Many companies ask job applicants to send in a cover letter along with their resume or CV. They ask for this extra document because resumes and CVs are fact-based. They give a checklist of your accomplishments and relevant experience, but they don't give the hiring manager a feel for your personality. The cover letter, on the other hand, is all about showcasing who you are (not just what you've done) and giving the hiring manager a better idea of how you'll fit in with the team and with the company's goals. Cover letters are also a great place to elaborate on any experiences or personal qualities that didn't seem to fit into your resume. Here's how to write a great cover letter.
1. Choose the proper greeting.
After placing your contact information and the company's contact information at the top of the page, it's time to start writing the letter. In the old days, job applicants usually knew who the hiring manager was and could address the letter directly to them. You can (and should) still do that if you know who the hiring manager is. However, with all of today's massive corporations and mega HR departments, you may not know who the hiring manager is. In that case, you will need to choose a greeting that's polite, professional, and neutral. Some options are:
- The time of day (good morning or good afternoon) if you're submitting an application electronically with a time stamp
- A simple opening line (hello is always a classic)
- An unnamed person or group of people (To Human Resources or To the hiring team. "To whom it may concern" is hotly debated as to whether it counts as a proper greeting. Our issue with "to whom it may concern" is that it isn't very specific; the other options at least show that, while you may not know the hiring manager's name, you're at least familiar enough with the company to know which department handles hiring.)
Note: Even if you do know the name of the hiring manager, be careful not to assume their gender, pronouns, or title. For example, a woman may not appreciate being called "Mrs." if she is not married, and a non-binary manager may not feel comfortable being called "Mr." Using the first and last name of the manager is one way to get around this knowledge gap.
2. Tailor your letter to the company.
Most companies' websites talk about their mission, history, and values. Research the company and learn about the things that are important to the people who already work there. In your cover letter, explain how the company's values line up with your goals and experiences. Be sure to balance talking about your needs and the company's needs during this part of your letter. Just like a first date can bad when one person only talks about themselves, only talking about yourself in the cover letter doesn't impress the hiring manager. They need to know why you want to work at their company (instead of all the others that are out there) and what their company will gain from hiring you.
3. Share relevant experiences you've had with their products or services.
Have you used an item this company makes? Have you paid for any of their services before? If you have and if it was a positive experience that made you want to work there, share that in your interview. Hiring managers love to know that job candidates are already invested and believe in the company's work before they're even hired.
4. Add value to your resume or CV.
Simply repeating facts from your resume or CV doesn't help the hiring manager decide if you're the right fit for the company. They've already read those facts on your other application pieces. The cover letter should enhance those documents by providing more specific information about your career goals and showcasing your knowledge of the company. If you choose to mention an experience or position listed on your resume or CV, expand on it in your cover letter; tell the story behind that experience, rather than just parroting what you already wrote.
5. Be concise and specific.
A cover letter should only be a page long, single spaced, and that includes all of the headings, contact information, and the signature. That means you've got to say a lot in a little space. To make that happen, you'll need to do two things. First, choose clear examples to illustrate how both you and the company will benefit from working together. Second, be concise. You may find that you have to remove some details that aren't as pertinent to the job or that you have to shorten some of your examples. That's okay; choose the ones you think will be most relevant to the company you're writing to.
6. Use standard English.
Now is not the time for slang or the types of abbreviations you use in messages to your friends. You should choose language that's clear and professional. That said, professional doesn't mean you need to talk like it's time for high tea with the queen. You can skip extra flowery language and giant words that don't actually sound like you (unless that's how you really talk). Instead, try to settle for the middle ground: sounding like you, just cleaned up a little bit so that you aren't acting overly familiar or casual with someone you just met.
7. Choose the proper closing.
As with the greeting, how you end the letter is important. Traditionally, the last paragraph of the cover letter should be 1-2 sentences thanking the hiring manager for considering you and briefly reiterating how you think them hiring you would benefit the company. It's also a good time to remind them of your contact information and the best times of day to contact you. (For instance, I'm available by phone after 3 p.m. and by email any time [phone number; email].) You may also want to add I look forward to hearing from you, because this shows confidence and lets them know you're serious about the job. Once you've finished this, end with a closing statement. Some options are:
- Thank you again
- Best regards
- Yours truly
8. Don't recycle cover letters.
Because cover letters should be so tailored to the company you're writing to, there's no way two cover letters should be identical. Make sure you're treating each company as an individual. It is okay to reuse an example of your skills or experience if it's relevant; just consider how those skills relate to Company B differently than they related to Company A and adjust your letter accordingly.
9. Be honest.
Job hunting is hard. We get it; we've all been there. It can be tempting to exaggerate your experiences, but that's an unwise decision. The hiring manager needs to know who you are and what you're bringing to the table. Besides, writing an honest cover letter shows integrity... and most of the time when an employer has to choose between a person with integrity and a person who sounds too good to be true, they're going to pick the person with integrity. You may even find that it's helpful to talk about how your shortcomings will play into your role at the company. For instance, maybe you worked in a similar position but a different industry; your cover letter can mention your desire and excitement to learn about this new industry and how you expect to grow your knowledge once hired. (It's a good idea not to dwell exclusively on your shortcomings, because that can come across as unprofessional or un-confident, but mentioning them briefly and talking about how you want to improve shows that you're a hard worker who will accept a challenge.)
Here's another honesty tip: if you find that you have to lie about how great you think working at the company will be because, deep down, you don't actually want to work there, it may be time to reconsider applying for that job. Yes, job hunting is hard. Yes, you may have already been looking for a while. Yes, you need work. However, if you're going to spend a minimum of 2,000 hours a year at a job, it should be one that you find satisfying and fulfilling. Don't sell yourself short.
Sample Cover Letter:
123 Maple Street, Porcupine, VT 12345
January 1, 2020
Acme Syrup Company
15 Rugged St.
Mapleville, Maine 54321
To the hiring manager:
I am applying for the position of Head Syrup Maker at Acme Syrup Company for two reasons. First, my syrup making experience, combined with my wilderness survival skills, make me a strong candidate for overseeing syrup production at your 1,000-acre maple tree farm. Second, my personal and career goals fit your company’s sustainability efforts to a tee.
The three-week Wilderness Safety Course I took in Marietta, Georgia, emphasized sustainability and the need for those of us who work outdoors to develop environmentally friendly habits. I shared this knowledge with pre-teen students at Camp Scuppernong and with clients of all ages at Bob’s Outdoor Excursions in White River, Alaska, teaching more than 600 people about the importance of sustainable resource management, clean water, garbage removal and recycling initiatives, and zero-impact camping. I took these sustainable practices with me to Blue Heron Farm, where I worked to reduce water waste in the garden and move to pesticide-free farming practices. Finally, in my current position as an apprentice syrup maker, I was part of a summer 2019 initiative to plant more than 150 maple seedlings to replenish vegetation at a former logging site.
I want to work for Acme Syrup Company because I know from personal experience that caring for our natural resources requires a team effort from individuals, communities, and businesses. I want to work for a company that invests in its local community and in the wonders of nature. At Acme Syrup Company, I would not just be producing delicious, high quality syrup (although that’s certainly true). I would be taking an active part in sustainable manufacturing, community education, and resource conservation.
Additionally, while I have very much enjoyed living and working in Vermont, I am excited about the prospect of moving to Mapleville to be closer to my family in Maine. Acme Syrup Company is located in an area where I can see myself settling down and is a company where I can see myself growing both professionally and personally for years to come.
I have one semester remaining in my MA program. As soon as I graduate, I’d love nothing more than to come to Maine and work as the Head Syrup Maker at Acme Syrup Company. I’ve provided my contact information above and included references in my resume. I hope to speak with you soon about a career at Acme Syrup Company.