No one seems to agree on cover letters. How much time do you need to spend perfecting them? Do hiring managers even read them? Is it better to just send in your resume and call it a day?
Now, I'm not in HR, but I've been approached by applicants who wondered whether their cover letter would actually be read. My answer is one not many of them wanted to hear: "Sometimes." Sometimes it will be read. Other times, you can get away with just sending in your resume -- like when you network your way into applying for a position.
The truth is, you can't really predict on a case-by-case basis -- and you're better safe than sorry. For the most part, having a cover letter will give you an upper hand in ways your resume doesn't. It allows you to show off your writing skills, provide details that you couldn't fit on your resume, demonstrate your passion, and show your willingness to put in as much time and effort as possible.
But if your cover letter is sloppy, you might as well have not applied at all. Grammatical errors could mean your application is thrown in the trash. Using a generic "one-size-fits-all" cover letter -- especially if you forgot to change the name of the company -- will definitely hurt your chances. So if you take the time to write a cover letter, take special care that it reflects you in the best possible light.
Let's take a look at an example.
Sample Cover Letter
Here's an example of a great cover letter. The numbered sections are explained in more detail below.
The level of formality your header has will depend on the company you apply to. If you're applying to a formal business, it's important to use a formal header to open your cover letter, like in the sample above. Put your address, the date, and the company's address. But if you're applying to a company that isn't as formal, you don't need to include yours and the company's addresses. You can still include the date, though.
Using "To Whom It May Concern" is okay, but you may want to take the time to research the name of the recruiter or hiring manager online. If you do your research and aren't confident you found the right name, then you should definitely use the generic greeting -- but if you are sure, then it shows you put in the effort to find their name and it will catch the recruiter's eye.
If you have the recruiter's name, do you greet them by their full name, or by their courtesy title (i.e. Mr., Ms., or Mrs.)? Similar to the header, it depends on the company's level of formality. If you're applying to a corporate business, you may want to consider using "Mr. Snaper" instead of "Jon Snaper." If you're applying to a start-up or a business with a more casual culture, you can use "Jon Snaper," as shown in the example.
3) Paragraph 1: Introduction
Your opening paragraph should, in 1-3 sentences, state why you're excited to apply and what makes you the perfect candidate. Get right to the point, and don't worry about explaining where you found the posting or who you know at the company. This isn't a place to go into detail about why you're a great candidate -- that's for the second paragraph. Here, simply list a few key reasons in one sentence to set up the rest of your letter. Keep in mind that the recruiter may cross-reference your cover letter with your resume, so make sure the two sync up.
4) Paragraph 2: Why You're a Great Fit for the Job
Next, sell yourself and your experience by choosing one or two concrete examples that show why you're a great fit for the position. What did you do at a previous company that gave you relevant experience? Which projects have you worked on that would benefit the new company? How will your prior experience help this company grow? Stay humble in your explanation of credentials while still showing that you would be an asset to the team. Use this paragraph to show you're genuinely excited and interested in the position.
5) Paragraph 3: Why the Company is a Great Fit for You
While it's certainly important you're a good fit for the job, it's also important that the company is a good fit for you. "A cover letter typically describes why you're great for a company -- but how will you benefit from getting hired?" asks Emily MacIntyre, Senior Marketing Recruiter at HubSpot. "We want to know why our company appeals to you, and how it will be a mutually beneficial working relationship."
In the third paragraph, show you're serious about growing and developing your career at this new company. What impresses and excites you about the company? Is there something that you feel strongly about that aligns with the company's goals? For example, the candidate in the sample letter used this space to show his personal commitment to environmental causes aligns with the company's green initiatives.
6) Strong Closing Paragraph
Don't write off the final few sentences of your cover letter -- it's important to finish strong. Be straightforward about your interest and enthusiasm about the new position without coming off too strong. Tell them you're available to talk about the opportunity at any time and include your phone number and email address. At this point, the ball is (rightly) in the recruiter's court to decide how to follow up.
Last but certainly not least, thank them for their time and consideration.
7) Formal Sign-Off
Use a formal sign-off like "Best," "All the best," or "Sincerely," and finish by typing out your full name. You don't need to sign it with a pen.
5 Cover Letter Tips From the Experts
While the sample from the previous section provides a basic framework for writing your cover letter, there are also several tips you can follow to help get your cover letter to stand out from the crowd.
1) Do your research.
In order to craft a truly compelling cover letter, you need to show that you understand what the company does and what their pain points are. And that usually entails doing more than simply reading a job description.
Start by soaking up all the information you can find on the company's website and blog, and then consider drilling down into the LinkedIn and Twitter accounts of executives and employees you could end up working with. That research will help you fine-tune the messaging of your cover letter.
As author and entrepreneur Jodi Glickman told the Harvard Business Review:
Think about the culture of the organization you’re applying to. If it’s a creative agency, like a design shop, you might take more risks but if it’s a more conservative organization, like a bank, you may hold back."
2) Keep it short.
You might have heard that keeping your cover letter to one page is ideal. But according to Forbes tech journalist Seth Porges, you may want to consider keeping it even shorter than a single page.
As Porges once noted (in appropriately concise fashion):
"Less. Is. More. Three paragraphs, tops. Half a page, tops. Skip lengthy exposition and jump right into something juicy."
3) Don't state the obvious.
One trick for helping you keep your cover letter concise: Avoid wasting real estate on information that the hiring manager already knows -- like the position you are applying for.
As Porges wrote for Forbes:
Never ever, ever use the following phrase: 'My name is ___, and I am applying for the position as ____.' They already know this, and you’ll sound inexperienced."
4) Add some personal branding.
Career coach Evelyn Salvador recommends using personal branding elements -- specifically a slogan, a testimonial, and/or a mission statement -- to help make your cover letter more attention-grabbing. As Salvador told Monster.com:
Each of these elements is optional, but it might just be the thing that makes your cover letter stand out from those of other candidates."
Here's a quick run down on what those three elements are, and examples of what they might look like.
- Slogan: A short summary of the value you'd bring to a company/role (e.g., "Using data to solve the problems of tomorrow.")
- Testimonial: An excerpt from a letter of recommendation, thank-you message from a customer, or other short quote that highlights your past performance (e.g., "[Your name] was prompt, professional, and responsive throughout the entire process. I can't wait to work with her again the future!")
- Mission Statement: Similar to a slogan, but focused more on the philosophy behind why you do what you do, and why you want to accomplish what you want to accomplish (e.g., "The key to customer happiness is creating products that people love. My mission is to produce the most lovable products on the planet.")
5) Don't force humor.
The modern cover letter should focus first and foremost on the company it's directed to, career experts say. Gone are the days where you could spend a few paragraphs detailing your own accomplishments. Today, you also need to demonstrate a genuine interest in the company and prove you know how to help it.
"People need to focus their cover letters on the company they're applying to, not on themselves," says Dan Schawbel, author of best-selling book "Promote Yourself" and managing partner of consultancy Millennial Branding. "Show how you can make a difference for that company."
That's easier said than done, especially when you're trying to distinguish yourself among dozens or hundreds of other applicants. Below, career experts weigh in on the new essential guidelines to writing a successful cover letter.
1. Keep your letter short enough for someone to read in 10 seconds.
Three paragraphs is the ideal length, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert and author of "Big Career in the Big City." Use the first paragraph as an intro, the second for the meat, and the third to wrap up. The hiring manager giving a first read to your letter is probably going to spend 10 seconds or less on it, Salemi adds. They want to read something succinct.
2. Hook your reader's interest in the first sentence.
"It is with great interest that I write to apply for the position of..." is a great first line if you want to lose your reader's interest. It's dreadfully boring. Assuming you applied to the job online, the hiring manager already knows what the position is and that you're writing to apply. Instead, try a professional but bold statement that catches the reader's eye. Salemi suggests opening with a pitch, such as: "Looking for a dynamic marketing guru? Look no further. Here I am."
3. Pick two or three skills from the job description and show you have them.
Read the job description carefully and identify the top two or three qualities the company wants in a candidate, Salemi says. Then use your cover letter to demonstrate you have those skills, giving examples of when and how you've used them in the past. Show that you're equipped to make a difference from day one.
4. Use numbers and statistics to back up your claims.
It's good to say you're experienced with social media. But it's much, much better to say you led a successful social media campaign that generated 3.2 million followers and increased revenue by 3%. The goal, Schawbel says, is to present yourself as a proven results-getter and show that you can replicate your past successes at a new company.
4. Don't just rehash your résumé in paragraph form.
The cover letter is designed to showcase your interest in the company and your best attributes for the position. That doesn't mean it needs an itemized list of your every job and achievement. To be sure, if you won an exceptional award or executed a stunning project, then make sure to highlight it in the letter. You should also discuss previous work that relates specifically to skills and experiences the hiring manager is looking for. But as a general rule of thumb, if it doesn't jump off the page, leave it out.
5. Address your cover letter directly to the hiring manager or recruiter.
Nothing says "I don't care about your company" like an opening of "To Whom It May Concern." That may have been OK before the advent of modern technology, but today it generally takes as little as a Google search or a phone call to figure out the name of the hiring manager. Addressing your letter to the correct person (and spelling their name correctly!) will automatically ingratiate you to the reader and show that you've spent some time researching the company and position.
6. Customize your tone for the company culture.
You might be applying to a Fortune 500 company, a startup, or something in the middle. No two companies are alike, not just in mission but also in culture. An important part of tailoring your cover letter to the company is striking the right tone, Schawbel says. If you know the place you're applying to has a casual vibe, then your letter can reflect that with pithy sentences and fun anecdotes that show an easygoing side of your personality. On the other hand, if the company seems to have a formal culture, it's probably best to use traditional phrases like "Dear Mr./Ms." and straightforward prose.
7. Proofread carefully, and consider getting a second pair of eyes.
How you absolutely don't want to be remembered is as the person that submitted the sloppy cover letter. So proof, proof, and proof again, or enlist a friend to look at your document with a fresh set of eyes. A typo, grammar mistake, misspelling, or other error can "leap off the page in a bad way," Salemi says, and is the easiest way to let a hiring manager knock your application straight from their desk to the trash bin. Don't give them the chance.
What are your most pressing workplace challenges or concerns? What questions do you have on how to get ahead in your career today? Email the Business Insider Careers team at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll find the answers.