Job searches are rough. First, you’ve got to find a gig that feels like a good fit, then you’ve got to make sure your résumé is up to date and lively, and then there’s the — let’s just call it what it is — dreaded cover letter. You’ve already filled out an application and attached your résumé, probably sent along your LinkedIn profile — don’t companies have enough?
No, according to Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster, because what they’re looking for in a cover letter isn’t a list of previous jobs, but a glimpse at you as a potential candidate. “It’s your elevator pitch in writing,” says Salemi. “So if you’re talking to someone, and you only have 30 seconds to highlight who you are and what makes you awesome, that needs to go in the cover letter.” Just make sure it’s relevant to the position you’re applying for.
How to format your cover letter
[Your email and phone number]
I’m interested in applying to [job title] [requisition number].
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
A few key basics on formatting
- Keep it under a page
- Avoid gender in your greeting (e.g., don’t say “Dear Sir,” but “Dear Employer,” or something similar)
- Customize it to the job you’re applying for
OK. Now that the formatting is out of the way, here's what you need to know about writing your cover letter.
1. Include the job title & requisition number in the application
Although you’re likely submitting your application all at once, when it’s getting forwarded to other people in the company, it may come piecemeal, so it’s important to include both the job title and the requisition number — if there is one — on your cover letter. The same goes for your contact information, Salemi adds.
2. Make it pop
“Think about if your résumé was in a hardcover format, and you wanted to literally physically take a yellow highlighter and highlight the top three things…what would you want to stand out?” Salemi explains. “The highlighted section of your résumé goes in your cover letter.”
3. Use the job description as a guide
The job description for the position you’re applying for can clue you into what you should talk about in your cover letter, both in terms of content and tone. Most of the time, “the most important responsibilities are in descending order,” Salemi says, so use this as a suggestion for which parts of your background should make sure to include in your letter.
Additionally, the tone of the job description can give you an idea of the company’s culture and how much personality to include in your cover letter. But don’t get too caught up in being entertaining. “I would focus more on content than personality,” Salemi suggests. “However, if the job you’re pursuing is for a copywriter at an ad agency, and let’s say their job description is really fun and quirky, then absolutely your response — especially as a writer position — technically you should view the cover letter as a writing sample.”
If it’s possible to get a sense of their company culture or values on their website or social media, this can also help you decide on how much to spice up the language in your cover letter.
4. Include accolades, accomplishments, numbers
It’s important to get specific about your accomplishments, Salemi urges. If you’ve won a relevant award, name it and include it. The same goes for other quantifiable assets. “Maybe you’re an awesome manager and you saved the company a ton of money each fiscal year while managing a team of 10 — that’s important to highlight,” she says. If you managed a big budget, include how big the budget was. Avoid vague, general statements and try to include these kinds of specifics.
On the other hand, “If you don’t have those impressive numbers… you don’t want to include a number that’s not stellar,” she says. Figure out what is most marketable about your experience and run with that.
And your cover letter doesn’t have to be exclusively about work. If you have relevant experience thanks to volunteering, if you’ve taken a class or have some kind of industry knowledge, those are worth including too.
5. Address the elephant in the room
Maybe you’re looking at jobs out of state (though Salemi suggests that you leave your address off of your résumé and cover letter and simply include an email and phone number). Maybe you’re applying for a position that your job history doesn’t immediately seem relevant for. If there’s something you know might raise a question for your employer when they’re looking at your application, it’s worth addressing it.
“Employers can take as little as a few seconds to look at a cover letter or résumé to make a decision whether or not to proceed,” Salemi says. “So it’s OK to address the elephant in the room.”
More than anything, take the time to write the cover letter. "Don’t procrastinate or postpone it," Salemi says. "It’s the key to the open door for you to get past that first round."