for font styling, be wary of adding any bold, underlining or italics for added weight. You might be able to get away with using them once or twice, and on no more than three words in a row, to draw notice to something you want to emphasize. Anything more than that looks messy and unprofessional.
For spacing, each section should be single-spaced with a double-space between separate sections. Depending on how much actual text you have on your cover letter you might be able to get away with more than double-spacing between sections. Again, it’s all about balancing the white space on the page with the text so it’s easier to read.
Just like with selecting your font, you might be tempted to use a more decorative and stylish paper to stand out. However, remember the issue of readability – some paper might not hold the ink as well as simpler kinds, especially very glossy or coarse textured paper. For paper colour stick with white or off-white, because you’ll just be playing with fire if you use anything else.
All that’s left to do is to proofread, proofread, proofread. Try focusing on one element each time you read through the whole thing: first, check the spelling; second, check the punctuation; third, check the layout and white space; last, check the grammar and syntax by reading everything out loud to yourself. If you find yourself stumbling over any part of it, chances are you need to edit it until it reads smoothly.
This might all seem like a lot of work, but it will do wonders to your chances of getting to the interview phase of the application process. The more you write cover letters, the more you’ll be able to fine tune the process to suit your style and really stand out to hiring managers. Good luck and happy job hunting!
Brian Stewart is a graduate of George Brown College and the University of Toronto, and is a Career Content Writer at ResumeTarget.com. They are the only resume writing company that offers a professionally written resume, coupled with the guidance of recruiters, to guarantee that your resume will get results.