how to write a great cover letter

I’ve read a lot of cover letters in my career — thousands of them, maybe even tens of thousands. (If you’re thinking that sounds like really boring reading, you’re right.) What I can tell you from doing that is that most people make the same mistakes over and over, and they waste the opportunity cover letters give them to make a case for why they’d be great at the job.

As someone who advises job-seekers, this is frustrating – because if you do it the right way, a cover letter can make you stand out from your competition and significantly boost your chances of getting an interview. It’s worth putting in the effort to do them well, so let’s learn how!

1. First, understand the point of a cover letter.

For employers, picking the best candidate for the job isn’t just about skills and experience. If it were, we wouldn’t ask for cover letters at all — hell, we might not even need interviews. We could just hire based on résumés alone. But of course, other things matter, too — things like personal traits, work habits, communication skills, people skills, intelligence, drive, and enthusiasm for the job. Your cover letter is supposed to give a window into those things.

Because of that …

2. Whatever you do, don’t just summarize your résumé.

The most common mistake people make with cover letters is that they simply use them to summarize their resume. This makes no sense – hiring managers don’t need a summary of your resume, because your resume is on the very next page! They’re about to see it as soon as they scroll down. And if you think about it, your entire application is only a few pages (in most cases, a one- or two-page résumé and a one-page cover letter) – why would you squander one of those pages by just repeating the content of the others?

Instead, your cover letter should go beyond your work history to talk about things that make you especially well-suited for the job. For example, if you’re applying for an assistant job that requires being highly organized and you neurotically track your household finances in a detailed, color-coded spreadsheet, most hiring managers would love to know that because it says something about the kind of attention to detail you’d bring to the job. And that’s not something you could put on your résumé, but it can go in your cover letter.

Or maybe your last boss told you that you were the most accurate data processor she’d ever seen, or came to rely on you as her go-to person whenever a lightning-fast rewrite was needed. Maybe your co-workers called you “the client whisperer” because of your skill in calming upset clients. Maybe you’re regularly sought out by more senior people to help problem-solve, or you find immense satisfaction in bringing order to chaos. Those sorts of details illustrate what you bring to the job in a different way than your résumé does, and they belong in your cover letter.

If you’re still stumped, pretend you’re writing an email to a friend about why you’d be great at the job. You probably wouldn’t do that by stiffly reciting your work history, right? You’d probably talk about what you’re good at and how you’d approach the work. That’s what you want here.

3. You don’t need a creative opening line.

If you think you need to open the letter with something creative or catchy, I am here to tell you that you don’t. Just be simple and straightforward:

• “I’m writing to apply for your X position.”

• “I’d love to be considered for your X position.”

• “I’m interested in your X position because…”

• “I’m excited to apply for your X position.”

That’s it! You don’t need to open like an informercial pitchman. Straightforward is fine.

4. Show, don’t tell.

Don’t just assert that you’d be great at the job, or proclaim that you’re a great communicator or a skilled manager or so forth. Instead, demonstrate that you are those things by talking about accomplishments and experiences that show it.

Here’s a concrete example taken from one extraordinarily effective cover-letter makeover that I saw. The candidate had originally written, “I offer exceptional attention to detail, highly developed communication skills, and a talent for managing complex projects with a demonstrated ability to prioritize and multitask.” That’s pretty boring and not especially convincing, right? (This is also exactly how most people’s cover letters read.)

In her revised version, she wrote this instead:

“In addition to being flexible and responsive, I’m also a fanatic for details — particularly when it comes to presentation. One of my recent projects involved coordinating a 200-page grant proposal: I proofed and edited the narratives provided by the division head, formatted spreadsheets, and generally made sure that every line was letter-perfect and that the entire finished product conformed to the specific guidelines of the RFP. (The result? A five-year, $1.5 million grant award.) I believe in applying this same level of attention to detail to tasks as visible as prepping the materials for a top-level meeting and as mundane as making sure the copier never runs out of paper.”

That second version is so much more compelling and interesting — and makes me believe that she really is great with details.

5. If there’s anything unusual or confusing about your candidacy, address it in the letter.

Your cover letter is your chance to provide context for things that otherwise might seem confusing or less than ideal to a hiring manager. For example, if you’re overqualified for the position but are excited about it anyway, or if you’re a bit underqualified but still think you could excel at the job, address that up-front. Or if all of your experience is in a different field but you’re actively working to move into this one, explain that and talk about why — and explain how your experience will translate.

If you don’t provide that kind of context, it’s too easy for a hiring manager to just think wrong fit or applying to everything she sees or doesn’t understand the job description and put you in the “no” pile. A cover letter gives you a shot at saying, “No, wait — here’s why this could be a strong match.”

6. Keep the tone warm and conversational.

While there are some industries that still prize stiff, formal-sounding cover letters — like law — in most fields, your cover letter will be stronger if you write in a warm, conversational tone. Strive for the tone you’d use if you were writing to a colleague who you liked a lot but didn’t know especially well. That means that it’s okay to show some personality or even use humor.

7. Stay away from form letters.

If you’re sending out the same cover letter for every job you apply to, you’re probably doing it wrong. A good cover letter should be personalized to the job.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t reuse pieces of the letter over and over — if you’re applying for a bunch of very similar jobs, you absolutely can — but it does mean that it should feel like you wrote it with the nuances of this particular job in mind. A good litmus test: Could you imagine other applicants for this job sending in the same letter? If so, that’s a sign that you haven’t made it specific enough to you and are probably leaning too heavily on just reciting your work history.

8. No, you don’t need to hunt down the hiring manager’s name.

If you read much job-search advice, at some point you’ll come across the idea that you need to do Woodward and Bernstein–level research to hunt down the hiring manager’s name in order to open your letter with “Dear Matilda Jones.” You don’t need to do this; no reasonable hiring manager will care. If the name is easily available, by all means, feel free to use it, but otherwise “Dear Hiring Manager” is absolutely fine. Take the hour you just freed up and do something more enjoyable with it.

9. Aim for about one page.

If your cover letters are longer than a page, you’re writing too much, and you risk annoying hiring managers who don’t have time to read lengthy tomes. On the other hand, if it’s only one or two paragraphs, it’s unlikely that you’re making a compelling case for yourself as a candidate — not impossible, but unlikely. For most people, a page or something close to a page is about right.

10. Don’t agonize too much over the small details.

What matters most about your cover letter is its content. You should of course ensure that it’s well-written and thoroughly proofread, but many job seekers agonize over elements of the letter that really don’t matter. I get tons of questions from job seekers about whether they should attach their cover letter or put it in the body of the email (answer: no one cares, but attaching it makes it easier to share and will preserve your formatting), or what to name the file (answer: again, no one really cares as long as it’s reasonably professional, but when people are dealing with hundreds of files named “resume,” it’s courteous to name it with your full name).

Approaching your cover letter like this can make a huge difference in your job search. It can be the thing that moves your application from the “maybe” pile (or even the “no” pile) to the “yes” pile. Of course, writing cover letters like this will take more time than sending out the same form letter summarizing your résumé — but 10 personalized, compelling cover letters are likely to get you far more interview invitations than 50 generic ones will.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. SoCalHR*

    “Strive for the tone you’d use if you were writing to a colleague who you liked a lot but didn’t know especially well.”
    Great description regarding the tone of cover letters.

    1. DecorativeCacti*

      This has really helped me get over my perfectionism with cover letters. I would agonize over them for hoooouuuurs trying to get everything just right.

      I still agonize, but thinking of it as just a quick “this is why I’m excited about this job” has cut down on the time I spend on them.

  2. BRR*

    The tone is so important in my opinion. If you make it warm and conversational it really helps you stand out. I’ve read a few cover letters that were fantastic and when I’ve finished them I think, “Wow, I really want to meet (interview) this person.”

    “Show, don’t tell” also sticks out to me because we recently were hiring and one candidate had good experience but their cover letter and interview was filled with telling. Ironically, in their cover letter they told us how good their writing skills were.

    1. HumbleOnion*

      I just reviewed a cover letter from a candidate who told me she was a humor writer. I wish she’d have used that skill to write an engaging cover letter, but alas!

      1. Armchair Analyst*

        One time I quoted from “The Simpsons” in my cover letter. I did not get that interview.

    2. Jadelyn*

      Agreed re tone – robotic-sounding or overly-jargon-filled CLs don’t do you any good. “I am certain I would be an asset to [organization] and could leverage my skills to make a positive impact…” By this point, my eyes have rolled out of my head, across the floor, and down the hall, and I’m not reading any further because you don’t sound like a human, you sound like a template copy-pasted from a college careers center website, and if I wanted to read that I could just google “cover letter template”. Talk like a human! Talk *to me*, not at me or at the organization via my eyeballs. I’d rather a cover letter that’s got a minor grammatical inconsistency here or there but *sounds* like the way a person would talk, than a technically perfect cover letter that tells me absolutely nothing of substance about the human who wrote it.

  3. ArtsNerd*

    One of the most important things I learned about cover letters from reading AAM over the years is: A person is reading them. Not some mysterious “boss” concept, but an actual person with all the attention span and humor and curiosity that comes with being human. It’s not a test; it’s an introduction.

    Actually empathizing with the hiring manager’s point-of-view is one of those things that can seem obvious in hindsight, but totally changed the way I approached applying for jobs (and grants). It’s a game-changer.

  4. puzzld*

    Great advice. I show dogs. One of the best pieces of advice that our trainer gives is never make the judge think. So if you have some factor that’s going to make the hiring manage go “hmm that’s odd!” address it in your cover letter. You live in Hawaii and are applying for a job in South Dakota… Hmmm. Whyever would they want to move here? You are earning $30 hourly and you’re applying for an $11 hourly?? Tell me why.

  5. Llamarama (Ding Dong)*

    I used Alison’s cover letter tips last spring/summer when looking for a new job. My cover letter definitely set me apart, but what I found really interesting was that the companies that mentioned the cover letter and were clearly impressed with it were the companies that were a better fit for me. They were passionate about the same things I am, and that connection and extra data point were very useful when evaluating offers.

  6. Liz*

    Last year I was applying to a job that asked for less experience than I had, but I was really interested in the company. So (based on some AAM advice) I concluded with a paragraph explaining my personal interest in the role and finished “That’s why, although I am slightly below your preferred experience level, I would consider it a step forward in my career to accept this position if offered.”

    Not only did they call me in for an interview… they wound up offering me a higher title and salary than they had initially planned for the position! I’ve been here eight months now and it’s awesome. I can’t thank Alison enough for her advice honestly.

      1. Specialk9*

        I reread that several times before I saw your correction. It makes a difference, thanks.

        And what a cool story. I know, now, that I’ve been writing those bad cover letters, but haven’t yet had to pull out the new skill.

        1. Teapot Reader*

          I recently applied for, and got, a job in the not-for-profit sector which was a considerable step up in responsibility but a considerable step down in pay. I thought this might cause the side-eye to my application. I wrote in my covering letter ‘I am fortunate to be at a stage in my career where I can prioritise the job sector over the job salary,’ and backed it up with evidence of my passion for the mission of the organisation. No-one ever mentioned it at interview.
          I suspect it helped that my former line manager knew I was passionate about this mission, and when they phoned her for a reference before interview, she was all ‘yeah, we know we’re going to lose her to a senior post at some point, she’s nuts about this stuff and keeps making us try to do more of it here, etc’

  7. Dee*

    I’ve been using AAM’s resume and cover letter suggestions to great results – until I get to the interview portion. I never lie about my skills or demeanor in the materials (I actually usually explicitly address the fact that I tend to be pretty quiet), but even still I’m sensing that there’s a disconnect between who I am on paper and who I am in real life. I would get this a lot in college as well (“You don’t speak much in class, but your writing ‘voice’ is excellent”, etc). Are there any suggestions on how to bridge that divide?

    1. Specialk9*

      I tend to get overly excited in that kind of situation, so my trick is to take a deep breath and channel a specific person who is both very mellow and utterly bone-deep delightful. I wonder if you could try a similar combo of physical and channeling a person. Maybe work on mirroring body language (it really does work!), and having the slightest tilt upwards to your lips (it lifts the mood and warms the eyes).

      Then think of someone who you really like who is expressive in a way that seems natural, but like 25-50% more expressive than you, not 900% more. Then channel them – how would X act or respond?

      Also, I am pretty sure that most of the strangers I love the most would likely be very quiet and reserved in person. Lois M Bujold, the Blogess, Attack of the Redneck Mommy (well, maybe not her), Patricia Briggs, Laurie R King…

  8. SarahKay*

    I like the advice about not stressing over the opening line. I used to be awful at that, not just for cover letters but for projects, reports etc. I wouldn’t start the letter because I just couldn’t get that first line.
    Then I discovered that, for me, the trick was start on paragraph two and just pretend I had paragraph one done. That let me jump in, and get the rest of it done, at which point I could usually work out what I wanted or needed to put in paragraph one.

  9. Rachel*

    Great advice! After reading the article, I started writing a cover letter first as an email to a friend and I am pleased with the result of telling about why I enjoy mediation for a legal fellowship.

  10. Amber Rose*

    Does feedback from managers count as showing? I was told by my manager today that my supervisor reported that all the things we discussed me doing during my sort-of review a couple months ago, I did, and that it’s great the way I buckle down and get things done. They were kind of abstract projects with no particular due dates.

    Or is it better to just discuss the projects I completed in more detail.

  11. T3k*

    I’ve learned for my intro line to make it personable and that’s gotten me more interviews than in the past. My latest one is explaining a small situation where I suddenly knew X was the job/field I wanted to be in and go from there.

  12. smoke tree*

    My difficulty is always trying to figure out which accomplishments to include in my resume and which work better for the cover letter. I find my job a little hard to summarize because it’s very communication, detail and relationship oriented, and there aren’t a lot of hard measurements or achievements I can point to beyond “author was happy” and “book was more readable.” It’s also quite repetitive by nature, so there aren’t really major projects I can highlight. I usually include author and manager feedback, but I’m never sure if it would work better for my cover letter or resume, since I don’t really have any better metrics to include in my resume.

  13. nep*

    Not sure whether I should put something like a mini cover letter in a section of an online application that says: ‘Please state briefly why you think you are an outstanding candidate for this job. Max 1,000 characters.’ Or just an opening line with some bullet points. (This is about the third place on a several-component application where I’m to state why suitable for the job…)

  14. Jana*

    While I think this is great advice, but I’m a little confused as to how to actually apply it… My work experiences have mostly been very negative, I don’t have a long list of accomplishments to draw from that allows me to avoid repeating accomplishments listed on my resume in my cover letter. If your work successes are easily measured, I see how it’s compelling to describe them explicitly, but what happens when those successes aren’t measured in numbers? Or when they exist in a crappy work environment? I mean, one of my biggest accomplishments in one job was managing relationships with other departments because no one wanted to deal with my boss who never did any work and misused grant money. At another job, I managed to stay 6 months at a place with a 1-star Glassdoor rating where literally everyone quit after a couple days or 1 week. How do you manage cover letters and resumes when your most recent work experience is uniformly terrible? I’m guessing it’s a red flag if you have to go back 8-10 years in your experience to point to significant work success rather than just putting out interpersonal fires that have nothing to do with your skills or interests.

  15. Alex*

    I have seen job ads that say things like “Submit a cover letter that addresses how you meet each of the qualifications listed.” In those cases do you have to rehash your resume or can you just focus on a few examples?

  16. Trillion*

    I’m so happy that in my recent two years of job hunting no one wanted cover letters.

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