12 things you need to know before writing your next cover letter

Writing a cover letter is often the most dreaded part of compiling a job application. Not only do you need to individualize them for each job you apply to, you also have to get the tone right, highlight yourself as a great candidate, emphasize your best qualities, and show why you’d be a great coworker, all while keeping it brief and to the point. It’s a lot to ask from a one-page document! Here are 12 things you should keep in mind before tackling your next cover letter.

tips to write your next cover letter

1. start fresh every time

We know writing a brand new cover letter for every job sounds like a lot of work. And truthfully, it will be. However, it’s also the best way to be a standout. If you use a single generic cover letter for every job application, you’re attempting to appeal to a broad audience. That usually comes off as boring and personality-free. It also neglects to show your connection and interest in the specific job you’ve applied to.

2. use a personalized greeting

Do not, we repeat, do not use a generic greeting like ‘dear sir/madam’ or ‘to whom it may concern.’ These greetings sound about as ancient as an Egyptian mummy. They’re extremely formal, boring and worst of all show a total lack of regard for who you’re writing to. Many job sites, like LinkedIn, share the recruiter’s name in job listings. If a name isn’t listed, a quick search will most likely reveal a name of a recruiter or departmental manager you can reach out to at the company. Use their name. If you want to err on the side of caution, go with a professional Mr. or Ms. salutation. If you think a casual greeting is more fitting given the company culture, go straight for their first name. Use your best judgment. 

3. make your opening line count

Like it or not, first impressions count.  And that’s true for your cover letter, too. The first line should be powerful and get right to the point. It needs to be a hook that makes the recruiter or hiring manager want to read more and learn about you. Too many people make the mistake of wasting this precious first line on generic information like how they found the job listing. The truth is a recruiter probably doesn’t care how you found the job; they want to know who you are and what value to can bring to them and their company.

4. dig deeper than your resume

Your cover letter should not just rehash the same information that can be found in your resume. There’s no need to rattle off a list of your previous employers or explain where you got your degree. If the recruiter wants to know that information, they’ll refer to your resume. Your cover letter is a chance to show a little more personality and fill in some details about your experience. Tell a story, share how the company has inspired you, or why you think you’d fit into the organization. These are infinitely more memorable than a dull repetition of your resume.

5. present yourself as a solution

Companies don’t hire people out of the goodness of their hearts. They have a vacancy they need to fill, or skills that are missing from their team. They’re hiring for a reason. They have a problem to solve. Figure out what that problem is (the job description should provide you with plenty of clues) and present yourself as the solution. Don’t be shy about saying, ‘I noticed you’re having this problem, and here’s how I can help.’ You’ll seem perceptive, ambitious, and position yourself as an expert who knows your stuff.

6. don’t rattle off a list of attributes

Don’t waste valuable space on your cover letter with rattling off a list of qualities you possess. This is especially true if they’re soft skills. It’s human nature to dismiss people who brag about their own attributes as conceited or liars. If you describe yourself as enthusiastic, charming and hardworking, the recruiter is probably going to be pretty skeptical. After all, great people don’t feel the need to talk about how great they are. There’s really no upside to piling on a bunch of positive adjectives. Instead, share stories and accomplishments that demonstrate these qualities in action. They’ll be more powerful and more believable.

7. include cold hard numbers

As the saying goes, ‘numbers don’t lie.’ If you can produce statistics and metrics that support your accomplishments, they’ll carry more weight. Recruiters and hiring managers love specifics.  Go ahead and share quantifiable numbers to support your stories.

8. keep it on the shorter side

Cover letters are an introductory document. They should intrigue the reader and make them want to learn more about you. The purpose of a cover letter is to get you past resume screening and to the interview stage. It’s not your life story, nor does it need to cover your entire work history. Consider it your highlight reel that shows why you’re right for this particular role. It should absolutely, 100% always fit on one page. Ideally, it should be 300 words or less. If you find yourself going over, take a hard look at what you’ve written and takeout the red pen. Cut it down if you need to. Shorter is almost always better.

9. be a little less formal

Your resume tends to be a formal document. You include your work history, education, skills and qualifications in a structured and organized manner. Your cover letter, on the other hand, is a chance to let go of the formality and show more of your personality. Recruiters aren’t emotionless robots hiring solely based on whether you check off a list of qualifications. They’re also looking for the right cultural fit between you and the company. Your cover letter is a chance to show off this side of you, and how you’ll make a great colleague. If you come off as dull, robotic or otherwise unmemorable, you might end up in the ‘no’ pile, even if your qualifications match up.

10. don’t be an eager puppy

If you’re genuinely excited about the job, that’s awesome! Companies are thrilled to have employees who care about their products, services and values come on board. That can be a check in the pro column. However, there’s a fine line between showing enthusiasm and seeming desperate or like a kiss-ass. Avoid raving about how much you love the company or how this is your dream job. A line or two about what the company or job mean to you is plenty to get your point across. Also, avoid pandering or sharing a sob story for the sole purpose of generating sympathy – i.e. how your mother who passed away from cancer’s dying wish was for you to get this job. Put the emphasis on your value and qualifications first and foremost.

11. finish with a bang

Just like you need to start strong, it’s important to close on a strong note, too. When you were a student, you probably learned the hamburger method for essay writing. The buns were the intro and conclusion. Everything that went in between was the toppings and meat. But the whole sandwich falls apart if you don’t have buns to hold it in place. The same is true for your cover letter. Pay most attention to your beginning and your end. They should be the most memorable parts. Also don’t forget to end off with next steps, such as when you’ll follow up next, a link to view your LinkedIn or portfolio, or a request for an interview.

12. edit, edit, and edit again

Your cover letter is a little snippet of who you are. It’s a sneak peek into your personality and value as a potential employee. So it goes without saying that a cover letter that’s riddled with typos or errors is not a positive reflection on you. The delivery of the message matters. Check and double check spelling, grammar and readability. Don’t rely on spellcheck, as it sometimes misses things. Ask a friend or family member to read it over one last time. Once your cover letter is sent out into the great beyond of the world wide web you can’t get it back. So always check one more time than you think you need to.  

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