Let’s face it. Most cover letters get tossed in the trash. Why? Boring and poorly written, most cover letters are trash. The reason being that most people approach the cover letter as an afterthought.
Some job seekers wonder if cover letters are even necessary when they are marked optional in a job application. And when you’re applying for 10+ jobs a week, a resume should cut it, right?
When you write a compelling cover letter, you make yourself irresistible to the hiring manager. Ultimately, the goal of your cover letter is to hook the reader and convince them you are perfect for the job.
Cover Letters are Necessary
When you have the option to send a cover letter and don’t, you signal to the hiring manager that you only do the bare minimum. Although you may think job hunting is just a numbers game, it’s not. Quality always wins over quantity when applying for jobs.
In this article, we will review common mistakes, what to include, and how to hook the hiring manager. If you are interested in a more in-depth look at resume and cover letter writing, please download our free resume writing guide. We also offer downloadable resume and cover letter templates that are easy-to-use and include helpful tips and tricks to get writing.
Now, let’s get into it.
What is a Cover Letter?
In essence, a cover letter is a one-page document that you submit as part of your job application with your resume. Again, if the job application says that the cover letter is optional, it’s not. You must submit one to be in serious consideration for the job.
The purpose of a cover letter is to quickly introduce yourself, your professional background, and give depth to your resume. It should be brief (250 to 400 words long) and only one page. When you have a good cover letter, you position yourself as a strong candidate for an interview. On the other hand, a bad one will waste your time and the HR manager’s – double fail.
What NOT to Do in a Cover Letter
Not following instructions
Some companies will ask you to provide specific information in your cover letter. Here are two examples of what that might sound like:
- In your cover letter, please give us an example of a time you did xyz
- Please submit your cover letter as a PDF
Read the job description for any instructions carefully so that you don’t miss anything.
Using a generic cover letter for every application
Although you may save some time by using your generic cover letter, it probably won’t work. Even if your cover letter gets through ATS, recruiters are trained to pick out applications specifically written for the job. More on ATS below
Not including keywords in your cover letter
If you think there are actual humans reading over hundreds of job applications, you’re wrong. Most companies use Applicant Tracking Systems or ATS to filter out candidates who don’t use important keywords in their applications. And when we say most companies, we mean 99% of Fortune 500 companies. That’s why you need to find keywords in the job description and use them. More on that later.
Talking about salary expectations
This is just plain presumptuous! Therefore, if a hiring manager reads anything about your salary exceptions, they will laugh and toss your cover letter out. Save the money talk for after you get your job offer.
Repeating information from your resume
If you’re just repeating bullet points from your resume, then what is the point of your cover letter? Not only is this lazy writing, but it’s just plain boring!
Not including a strong call-to-action in your closing paragraph
Most importantly, your cover letter is a sales pitch of yourself. And like any good sales pitch, it must end with a call-to-action for the hiring manager. When you write: “I look forward to meeting you,” there is an expectation that the hiring manager should contact you.
Forgetting to proofread before submitting your cover letter
This one is often overlooked when candidates are overeager for the job. After spending some time writing, they assume that it all sounds great without taking the time to proofread. Nothing can hinder job prospects more than sloppy grammar and careless misspellings – even for a qualified candidate.
Now that we’ve gone over what NOT to do in a cover letter, let’s examine formatting and other must haves.
Cover Letter Structure
It’s important that the structure of your cover letter is easy to read. More importantly, it should follow a traditional structure that looks like this from top to bottom:
- A heading section. This includes your name and contact information – email, location, phone, and any pertinent social media profiles like LinkedIn.
- The hiring manager information. This includes the name of the hiring manager or person interviewing you and company address. Take the time to find this information and avoid writing the dreaded ‘To Whom It May Concern.’
- A formal salutation. Dear… should work fine.
- Opening paragraph – Use this section to introduce yourself and the position you seek.
- Body paragraph(s) – This should comprise the bulk of your cover letter. Illustrate your previous roles and accomplishments with specific details. Tie your previous experience to the position you are seeking. Explain why you are the perfect person for the job.
- Closing paragraph – Thank the reader for their time and outline any next steps. We recommend that you write: ‘I look forward to meeting you in an interview.’
- Formal closing salutation – ‘Sincerely’ should work fine.
In fact, HR managers strongly prefer that you stick to this traditional format because they can easily scan it for pertinent information. Therefore, there is no need to reinvent the wheel with cover letter structure.
Use a BIG, BOLD text for Your Name
This tip is a no-brainer for natural born salespeople because your job application is essentially a marketing ad for you. So there is no room for shyness when it comes to using bold text on your name. Here are some helpful tips to making your name memorable in your cover letter:
- Use bold text or possibly a slightly different font
- Make your name at least 3x bigger than the next biggest text
- Try out using different colors in your name if that’s your style
A Word about Fonts
Essentially, you will need to choose a font that is simple and professional. This because you want your words and message to stand out, not your font choice. Here’s list of basic fonts that work well in cover letters:
- Courier New
- Times New Roman
The general rule is to use one font throughout your resume, cover letter, and any other supporting documents to establish consistency throughout your application. However, it may be appropriate to use two slightly different fonts. Because your name is the most important part of your application documents, you can opt to use a slightly different font in the header section to differentiate it from the rest of the document.
For font sizes, you can use 10pt – 12pt in the body of the text. The cover letter should always be a single page, so adjust font sizes accordingly.
And definitely stay away from unprofessional fonts like comic sans.
Less is More, but Give Specifics
Your cover letter should be clear, sharp, relevant, and short. Remember the your cover letter shouldn’t be any more than a page long so don’t ramble and provide unnecessary information.
Instead, tie your past work experience with the challenges that you might face at the company that you are applying to. Draw clear parallels between your skills and experience and the kinds of skills that might benefit your target employer. Most importantly, give specifics to the reader to support your experience. For example, instead of writing: “I grew our customer base,” write ” I grew our customer base by 3x.”
Specificity gives depth to your skills and achievements.
Use Keywords to Beat ATS
ATS keywords are specific words or phrases employers identify as requirements for a job. Usually, these keywords are included in the job description. Therefore, you should find these keywords and integrate them into your cover letter to help you get noticed by employers.
Here is an example of a job description and how to integrate some keywords into a cover letter paragraph.
|Job Description||Sample Cover Letter Paragraph|
|Simply put, as the Unit Support Nurse, you will assist the Charge Nurses, Resident Care Managers, and other nursing staff with daily duties to ensure a smoothly run unit. The Unit Support Nurse is the main point of contact at the Nursing Station to address family, nursing, and doctor’s needs. As a Unit Support Nurse, you will see that the duties you perform make a noticeable difference in the lives of your patients and colleagues.||In my previous position as Unit Support Nurse at XYZ Hospital I assisted fellow nursing staff via our Nursing Station with daily duties like preparing IVs and writing patient notes to make a difference in the lives of patients and colleagues. I also worked with other team members to address family, nursing and doctor needs to ensure smooth daily operations.|
As you can see, we highlighted the important keywords from the job description and integrated them into the cover letter. This tells ATS that you have experience doing the tasks that are laid out in the job description. Being mindful of keywords greatly increases your chances of being called into an interview.
Congratulations, you’ve made it this far in the article! You’ve learned what not to do, cover letter structure, and good writing practices. And you’re probably wondering – but what will make my cover letter irresistible?
So here it is, the secret sauce that will make your cover letter irresistible to hiring managers:
And we don’t mean writing make-believe. Integrating storytelling elements into our cover letter creates engagement and strong emotions. Storytelling also establishes trust with the reader.
In this TedTalk by David JP Phillips, he goes into the neuroscience behind why stories and story telling are so powerful to engage readers.
Storytelling predates writing. Understanding this is essential because it’s important to make the connection that we are hardwired for storytelling. It’s in our blood. In other words, storytelling is foundational to communicate ideas and transfer knowledge.
Phillips posits that good storytelling creates actual neurological changes in the brain. And to demonstrate, he tells three stories that elicit three hormones in the brain:
- Dopamine – Creates focus, motivation, memory – achieved with suspense, storytelling, cliffhangers
- Oxytocin – Creates generosity, trust, bonding – achieved by creating empathy
- Endorphins – Creates relaxation and creativity – achieved through humor and laughter
For the sake of cover letter writing, we will stay clear of humor because it’s tricky to integrate into a job application. Instead, let’s look at the first two elements of story telling.
Philips says that the simple act of storytelling creates focus in the reader and engages memories. And by telling a story that evokes empathy, the reader has feelings of trust and bonding with the storyteller.
Let’s look at a real life cover letter sample that integrates storytelling elements and good cover letter practices.
Exceptional Cover Letter Example
|Dear XYZ Digital Services Team:|
My name is Scott Tooby and I am a product manager with a passion for collaborating with multi-disciplinary teams to make technology that helps people. As a California-native living through worsening fire seasons and as a father to a 19-month-old – born at the start of the pandemic, the urgent need to address climate change has never been more apparent. I want to help your team build products that makes the choice to decarbonize trucking fleets an easy one.
Previously, I was the product manager of ABC Audio Technologies where I delivered 20 successful software products. I gained over three years of experience managing the design and release of their software product line. I also managed the release of ABC’s cloud-based subscription offering, which transitioned the company into a SaaS business for the first time.
The management of ABC’s subscription was my greatest achievements. I managed the development of a cloud platform for our entire product line. I simplified the customer journey and added value to our SaaS platform through qualitative and data-driven insights. I collaborated with engineers, designers, and executives to ensure this new development aligned with company goals and user needs.
Under my management, our team achieved a new level of data-driven insight into our product usage and transitioned the company into a SaaS business. My efforts lead to 10X record breaking profits and broadened our user base.
Based on my experience in software and SaaS product management, and as an environmentally conscious father, I’m confident I can work across teams at XYZ. Together we can deliver transformative new products that bring about a sustainable green future across the commercial transportation industry.
Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to meeting you in person.
Now, let’s examine this paragraph by paragraph.
The Introduction Paragraph
First, Scott gives a clear picture of who he is and his story. First, he writes about who is is professionally – a product manager. But the second part – his identity as a father and Californian concerned about climate change – evokes a human connection. He writes:
As a California-native living through worsening fire seasons and as a father to a 19-month-old – born at the start of the pandemic, the urgent need to address climate change has never been more apparent.
In this single sentence, Scott writes of emotionally charged current events – California wild fires, the Covid-19 pandemic, and climate change. Perhaps the reader is also a parent. And most likely they too are concerned about climate change since they work at a green company. And most definitely, they are living through the Covid-19 pandemic. He presents himself not only as a professional but as a human being with diverse identities and struggles. Thus, he is able to create empathy with his reader creating the space for trust and bonding.
In the final sentence, Scott ties these two identities and presents himself as a strong candidate with both the skills and passion to thrive at this company.
The Body Paragraphs
Scott dedicates his body paragraphs to giving specificity to his previous role and achievements. By adding quantitative evidence of his experience and success, he signals to the reader that he is competent and ambitious:
- delivered 20 successful software products
- gained over three years of experience managing the complete design, development, and release of the company’s entire product line
- lead to 10X record breaking profits and made our products accessible to a broader user base
Furthermore, he outlines his skills, includes keywords, and uses powerful action words:
- managed the release of ABC’s cloud-based subscription offering, which transitioned the company into a SaaS business for the first time.
- simplified the customer journey and added value to our SaaS platform through qualitative and data-driven insights.
- collaborated with engineers, designers, and executives to ensure this new development aligned with company goals and user needs.
By including specific language and important keywords in his body paragraphs, Scott gives depth to his work experience.
The conclusion Paragraph
Based on my experience in software and SaaS product management, and as a father with a drive to avert climate catastrophe for future generations, I’m confident I can work across teams at XYZ. Together we can deliver transformative new products that simplify the lives of users and bring about a sustainable green future across the commercial transportation industry.
In the conclusion paragraph, Scott reiterates his professional experience. However, what makes this conclusion so powerful is the connection with the storytelling element of his identity as a father with a drive to create a better world for future generations.
Also, in a smart move, he writes ‘Together we can deliver…’ cementing a tone of togetherness.
Cover Letter Call to Action
In the final sentence, Scott writes a very simple call-to-action. He thanks the reader for their time and consideration, but most importantly, indicates that he expects to meet the reader in person.
And so you know, after two interviews, Scott was offered the job at this company. And we believe that his exceptional cover letter helped in that process.
Now, let’s review the ways you can make your cover letter irresistible to hiring managers:
- Stay away from these 7 common cover letter errors
- Not following instructions
- Using a generic cover letter
- Not including keywords
- Discussing salary expectations
- Repeating bullet points from your resume
- Not including a call-to-action
- Forgetting to proofread
- Use traditional cover letter structure that includes:
- Your name prominently sized
- Common and professional fonts
- Concise, specific language
- Keywords to beat ATS
- Include storytelling elements to engage your reader
Follow these steps to write your cover letter and you will position yourself as a strong candidate!
Remember: if you are still in the beginning stages of your job hunt, please see our modern resume and cover letter templates that will help you stand out from the crowd of applicants! And to take a deeper dive into resume and cover letter writing and interview tips, please download our free writing guide.
Best of luck in your career!