When it comes to applying for a job, you may be advised that your résumé should speak for itself. But that isn’t entirely true. Your résumé doesn’t speak for itself; your cover letter does the speaking for it. Knowing how to write a cover letter that attracts an employer’s attention can make the difference between getting a job interview, and getting your résumé filed, along with many others, in the shredder. Forbes reports that employment for college graduates has seen a steady increase in recent years, with an unemployment rate of only 2.5% as of January 2017. Though it continues to hold basically true that the odds are in your favor for employment as a graduate, you still have your work cut out for you. A great cover letter can do some of that work for you.
Lucky for you, we’ve assembled a collection of proven tips for writing a high-quality cover letter. For whatever job you apply, as a burgeoning young professional fresh out of college (or getting ready to graduate), a gauntlet lies ahead of you. These tips should give you a running start.
Write it to a specific person
Your cover letter isn’t going to a robot; a real person will read it and react to it. If at all possible, find out who will be reading your cover letter and write specifically to this person or persons. This creates a stronger connection between author and reader, which can work in your favor. If you can’t isolate a specific recipient, envision a hypothetical reader with the appropriate job title at your target company and write to them. Who are they, and what do they want?
Keep it clean
Don’t let little mistakes become a dealbreaker. There is no reason that your cover letter shouldn’t be clean; your potential future employer agrees with that sentiment. Don’t just rely on the spelling and grammar check tool on Microsoft Word. Get in there and clean it up manually. After you write a draft, step away from it for a while. Then link up with someone you trust, and read it out loud to them. This practice can reveal all sorts of little errors and inconsistencies. Also, be sure to use proper formatting. These issues can usually be sorted out with a trusted friend and a style guide, but if you are still in college, try going to your school’s writing center. If you are really concerned about it, you can even hire an editor.
Keep it brief
Your cover letter will almost certainly be just one among many. With that in mind, be sure not to tax your reader. Keep your cover letter brief. Many companies provide guidelines for an acceptable cover letter length. If they don’t, you are safe to assume that your cover letter should be roughly a half-page in length, and certainly no longer than a page.
Don’t clone your résumé
The worst cover letters have one big thing in common: they simply repeat what is on the résumé, but in paragraph form. Avoid this. The cover letter is about you and what you can offer the employer; the résumé is about things that apply to you and that have brought you to this point in your career. Don’t confuse the two. While your cover letter may reference information from your résumé, it should go beyond what is listed there. Don’t feel the need to repeat everything. Instead, pick a few key points and go into greater depth about how those qualities and experiences can serve the needs of the company. Moreover, give yourself room here to cover interesting and relevant information that doesn’t belong on the résumé.
The reader shouldn’t have a sense of déjà vu when reading your résumé for the first time. Avoid using clichés. This includes, but is not limited to, team player, go-getter, can-do attitude, passionate, and other fun, over-used phrases. There is always a better word for the job, or a better way to express yourself. Clichés come off as lazy and stiff and can make your cover letter read like just another cliché-filled example amid an endless stack. Instead, express yourself and your thoughts in an original way. This doesn’t have to be elegant prose, but try to be conscious of how you phrase and present ideas and yourself. Don’t be dependent on a cover letter template or cover letter samples you find online. Employers have seen those layouts and wordings a million times before. You want to stick out and be memorable.
Write to the employer’s interests and needs
The employer knows what you want: a job. That’s pretty obvious, and while the cover letter focuses on you and your abilities, it isn’t about what you want, it’s about what the employer wants, and how you can help them get it. Research your target company and try to understand its goals, needs, and mission, then write your cover letter to those interests. How can you help this company achieve its goals and grow? The better you answer that question, the more likely you are to land an interview.
Showcase your talents (and think beyond the degree)
Your résumé has already done the work of identifying your educational and professional history, and while your degree might be very interesting, and you might be proud of graduating summa cum laude, you should use your cover letter to get beyond your degree. Who are you, what defines you, and how does that add up to you being an ideal job candidate? This is also a chance to include info, talents, and experiences that are relevant, but don’t otherwise fit on your résumé. Through your cover letter, showcase what you can do and build a case for why you are the best person for the job. In what do you excel? What makes you uniquely capable? Dig in and build yourself up, even if what you are writing about doesn’t come with a GPA.
Nothing looks worse than self-doubt. Don’t highlight your flaws. Don’t apologize for your perceived shortcomings, or for something that isn’t on your résumé. Be confident in yourself and your abilities.
Keep your style appropriate to the job
Different fields and jobs call for different approaches and styles. As an applicant, you must determine which cover letter format and style of writing will be most appropriate for the job in question. If you’re looking for a job at a law firm, you need to write in a traditionally formal and legal style; if you’re applying for a job as a graphic designer or a newspaper columnist, you need to display your creativity, with bold choices in your style and presentation. Dress for the sport; write for the job.
Revise — and revise again
Not to be confused with proofreading, revision involves substantive changes made to the document that improve its quality and overall effectiveness. Don’t assume that you can just write a draft cover letter, correct for little mistakes, and be done with it. Write the thing. Sleep on it. Have people you trust read it. Listen to their advice. Make changes. Repeat. You might run it by one of your parents or a family member, if they have relevant business or revision experience, or you could try a favorite professor. If you are still in college, take it to your school’s writing center.
Follow the instructions
We can’t stress this enough, but as with your résumé, you need to follow the employer’s instructions for submitting your cover letter. Whether attached to an email, sent by snail mail, handed over in person, or delivered by horseback courier, the recipient has preferred submission methods; make sure to follow those guidelines, otherwise, your submission may get tossed out. (Note to Apple users: Do not submit a Pages doc, because only Mac users can open it. If no specific file type is requested, the best résumé and cover letter format is Adobe PDF, or the universal Rich Text Format.)
Every situation and every cover letter is different, but the above tips on how to write a cover letter apply across the board. Remember, though writing and revising a cover letter may seem tedious, if you don’t take the time and effort to produce a well-written cover letter, you could end up among that unemployed 22.4% of recent college graduates. Your investment in your cover letter is an investment in your future.