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How to Write a Compelling Cover Letter

A man's hands holding a letter over his desk and laptop.
fizkes/Shutterstock

Even in the age of digital job applications, cover letters are still relevant. Here’s how to write a great one!

Writing a resume is hard enough (although, our series of resume guides will help), but a potential employer also expects you to send her a cover letter explaining why you’re right for the job. How can you write a compelling letter for every job you apply for?

The key is not to approach each letter like a brand-new document. Although cover letters require more customization than resumes, there are still some formulas you can use to make the task easier.

Whether you’re writing your first or 50th cover letter, we can help. Here’s everything you need to know to write great cover letters and get more job interviews!

Formatting Your Cover Letter

Your cover letter should follow the standard letter format and include some essential basics. The good news is once you’ve made one cover letter, you have a template you can use for the rest.

The proper business letter format features your contact information at the top of the page. Include your name, address, phone number, and email address.

Below that, skip a line and type today’s date (“January 1, 2020,” not “1/1/20”). Skip another line and type the employer’s contact information. Start with the name and title of the hiring manager (if you have it), followed by the company’s name and address.

Skip another line and add the salutation (“Dear Mr./Ms. [Name],” or use their full name if you don’t know their gender). If you don’t know who you’re writing the letter to, you can use something generic like, “Dear hiring manager.” Avoid, “To whom it may concern,” as it sounds dated. It’s always best to use a name, if possible—and the internet usually makes it easy to find out who you’re sending your letter to.

After that, you can begin the letter, which should be about three paragraphs. Then, you include a formal closing, like “Sincerely” or “Respectfully yours,” followed by your name and signature.

Your cover letter should fit on one page and should be in a standard font and size (10 to 12 point). If you find formatting your letter to be a challenge, you can download a template and fill in your information, just as you would with a resume.

No matter how you do it, be sure to format your letter correctly. Hiring managers often throw out poorly formatted ones without ever reading them.

Writing Your Cover Letter

Now, it’s time to write your cover letter. While the formatting stays basically the same for each job application, the content of your letter should change. That content still follows a formula, though. You’ll always need these three sections:

  • Introduction: A winning hook that alerts the hiring manager to your potential as a candidate.
  • Body: One paragraph (or two short ones) that backs up your claims with specific examples of your experience and qualifications.
  • Conclusion: A brief wrap-up that suggests the next action for the hiring manager to take.

The details might change some, but the basic information often stays the same when you’re applying for jobs in the same field. This means you don’t have to write a completely new cover letter for each application. You just need to make the proper adjustments, so your cover letter fits the specific job and company.

Let’s take a closer look at what to include in each section.

Introduction

Briefly state why you’re writing the letter. Focus on what you bring to the company, rather than what they’ll do for you. For example, it’s not technically wrong to say, “I’m writing because I would like the position of [Job Title] at [Company Name].” But it’s much stronger to say, “I would love to apply my unique [industry] skills as the new [Job Title] at [Company Name].”

Make sure you include the title of the position you’re applying for. If you have any connections at the company, you can mention them by name in this paragraph. Provide some brief details about who you are, and why you’re right for the job. For example, you might mention your relevant major in college or your current professional title and years of experience.

The more compelling your first paragraph, the more likely it is the hiring manager will continue reading. Try to drop in a juicy detail or two about your skills or qualifications, and use strong words that convey your passion. Your goal is to pique the reader’s interest, so she keeps reading.

Body

The middle section of your letter highlights details about the professional experience you have that you think will help you get the job.

You can springboard this section from what’s on your resume, but make sure it doesn’t just restate that information. Instead, take this opportunity to go more in-depth about your accomplishments or explain any gaps in your resume.

For example, maybe your resume mentions that you grew a company’s customer base by over 300 percent. In your cover letter, you could explain how you accomplished that. Or maybe your resume has a work history gap because you didn’t have a job for six months. In your cover letter, you could mention any courses you took during those six months to prep for a career transition.

The more specific you are, the better. Don’t say you’re good at customer service. Instead, offer an anecdote about a time when you displayed excellent customer service in a difficult situation. Show why your experience is relevant, and how you’ll help the company you’re applying to solve their problems.

You should also show that you’ve researched the company you’re applying to. Try something like, “I love following [Company Name]’s Twitter account, and with my proven social media marketing skills, I’ll ensure those posts gain a much wider reach.”

Obviously, everything in your cover letter has to be factual, just like on your resume. Make sure you’d feel confident talking about it if it’s brought up during an interview. And just like on a resume, try to quantify your accomplishments with measurements and numbers whenever possible.

Conclusion

In your conclusion, you can pivot to discussing how your experience will help the company reach its goals. When you feel you’ve written convincingly about your potential as a candidate, transition into a call to action. For example, you could say, “I’d love to talk more about what I can do for your online branding. To set up an interview, you can connect with me at [your email address].”

Show confidence here and write as if you believe they’ll contact you. Avoid weak phrasing, like “I hope to hear from you soon.” Instead, remind them why they should hire you, and then provide the best way to reach you. You can also offer a link to your portfolio or writing samples as your call to action.

Don’t forget to thank the company for considering you before you close the letter. Keep your tone confident but formal and polite. Something simple, like, “Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you,” works well as a closing sentence.

Editing and Proofreading Your Cover Letter

Now, it’s time to edit and polish. One of the hardest parts of this step is making sure you strike the right tone.

When you first start writing a cover letter, it’s best to get the essential information down and worry about how you’ll say it later. You can even start with an outline and use lists or bullet points to organize the details. But once you have the information written out, make sure it’s phrased well.

Work on striking a balance between formality and relatability. Your letter should be authentic and interesting, but conversational and friendly. Try reading it aloud to see if the words flow naturally.

Just like with a resume, it can also help to add some industry-specific keywords or phrases during this step. Work those terms into your cover letter if they fit naturally. If anything sounds unnatural or robotic, though, it’s best to leave it out.

Send your cover letter to a few friends, mentors, or family members to get their feedback. Make changes where you need to, and then send the final version out once more, so they can help you check for typos or any other errors. Proofreading should be the last step, but make sure you don’t skip it!

Right before you send out your polished cover letter with an application, double-check all the names, addresses, and dates. Using the wrong company name or an incorrect date will quickly get your letter tossed.


Along with your resume, your cover letter creates your first impression at a new company. The stronger that impression is, the more likely they are to ask for an interview. With practice, you’ll learn how to strike the right tone for a compelling cover letter. And a solid cover letter can often be tweaked for multiple job applications, saving you time and effort.

But be prepared: when you use these cover letter tips, the interview calls are likely to flood in. Be sure to brush up on your interview prep skills with this guide!

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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