How do you write a good cover letter? This is a question people have asked me a lot over the years, and one that feels especially relevant right now. Global economic uncertainty means that people are finding themselves unexpectedly having to send out cover letters again for the first time in a while – something that can be a daunting task.
While different countries have different approaches, there are some standard best practices that will make your cover letter stand out as one of the good ones – and believe me, that’s rarer than you might think.
A good cover letter sets you apart from the dozens of other people applying for the same position, and can get you an interview if it’s convincing enough. Here are a few tips on how to write a good cover letter, which I hope will be useful for anyone who needs it.
Note that all cover letter examples used in this post led to eventual job offers – let’s go into why they worked, and the steps you can take to create an equally successful cover letter.
1) Create a cover letter template
It’s not a bad idea to have a cover letter template. In other words, having a standard letter that you change slightly for every job application. This makes it easier and faster than writing a new letter from scratch every time, meaning you can send out more applications. Hunting for jobs is often a numbers game. It’s basically Tinder, but even more soul-crushing. You might well be the perfect candidate for a position, but maybe you applied just one day after they already decided on someone else. That’s life. The more applications you send out, the better your chances are.
If you’re applying for one specific type of job, you can often re-use the same template with minor variations. If you’re at a crossroads in your life and applying for any job that might look good to you, regardless of industry or profession, it might be good to create a couple of templates (for example, one for marketing/sales positions and a separate one for jobs as a yoga teacher in Bali.)
2) Target your letter specifically towards the position
One common mistake that people fall into is taking the above advice too far, and using the same generic template for every application. When a hiring manager is reading a cover letter, it stands out when someone has actively tailored it to the job they’re applying for. It also stands out – in a worse way – when someone has just sent a generic letter that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the job they’re hiring for.
Start with a solid base by creating your template, then customize your letter depending on the role. What words do they use in the job listing? What are they looking for? Start with that, and incorporate these into your letter. If they mention working to deadlines, explain how this is something you’re comfortable with. Do they want sales experience? Now’s the time to bring up your relevant skills and work history.
The best case scenario is that they read your letter, and are persuaded by your alleged passion for their exact job requirements. The worst case? They notice that you took a good amount of time and effort to write your letter, which at least shows a certain amount of commitment to the role.
- Mention the specific job title and company name.
- Share your skills or work experience related to what they’re looking for.
- Re-use key words from the job description.
- Shape the way you present yourself around the position you’re applying for.
- Make the case for why you are the right person for this job.
- Send a generic letter that doesn’t mention the position, company, or specific reasons why you might be interested.
- Be blatantly untruthful (if you don’t have sales experience, just say you’re a charismatic and persuasive person; don’t lie about having 10+ years of sales experience).
- Share irrelevant or excessive information about unrelated skills, experience, or personal beliefs.
- Accidentally reveal your addiction to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (see above).
When you’re writing your cover letter, try to think about it from the perspective of the hiring manager. What are they looking for? An easy way to handle this is to copy and paste the job listing below your cover letter as you’re writing it. This way you can easily use it as a reference, and figure out what key words and phrases of theirs you can use in your application. Just don’t forget to delete it once you’re done.
3) Explain your motives
People like enthusiasm. They like it when people are passionate about things. They especially like that when it comes to hiring someone to do a job for 40 hours a week.
If someone asks you why you want this job, you should have a good answer prepared. This starts with the cover letter.
Pre-emptively answer some of the more dreaded interview questions here (“Tell me about yourself, why do you want this job, what do you bring to the table?”), and it’ll likely save you some pain during the interview – if they liked your letter enough to interview you, just stick to what you said in the letter. Don’t memorize it and repeat it word for word though. That’s going to make it weird.
4) Keep it on one page
Managers who are looking to hire new people usually don’t have a lot of time to spare. Jobs can have dozens, sometimes hundreds, of applicants. Most of these send their CVs and cover letters, leading to a huge stack of paper on someone’s desk or an inbox full of digital applications.
Keeping your cover letter to a single page has several benefits:
- It immediately makes the hiring manager breathe a sigh of relief. Seriously.
- It might actually make them pick your letter up first (they’ll realize yours will take two minutes to read, instead of five).
- It means your words stand out more, and don’t get lost in a wall of text.
- It shows that you’re well-presented, well-prepared, and considerate of their time.
- It demonstrates good communication skills.
- It just looks a lot nicer.
Being concise has its benefits. People have limited attention spans, and busy schedules. It’s called a ‘cover’ letter because it’s meant to serve as the front cover to your application, not as a personal employment manifesto.
5) Make sure it matches your CV
This can be interpreted in several ways. First of all, make sure that the things you say in your cover letter match up with the CV that you’re sending along with it. If you’re discussing your passion for sales and your experience as an account manager, make sure that this is reflected on your CV – and that it doesn’t just list your latest job as a jazz saxophonist.
If the things you say in your cover letter are backed up by your CV, you’re presenting a consistent and unified image. It makes it easy for the hiring manager to understand who you are, what your background is, and why they should think about hiring you for this job.
Secondly, if you want to really stand out, use the same (or a stylistically similar) page design to the one you used in your CV. A visually appealing design can be a good thing, and it’s always impressive to see cover letters and CVs that match each other well. Basically, it makes it seem like you really know what you’re doing. There are plenty of useful designs out there, including some great free ones from Microsoft Office.
Remember that some companies will really appreciate a creative design, while more conservative ones will prefer a standard blank page. Think about the job you’re applying for, and act accordingly.
6) Don’t send anything without proofreading it first
Around a year ago, I was hiring for a new editor to join my current company. Many of the letters seemed decent at first. They were relevant, they mentioned specific skills and work experience, and they were concise. After looking a bit closer, they were also riddled with spelling errors.
If you’re writing about your impeccable eye for detail, make sure you haven’t accidentally spelled ”impeccable” wrong. Or ”eye”. Or ”detail”. It’s really unfortunate to see a good letter ruined by spelling mistakes – while most employers will generally forgive a typo or two, it’s not the best look, and it could mean the difference between you and someone else who took five minutes to check their email before sending it.
Make sure you get the name of the company right (seriously), give your cover letter a quick spell check, and try to polish it a bit before sending it out. There are plenty of good proofreading techniques you can use to double-check your work. Typos happen, nobody’s perfect. But it’d be better if your cover letter was.
What does a successful cover letter look like?
If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s a cover letter that successfully led to an entry-level job in a media-based editorial department.
Let’s go over the reason why this was an effective cover letter by dissecting the different elements it’s comprised of.
A standard greeting.
The introduction is customized for the specific position and company, and indicates a healthy level of enthusiasm.
This cover letter is to support my application for the position of [job] at [company]. I was very excited to see this opportunity come up, and believe it closely matches my skills and interests.
The applicant’s background and motivations are clearly expressed, and directly relate to the position.
I’m an avid film & TV fan with a passion for writing and sharing content in an entertaining and accessible way. Currently, I’m looking for new ways to develop my skills – whether this is through learning more about SEO, discovering what life is like as part of a busy editorial team, or gaining experience in terms of identifying trending topics.
They’re bringing relevant skills to the table, based on the job requirements provided.
My academic background has shaped my love for grammar, persuasive writing, and the adrenaline rush that comes with meeting tight deadlines. Prioritization, determination, and the willingness to always continue learning are all aspects of my personality that I think would be a great fit for this role.
They show a willingness to learn any aspects of the job description that they might not immediately meet, and understand what it is that the employer is looking to achieve.
I’m social media-savvy, willing to learn any skills I need to in order to excel in this position, and ambitious in my goals. Ultimately, I would love to contribute to the growth and success of a high-performing team by providing audiences with quality content that informs, entertains, and inspires them.
There’s no magic bullet that will guarantee your cover letter getting a 100% success rate, but below are three more examples of cover letters that led to interviews (which all led to jobs). These were written by different people, in different styles and tones, but all share certain similarities. Keep in mind the tips mentioned above, and think about why these ended up getting results.
The above cover letter examples have been used with explicit permission from the authors, and any sensitive or identifying information has been redacted.
I hope that this post gave you some ideas on how to write a good cover letter. Please note that if you’re reading this and need a cover letter for a job, you can get in touch with me using the contact form on this website. Job hunting is stressful enough even when you’re fully prepared, and I’ll happily take some time to help you create a personal cover letter template (free of charge).