When you see the phrase “cover letter,” it probably conjures up an image of a bygone era, with an old-fashioned letter, painstakingly typed and sent via snail mail. How does that square with the modern job search, which has become almost entirely digital? Do you still need a cover letter in an era where you’re either emailing a resume or dropping it into a vast database?
The short, honest answer: not always, especially when you’re simply uploading your resume into a digital application engine. But when you do need to have a cover letter to go with your resume, it’s important to have one ready to go. And a well-written cover letter can still mean the difference between getting an interview or having a reader reject your application package without any further consideration.
What’s the purpose of a cover letter?
A cover letter is an introduction to your resume. If you’re submitting your resume digitally, that means your cover letter is an email introduction with an attachment. Instead of a blunt “here you go, resume is attached,” it’s a way of framing your resume and setting the narrative before the reader has a chance to scan the resume itself.
A cover letter (or email) is also a chance to fit in some extra key words. There’s a good chance that it will be a software program reading your note first, before it’s screened by a human with hiring power. And those programs function based on key words and phrases that the hiring company most wants to see. The earlier you can fit those in, the better, and the cover letter/email is your earliest chance.
A cover letter also acknowledges the human reader beyond the robot eyes—a human reader who can use the information in your note to add context to your resume. Your cover letter is a chance to set the narrative that you support with the bullet points in your resume. Think of it as the highlight reel of your accomplishments and your goals.
Tailor your cover letter to the audience.
The first thing you should do is make sure you’re personalizing the cover letter. Nothing is going to turn a reader off faster than having to read something addressed to “Dear whomever” and followed by several paragraphs of super-generic chitchat. Whenever possible, you should address it to a specific person. This may not always be possible if you’re submitting via an online system. But if there’s a contact name mentioned in the job posting, make sure you’re addressing your letter or email right to that person. You want to engage the reader whenever possible. “To whom it may concern” technically does the job of addressing a reader, but is there a colder, more generic opening? I don’t think so.
Be memorable and personable.
The cover letter gives you a chance you don’t really have with your resume: the opportunity to show a bit of your personality. The resume is a ruthless, efficient snapshot of your professional accomplishments. The cover letter is more of a conversation between you and the reader. One way to do this is to include some personal trivia in the first few lines, or include a bit about what drew you do this particular company or job opening. This shows that there’s a thoughtful person behind this letter and this resume, one who has put consideration and effort into applying for this job.
In a cover letter, it’s okay to use a bit of humor—as long as it’s kept polite, professional, and directly related to the job you’re trying to get. (Remember, you don’t know who will be on the other end, so keep any humor G-rated and appropriate.) The company is, after all, hiring a human to join their team, and you want to seem approachable and friendly. The information on your resume doesn’t necessarily tell the reader much about your voice, so it’s okay to use the cover letter to add a bit of flair.
Set the narrative.
This is especially important if your resume has things you need to explain, or things you want to gloss over (it happens). Your cover letter can help you take that extra level of control over your application package. Use it to set up what you want the reader to have in mind while he or she is reading further.
For example, if you’re a recent grad and don’t yet have tons of experience in the field you’re trying to get into, you can use your cover letter to talk about how you’re looking for an entry-level position in the field, but have skills and experience that you’ve built up via internships, or volunteer experiences. Or if you have resume gaps, it’s a way of saying that you’re looking to get back in the game, and that you’re ready and eager for an opportunity to use your skills and experience at X company.
Make it about the job/company.
The cover letter is (spoiler alert!) not really about you. Sure, it seems that way because you’re talking about yourself, but it’s really about the job the company is trying to fill and how you can meet that need. The ultimate goal of the cover letter is to support your statement that you’re the one they need to fill this job. Every detail you offer about yourself should show how you’re a good fit for the company. This is where the job description comes in handy—you can use that information to figure out what they want the new employee to accomplish in this role and then make sure you’re presenting skills and achievements that support those needs.
For example, instead of saying something like, “This role is the logical next step for me because I’ve always wanted to be a director,” you should go with, “my time spent spearheading complex projects and delivering results ahead of schedule has prepared me for the demands of leading a team of sales associates.”
Keep your formatting flexible.
In your cover letter, you don’t want to include fancy or complicated formatting because you can’t assume that it’s being read one particular way. In 2018, you need to be format-flexible. Your reader might be reading it on a computer screen, as a print-out, or on a small device like a phone or tablet. That means the simpler your cover letter is, the better. Pick a professional font that’s easy to read, make sure your paragraphs aren’t 15 sentences of unbroken text, and make everything left-aligned.
If your cover letter is really an email, it’s fine to use the default font and text settings in your email client.
Don’t write a novel.
The cover letter should only be a few straightforward paragraphs. This is not the time to write out your entire work history (the resume will do the job of talking about past experience and accomplishments). The goal is to introduce yourself to the reader, not publish your memoir. Three to four paragraphs should do the trick—no more than a single page in Word. This is the basic format you should use:
- Brief intro paragraph: Who you are as a professional, what job you’re applying for, and what drew you to this particular job opening.
- Paragraph outlining your top qualifications for this specific job.
- Brief closing paragraph: Restate what qualifies you for the job and provide contact information.
- Closing sign-off: Always be brief and polite. (“Sincerely” is a classic for a reason!)
Let’s look at an example of a basic cover letter/email.
Dear Ms. Ferguson,
As a lifelong bookworm with a passion for the inner workings of the publishing industry, I’m interested in your opening for an editorial assistant. I’m currently an administrative assistant at the Good Books Literary Agency, and would like to bring my ninja-level organizational skills and editorial eye to the books on B.K. Publisher’s list.
Through my work at the agency and an internship with American Book Company, I’ve developed a keen sense for identifying potentially successful books, and working with authors to refine their manuscripts from rough drafts to final. I have extensive experience proofreading and copyediting manuscripts, writing copy, and liaising between authors and publishers.
I am confident that my ability to work with authors of all temperaments, as well as develop their work with an eye toward the marketplace, would be a good fit for B.K. Publisher. I’m attaching my resume, and welcome discussing my qualifications in more detail. I can be reached at JaneQPublic@emaildomain.gov, and I look forward to hearing more about this position.
When you’re writing your cover letter, remember that it’s an opportunity—not a throw-away. If you put in some time and energy, it can be a boon to your total application and work perfectly with your resume to create an image of someone who would be a good all-around fit for this job.