TL;DR: A cover letter is an opportunity to wow your interviewer with the story of you. It goes into the juicy bits of your professional history that the resume doesn’t cover. For job applicants, it’s essential to learn how to write a cover letter that gets your foot in the door and lands you that coveted interview.
Nod your head if your first cover letter was a one-liner that said something like: ” Attached please find my resume as requested.” Embarrassing and inadequate, but let’s face it, the cover letter was an anomaly when it first became popular in the late nineties (yes, that long ago!).
Here’s the thing, cover letters have been around for more than fifty years. Facepalm!
Back in the day, a job seeker simply had to know a guy who knew a guy to land a job. But modern job seekers need to do more and the cover letter seems to be the it-thing in the recruitment realm. Your one-liner isn’t going to cut it, Buttercup.
Do you want to land a job or do you want to land the job? Here’s how to write a cover letter that will make you memorable and allow your application to stick out above the rest — even the ones who hired a professional resume writer.
Why your cover letter matters
A resume is a factual collection of your achievements, experience, and education. This should be your highlight reel and only the sauciest, juiciest bits of your professional history should be on it. It forms the backbone of your job application.
Your cover letter is that document that gives your resume a personality. It paints the picture of who you are and the value you will add to the team. As Ramit would say, it answers the interviewer’s question, “What kind of person is this?”.
Sell yourself, but don’t sell yourself short
There’s advice on how to write a cover letter, and then there’s advice that will land you the dream job. Which rocks your world? If it’s the latter, get a pen and start writing.
Before you even think to approach a company for an interview on a job posting, you need to know what the job requires and how you’re going to help your potential new boss meet their objectives in that role. You need to get them giddy with excitement and eager to get you in for an interview.
How do you do this? Ramit’s Briefcase Technique, where you point out areas in their business that they can improve upon and show them that you can solve these issues through your unique skills and experience. Then explain how “Last year I helped a company just like yours double their sales revenue by streamlining their supply chain using a method I developed while doing my MBA.”
How to write a cover letter that sizzles
Sure, you can try adding an airbrushed photo of yourself on a good hair day, but unless you’re applying for America’s Next Top Model, this might not work out in your favor.
Instead, clean formatting, tidy writing, and a good layout will probably do more.
If you’re hoping that printing your cover letter on a sheet of 50 g/m2 Shikibu Gampi paper would get you some special treatment, don’t bother. Ramit reminds us that the hiring manager doesn’t give a shit. You need to stop fussing about the small stuff and focus on the things that will matter to the hiring manager.
Rather focus all that energy on writing a succinct, inspiring cover letter that will guarantee an interview.
Obviously, you can do a quick search and find thousands of cover letter templates in two seconds, but it’s not the template that’s going to get you the job. It’s the content. Writing an effective cover letter is your opportunity to blow their damn socks off.
Formulate your big story
It’s possible to write both too much and too little. While it will touch on things already on your resume, your cover letter needs to contain delicious morsels that aren’t on your resume. Definitely include the following three juicy morsels in a captivating way that shows who you are and what you bring to the table.
1. Work experience
While it might feel like your history as an administrator in a bank might seem worth mentioning, if you’re applying for a job as a marketing exec, rather leave that for the extended resume. Be sure to mention how your current job title ties in with the application. The work history you mention on the cover letter should have a direct bearing on the position you’re applying for.
For instance: “In 2008 I was a marketing associate for XYZ fundraising project for a non-profit, and the event netted enough funds to cover the project for three years, as opposed to the regular one year. I held the role for two years and went on to ABC Agency, where I headed the marketing division for the following projects (and then list them). These roles helped me shape these skills (pick the relevant ones) which will add value to your advertised role of (the job posted).”
Now, it’s easy to get carried away here and toot your horn. Be humble and to the point. Avoid saying that you’re the best person for the job because you have a strong marketing background. Focus on what you did and the results it achieved. That will allow the hiring manager to decide whether you’re the best person for the job.
Three stories that tie into this role are a good number to stick to. It adds credibility and doesn’t make your cover letter clunky.
If you’re struggling to decide whether to discuss education or experience first, go with the one that is the most impressive and can boost your credibility early on. When it comes to education, it’s not enough to just state the degree. It’s important to highlight the aspects of the degree that will add value to the role you’re applying for.
3. Something fun or different
If you’re applying to a role that drips with seriousness, like the FBI or CIA or institutions where humor or spontaneity is considered a vice, then skip this step. For the rest, it helps to show that you have a sense of humor and won’t just be another cog in the machine. If you’re an avid mountaineer or you host improv comedy twice a month, it’s worth mentioning.
Your cover letter format (the technical stuff)
- Start with your personal information such as full names, contact information, email address, social media handles, and place of residence.
- You’re going to address the letter to whoever posted the job, which means addressing the hiring manager, HR representative, or company CEO. If there is no name or title, address it to the CEO. Also include the full name and address of the company you’re applying to.
- Include a “Dear Sir or Madam” if you’re familiar with their preferred prefix.
Be careful not to lose your reader… Address details and your personal details can appear in the margin. The point of your cover letter is to get your reader hooked by your opening line as soon as possible. In fact, fifteen seconds are all you have to lure them in.
- The opening paragraph is where you state where you saw the job posting and also if the job was brought to you by a mutual contact. But here’s the thing. If you’re going to take the hiring manager through Dullvilletownshire, you might as well save your time and stop writing. Flex creativity by drawing your reader into the letter. Make them feel special. For instance, “Our mutual contact, Joe Somebody, thought I might be interested in the graphic design position at your Boston branch. He was wrong. I’m freaking out! I’ve followed your company for the past three years on social media, and your Wilderness campaign blew my socks off.” While not all cover letters will be this informal, it’s worth doing research on the company you’re applying with. Many companies have real people working there and some creative effort might just get you noticed. That’s the point, right?
- Paragraphs two and three detail your education, skills, and experience.
- Conclude by thanking the reader for their time and consideration. Be sure to include a call to action (that’s not sleazy), like “Hope to hear from you soon.”
Ideally, your cover letter shouldn’t be more than three paragraphs and should definitely not be longer than a single page. If it is, it better be real darn good. Where you’re the ‘managing member of a planet’ good or you’ve ‘developed a cure for midnight cookie munchies’ good. So unless it’s that good, edit, edit, edit.
Resumes and cover letters go hand-in-hand and you’ll want to see Ramit’s take on the ideal resume. Take the first step to putting together a great application pack and get one step closer to your dream job.