Just when you think your resume is polished and you're ready to apply for a job, you realize you need a cover letter. Here's how to write one.

If you dread writing cover letters, know you're not the only one. You've put a lot of work into writing your resume, and now you need to sell yourself in a great cover letter.

The task can feel daunting, but it's an important one, so try to approach it one step at a time. Before you know it, you'll have the perfect cover letter to pair with your perfect resume, and you'll be ready to catch the attention of hiring managers.

Let's start with the basics, and then we'll walk you through each section of the cover letter — and even give you an example.

What's a cover letter, and why are they important?

A good cover letter is a brief introductory letter to hiring managers that you attach to your job application along with your resume. A well-written cover letter shouldn't be more than one page, and it's your opportunity to introduce yourself, highlight your most relevant skills and experiences, explain why you're a great fit for the job, and help a potential employer get to know you beyond your resume.

With the formatting, it'll likely end up somewhere between 250 and 400 words — not too long.

You might be wondering if cover letters are required: Will a hiring manager actually read it? If the job application has a place to attach a cover letter, you'll want to write one. 

Even if the job listing says a cover letter is optional, job seekers should still write one. A cover letter shows you're serious about the job and that you're willing to put the work in to get it.

Cover letters are also a great opportunity to elaborate on aspects of your resume, like an employment gap, a budgetary layoff, or an upcoming relocation. You can also use a cover letter to show your personality outside your resume. 

A professional cover letter could also become a tie-breaker. If the job is between you and another candidate, the hiring team may review your cover letter and resume to help make their final decision.

So yes, effective cover letters are important — and if you have the opportunity to submit one with your job application, you should.

Writing a cover letter: A step-by-step guide

Although cover letters are fairly short, they can be quite daunting. That's why it's important to approach your cover letter by sections:

Step 1: Address your cover letter

Your cover letter and resume are a package, so you'll want them to match. Start your proper cover letter with your name (formatted like it is at the top of your resume) along with your contact information.

When you search for generic cover letter templates online, you might find ones where you'll fill in a company's contact information. That was relevant when cover letters were sent via snail mail, but these days, you can just leave it off. A hiring manager doesn't need to see the address of their office building.

Below your contact information, add the date you're applying and address your cover letter to its intended recipient. If the job description doesn't include the name of a hiring manager or team leader, here's how to find this information:

  1. If the job listing has an email address, use it to search for a name on Google or through an online company directory.

  2. If the job listing is on LinkedIn, see if you can track down the original poster.

  3. If the job description mentions who the job reports to, search for that individual or position title in a company directory.

If you still can't find a name to address your cover letter to, avoid phrases like “To whom it may concern,” “Hey,” or “Dear Sir/Madam” — these are hated cover letter cliches. Instead, address it to the department that's hiring (e.g. Dear Editorial Team) or the team manager (e.g. Dear Customer Service Manager).

Step 2: Introduce yourself

You'll want to kick off your great cover letter by introducing yourself. This is the perfect opportunity to explain why you're interested in the role and the company and what you can bring to the team. 

This is also your chance to demonstrate you've done your homework, showing you know something about the company or industry. Additionally, if you found the job through a colleague already at the company or through a mutual connection, this is a great place to drop their name.

If you're confident in your writing skills and are feeling creative, you can swap out the standard introductory paragraph with an anecdote that relates to your work. This should grab the reader's attention and also illustrate the most important — and relevant — skills you possess for the job at hand. 

If you're curious to learn more about this idea, communications expert Danny Rubin explains “storytelling” cover letters with examples. This is definitely a great way to hook the reader into wanting to read your entire cover letter.

Step 3: Highlight your qualifications

After you've introduced yourself, use the second paragraph of your professional cover letter to highlight your relevant skills and qualifications. Instead of simply listing these (you already did that on your resume), use this as an opportunity to illustrate how you are qualified to do this job. Spell out how your professional experience, education, and abilities meet the position's core requirements.

This is arguably the most important section, as it clearly explains to the reader why your application is worth a read. 

Certified professional career coach and TopResume's resident career expert Amanda Augustine suggests identifying three or four core must-have requirements from the job description, listing each in its own bullet within the cover letter and explaining how you meet these requirements.

Don't forget to tie each requirement back to the job itself; you'll want the hiring manager to understand exactly what you can bring to the company.

Step 4: Close with a call-to-action

You're almost done! Now, it's time to wrap up your cover with a specific call to action. 

Rather than merely asking for the hiring manager or recruiter to review your resume, let them know when you will follow up with them about your application. This keeps the ball in your court and gives you a legitimate reason to follow up.

Your closer is also the perfect spot to show your enthusiasm and excitement. Don't go overboard, but don't be afraid to let them know you're excited about this opportunity.

Step 5: Sign off

Once you've thanked a hiring manager for their time and consideration, it's time to sign off.  Think about how the closing salutations you use for your professional emails. Keep it simple with “best regards,” “sincerely,” or “thank you.”

A note on cover letter keywords

As you write your unique cover letter, keep keywords in mind. Just like you added keywords to your resume, you'll want to do the same for your cover letter.

Remember, these aren't just catchy buzzwords. Keywords are the words you see repeated in the job listing. Including these keywords in your cover letter will help ensure it gets seen and prove to the hiring manager you understand the job listing.

Use this cover letter example for guidance

If you're still struggling to get started, check out this free cover letter sample to give you a better idea of how you can structure your cover letter.

Free Cover Letter Sample

Remember: The information should be tailored to the specific role and company and the format of the cover letter, such as the font, should match the look and feel of your resume. 

Final note: Tailoring your cover letter for each job

Now that you've got your successful cover letter, let's reiterate one final point: It's important you tailor your cover letter for each job application

Of course you'll want to update the company name and the title of the position, but take it one step further and call out specific facts about the company, the job requirements, and your most relevant skills. Doing this will woo the hiring manager and show you're serious.

You don't have to write a brand new cover letter for each job, however. Instead, create a cover letter template and make copies of it for each job application you submit. Simply leave blanks for the hiring manager's name, the specifics about the company, and your relevant professional skills, then customize them to each job description.

Once you've created a solid template, you've gotten the hardest part out of the way, and it should make applying to jobs a lot easier.

Nailed your cover letter but still not feeling so hot about your resume? Let an expert help with a resume rewrite.

This article was updated in August 2020. It was originally written by Amanda Augustine.

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