Cover Letter Basics

Those that are applying to jobs often focus hours of their time on developing a great resume. Your resume is the sales sheet that you use to convince employers that you are someone to consider – someone to call in for an interview. Every detail needs to be perfect, which makes it important to dedicate ample time to perfecting a resume that gets noticed.

But there is more to an application than a resume. It is also recommended that you complete a “cover letter” – three paragraph letter that acts as your first opportunity to explain yourself to the employer. The resume may be the most important part of the application, but a great cover letter may be the difference between receiving a phone call and being left behind.

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Introduction to the Cover Letter

Resumes are great for sending in your details and achievements. But they are also completely without context. They do nothing to introduce you as a person, nor do they give the person reading it an understanding of what to look out for. Your resume is filled with lots of data, but it doesn’t direct the hiring manager into what they should consider the best parts about you.

The role of the cover letter is to add details that help the employer learn more about you as a person and as a candidate. They are there to complement the resume by sharing with the hiring manager why you are a good fit for the job, and add information that may not fit easily into a resume.

What is Included in the Cover Letter?

Like resumes, cover letters have a very specific style. They have been written by and large the same way for years, and have many specific features that need to be highlighted for the hiring manager to read it carefully. It’s best to not over complicate things and think of it like a simple checklist. Cover letters typically follow a very specific format:

  • Your Contact Information
  • The Date
  • The Employer’s Contact Information
  • The Greeting (eg “Dear Mr. Smith,” or “To Whom it May Concern”)
  • Intro Paragraph About the Job You’re Applying For
  • Body Paragraph About Why You’re a Good Fit/Explain Your History
  • Concluding Paragraph About When to Call/Meet for Interview
  • Signature

layout of a cover letter

It is HIGHLY recommended that you follow this specific format when you decide to write your cover. While there are some excellent cover letters that differ from the format above, those that are new to cover letters should try to follow this format exactly, because some hiring managers are strict about their expectations for cover letter submissions.

Those that want to break the rules should be free to do so. You’ll sometimes hear stories in the news of someone writing a cover letter that is unlike anything that anyone has seen before, and received rave reviews from those that received it. But for every 1 person that writes a unique cover letter and succeeds, there are hundreds more that write unique cover letters and fail.

So the question is – how confident are you that you can write a cover letter that breaks all the rules and still gets the job? If you are very confident, that’s wonderful – you should create that unique cover letter. But if not, it is best to stick with standard cover letter format until you have a lot more experience, and once you have that experience and confidence you can break with convention and try something more unique.

Before we begin, it’s a good idea to start with sample cover letters for reference. Let’s take a quick look at at a resume cover letter from out friend – the cookie monster:

cookie monster cover letter

Your cover letter may not look exactly like this, but in general there are going to be many similarities, so familiarizing yourself with cover letter samples is a good way to get used to what your cover letter should be.

Before we get into how to write a cover letter, it is best to get a good understanding of what the cover letter is for so that you know what to keep in mind when you write it.

The Basics of the Cover Letter

The content of the cover letter is typically only three paragraphs, and the first and third paragraph are basically decided for you (the first paragraph is an introduction to the job and why you’re applying, and the third paragraph is a brief summary and a call to action). Most of the information you put in the cover letter will be placed in the second paragraph.

The following is a brief description of what goes inside of the cover letter, and how to write the letter to go with your resume.

The Headers

Cover letters are considered formal letters. Even though most people communicate through email and digital means, there is specific information that is expected in a formal letter that is based on the way traditional letters were created in the past. That information starts with your name and address.

Like a resume, your name should be in big, noticeable letters at the top. This is to make your name memorable, and to make sure that if your cover letter is separated from your resume it is easier for the hiring manager to put them back together. You should also add your email address (a professional email address, not an unprofessional one) and your phone number.

Often this information is centered or right justified, like so:


John Smith

12357 Prime Number Avenue

San Diego, CA 92093

John.Smith@Gmail.com

555-555-5555


If you choose a cover letter template, the space for this information will be there for you, and you simply need to fill it in. Some people also put a link to their LinkedIn profile or professional website, and this can be a good idea, but make sure that you’ve edited them thoroughly before you do so. If you’re not confident about your LinkedIn profile or professional website, don’t add the link.

You’ll then be expected to put the date, followed by the name of the hiring manager you are writing to and their work address. It is likely to be left justified. It may seem a bit silly to put an address for the employer, especially if you are emailing the cover letter, but right now that is considered a standard part of the cover letter format. Your cover letter template will have a space for that as well, but it is likely to look fairly standard:


John Smith

12357 Prime Number Avenue

San Diego, CA 92093

John.Smith@Gmail.com

555-555-5555

10/21/2016

Ms. Jane Johnson (the name of the hiring manger)

TechShop

2468 Evens Street

San Diego, CA 92093


Finally, you start your letter by addressing the hiring manager. In the case of the above example, it would be “Dear Ms. Johnson,”. If you do not know the hiring manager’s name, you can use workarounds like “Dear Recruiter” but it is highly recommended that you try to find the hiring manager’s name. Review our piece of “how to address the cover letter” for more information on how to do this.

The First Paragraph

We mentioned earlier that the first and third paragraph of the cover letter are often decided for you. There are unique ways to write them, but they are meant to be kept short, and they are expected to address some very specific pieces of information:

  • Brief introduction to the job you are applying for.
  • Where you found the position.
  • Self-promotional reason you’re applying with a very brief summary of the reasons to hire.

Everything should be brief – only a few sentences at most. Consider using a plethora of action words.  You have some degree of creativity over the words you used, but all of this information should be related to that list. Here’s an example of a great first paragraph taken partially from our cover letter sample above:

I am interested in the position of Front Desk Clerk for John’s Bake Shop at the Bellevue, Washington location. Since 2012, I have been working as a clerk for a popular Vegan bakery in Seattle, and while I love my job, I have also been a frequent customer to your bake shop, and when I saw the open position I realized I could not pass up the opportunity to become a part of your team.

One thing that you should not do is try to be boring. It’s okay to be engaging, and to make the information a bit more exciting to read. Some people write very boring opening paragraphs, like “I am applying for the job of front desk clerk. I saw your advertisement on Craigslist. I believe my experience, skills, and education make me a great candidate for the role.” These types of brief, boring opening paragraphs can quickly turn off employers, especially for jobs with a lot of applicants.

The Second Paragraph

The second paragraph is perhaps the most important paragraph of the cover letter. The first and third are the ones with the most constraints. All of the information that can help you get the job will essentially be limited to the second paragraph only.

That means you do not have a lot of space to talk about yourself, so if you spend time on any one part of your cover letter it should be the second paragraph.

The second paragraph is where you try to convince the hiring manager to hire you, usually by sharing some of your best features. However, note that it is not supposed to be a place where you simply re-list the information on your resume. They already have your resume. The second paragraph should be focused on what the resume doesn’t cover, for example:

  • The specific reasons that you believe you are a good fit for the role.
  • A description about your work experiences that made you a good fit for the job.
  • Some of the major projects you’ve worked on that would impress the employer.
  • Placing some of the information on your resume into context.
  • Rarely: Addressing possible concerns, such as why you were out of work for an extensive time.

Ideally, it’s your place to highlight what makes you the best candidate. Remember: cover letters are not meant to simply repeat what is on the resume. Rather, the cover letter is simply your opportunity to introduce your skills, experiences, history, or anything else that may help you impress the employer and get the job.

How do you do that?

You put yourself in the mind of the employer, and imagine what few, specific features of your candidacy make you look your absolute best, and causes the hiring manager to want to read further.

The second paragraph is not a place to:

  • Share cliché, like “I’m a hard worker.”
  • Go into detail about minor, unimportant achievements.
  • Be confident and clear about your successes.

Instead, it is a place to put your best successes forward, and describe what makes you an excellent fit for the role. It’s okay to also put some personality characteristics in there was well, but focus on only your most professional statements.

How do you determine what is worth placing in the cover letter? The best way is to first look at the job advertisement and see what type of people they are looking for, and imagine what makes someone a rock star for that position.

Here is an example of a quality second paragraph for the position of “Training Manager” – presumably, a person that is in charge of training and onboarding staff:

Currently, I am a Staff Trainer III at ABC Builders, a large developmental organization that serves 10 counties in California. In my 5 years of training and management experience there, along with 3 additional years working in the building and construction industry, I have gained valuable leadership skills that allow me to work with different levels of staff and successful train teams to work cohesively. My approach is centered on creating an inclusive space for team members to be proactive, welcome feedback, and take accountability for their individual growth potential. I have a large knowledge base that has empowered me to efficiently train staff on a number of different topics, from safety protocols to effective communication styles.

Notice how this type of second paragraph focuses on not only what the person did, but also what they can do. It gives hope and shows a level of understanding that will aid you in attracting hiring managers. Here’s another one for a marketing assistant for a startup company.

I was with COMPANY for the launch of PRODUCT XYZ. At the time, the product was new to market and competing with established brands in the B2B space. We brainstormed an online marketing campaign that integrated some unique content marketing techniques, including:

  • Skyscraping – Link building strategy that involves outreach to backlinks of top SERP pages.
  • Curation Analysis – Using an algorithm that determines word count by SERPs.
  • Authority Pages – Developing long form viral content to emphasize expertise.

Within only six months, we became the leading B2B sales platform in the United States for Small to Medium sized businesses, growing at a 600% rate month to month. That thrill of introducing a new product to market and using innovative strategies for creating an online marketing presence is what attracted me to your company, and why I believe I can be an asset to the role.

Even though it’s considered only one paragraph, it’s okay to break it up with some bullet points of your skills or experience that draw the eye. In the end, you have created a paragraph that shows that you have experience, and gives you personality that is going to attract employers.

The second paragraph is by far your most important, and the one that you should take the most time considering when you apply to the job. Look at cover letter examples, take the time to analyze various techniques, see others in your industry, and really find ways to make yourself the best.

The Third Paragraph

The third paragraph is also decided for you. It is your place to briefly summarize your best qualifications, and then share your availability and a way to reach you for the interview. Like the first paragraph, it’s easy to make this unintentionally boring, and unfortunately it can be hard to make it exciting or interesting, but just see if there is a way to be professional engaging when possible. Here is an example of a final paragraph in cover letters from someone looking into a supervisory sales role:

“Sales has always been a passion of mine, but now it is time to move more towards management and training so that I can help others thrive. I’m available Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a meeting, and I am happy to discuss my qualifications and experience on the phone or via email at any time. Please feel free and reach me at 555-555-5555. I’m excited for the prospect of working together, and thank you again for your consideration.”

Here is another example, this time for a warehouse worker job:

“With over 3 years working comfortably in a warehouse setting, and training in both logistics and best practices in warehouse management, I’m confident that I can be an asset to your team. I’m available during afternoons throughout the week, so please feel free and call me directly at 555-555-5555 if you’d like to arrange a time to meet. I look forward to hearing from you.”

As you can see from the above examples, the end results are not too flashy. Still, don’t be afraid to put in a small amount of personality so that you can make the cover letter a bit more unique and interesting to the reader. Always remember that you want everything you create not only to follow instructions, but also to be better than other people that are also applying for the job.

Once you’re done, you can end with a Sincerely, leave a small space for an imaginary signature (again, another relic from when cover letters were mailed previously), your name typed out, and you’re done:

Sincerely,

John Adams

Other Uses of the Cover Letter

Cover letters can also be used to explain why you are switching careers, why you have any gaps in your resume, or why you were recommended for the company (if someone recommended you). You should always think of the cover letter as a way to speak for you where the resume cannot. Resumes are about data, cover letters are there to help give that data a story in a way that will help you get the job.

Common Questions About Cover Letters

If you have never written a cover letter before, or your previous cover letters have not provided you with the results that you wanted, it’s not uncommon to have questions. Below are several questions that job seekers often have about cover letters, and their answer.

Q: Do I Have to Write a Cover Letter in That Exact Format?

A: There are no rules about cover letters that are set in stone. Some incredible cover letters look very different than the traditional cover letter format. But if you’ve never written a cover letter before, it considered a best practice to stick to this style. Some hiring managers are traditionalists. Others are not. Without inside information on the hiring manager and previous experience writing cover letters, you may want to consider using only the most well known cover letter format.

Q: How Long Should a Cover Letter Be?

A: Cover letters, at least in their typical format, should only be one page, top to bottom.

Q: Should I Copy/Paste My Cover Letter in an Email?

A: As more and more people email their resumes rather than send them via normal postal service, the rules for cover letters have become a bit murkier. Different hiring managers have very different expectations, so there is no clear answer. Nevertheless, what most experts recommend is that you send the cover letter in word document/PDF format, rather than cut and paste it into the email.

However, you should also not leave the email blank. Before they see your cover letter or your resume, they are going to read your email. It is recommended that you write a paragraph or two about why you believe you are a good fit for the role in the email as well, and these paragraphs should not be directly cut from your cover letter.

Q: Can I Reuse the Same Cover Letter for Each Job?

A: That is not recommended. In fact, the cover letter is a great opportunity for you to picture what the employer most wants to hear based on the job advertisement and your own company research, and then determine what would work best to help you get that job.

Final Thoughts on Cover Letters

Cover letters are an important part of the application process, and a great way to make sure your resume speaks for you and your abilities. Take the time to see cover letter samples, review cover letter writing tips, and write a cover letter for the job. The more time you spend, the more likely you will be in a position to get a call back.