Cover letters can be a pain. On top of simply being an annoyance to write, there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be read. In fact, there are plenty of online job applications that don’t even leave a space for one to be submitted, with some employers opting to include a series of questions for applicants to answer instead.
But according to Julia Herro, corporate recruiter at Crain Communications, “Being able to sum up your resume in a few paragraphs as well your career goals is key and really helpful.”
So, despite the cons, it might be best to err on the side of caution and submit a cover letter whenever possible. Here’s how to get started:
Take some notes
Many people like to just start writing and make the organization of the content a secondary step. If this works for you, go for it. For me, I get a little overwhelmed and prefer to take some rough notes first. I’ve found this takes the pressure off ensuring every sentence is perfect on the first try. Jot down some quick details about your current job and the experience that makes you qualified for this new position. Add in the specific skills you have or programs you’ve worked with that are mentioned in the job description. If you’re making a career jump, weave a narrative throughout your cover letter. Two years ago I was a journalist looking to break into marketing. Yes, this is a common move, but one that still needed an explanation. I talked about being deadline driven, comfortable with communication and ensuring all facts are correct, which translated to ensuring the needs of the client were met.
Create an outline
Unless you’re applying for job titles that are all over the map, it’s fairly easy to come up with a standard format. I tend to go with my name and basic contact info on top, then a line separating it from the employer’s information, the letter and my signature.
I like to divide my letter into:
- 1 introduction paragraph
- 1-3 body paragraphs
- 1 concluding paragraph
I keep the first and last paragraphs the same across letters but change the company name and job title, then focus on addressing the specifics of the job description in the body paragraphs. In the first paragraph, I mention the job I’m applying for and find a way to compliment the company in a natural way — if it’s a media company that I closely follow, I explain how.
A lot of the skills you’ll promote in the body paragraphs can also remain consistent across letters, but make sure you’re hitting on the main points of the specific job posting — for example, if it’s a marketing job and they’d prefer someone who has basic design skills, share your background and the kind of work you’ve done. Are you an artist who uses Illustrator? Did you design your friend’s bridal shower invitation in InDesign? Boom. The work you’ve done in the past might be very different from what the job calls for, but showing that you understand how specific programs function is important for the employer to know.
While it’s imperative to include your skills and address the specifics of the job description, it’s very likely other candidates will have those very same skills, especially if they’re staying within their industry. What’s unique about you that will allow you to stand out? For me, it was that I gained customer service skills when I earned my cosmetology license in high school, which was my part-time job in high school and college. It seems random, but that fact proved vital when I was breaking into marketing. What makes you stand out that would be beneficial to the position? Depending on the company you’re applying to, a specific company culture might be promoted — if your personality is a bit humorous and fits well with how the company markets itself, find a professional way to weave that in. I was once offered an internship after I wrote a haiku from a prompt that asked me to pitch myself in less than 140 characters. So, get creative when appropriate.
Clean it up
Once you get a first draft done, do some self-editing. Make sure everything flows how you’d like it to and that you concisely addressed all main points in the job description. Then make sure each of your paragraphs has a focus and that you’re not rambling. I don’t recommend extending your cover letter to a second page.
Find an editor
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in a cover letter is forgetting to change the company name or specific job title when it’s mentioned throughout. “Making sure you have the correct company and title is a big deal, as we all know a cover letter is going to be changed for each role you apply to — but forgetting to change those details can be a deal breaker,” Julia said. Find someone who can look for these slight errors, as well as overall readability. If you have friends or family members who work in HR or have a background in writing and editing, see if they’ll give it a read. Someone in HR can let you know if you’ve left out any main points and an editor can clean it up.
What tips do you have for writing a great cover letter?