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Tips for Writing an Effective Cover Letter

No matter your background, the workforce is a competitive place. According to a national November 2017 report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 1.5 million Americans have looked for a job within the past 12 months. So how do you stand out from the crowd of other job-seekers?

One way to get noticed is to create a cover letter that makes a great first impression. A well-written and eye-catching cover letter will entice a potential employer to further explore your qualifications. It’s important to grab a company right away, as 98 percent of job-seekers are eliminated during the application process. If you want to make it to the next step and land an interview, be sure to put time and effort into your cover letter and resume.

98 percent of job-seekers are eliminated during the application process.

Want to know how to make a cover letter sparkle? Keep reading to learn how to make a lasting impact with tips on how to write an effective cover letter.

What Is a Cover Letter?

A cover letter is a typed one-page paper you send with your resume. In a cover letter, you will:

  • Introduce who you are.
  • Persuade the hiring manager why you are a good fit for the position.
  • Include skills and other details you did not include on your resume.
  • Expand aspects of your resume.

A cover letter is your opportunity to express your passion and set yourself apart from others. That’s why it’s important to let your personality and accomplishments shine in a cover letter while maintaining a professional and mature tone.

As a professional, your cover letter is expected to be grammatically correct and free of spelling errors. You may consider asking trusted peers to look over your cover letter before you send it out. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook our own mistakes — even the best writers in the world need editors.

Although cover letters must be written with a clear purpose, excellent grammar and formal structure, try not to feel intimidated. With a little effort and research, you can create a cover letter that’ll help get your name to the top of the pile.

What Should a Cover Letter Include?

First, know that a cover letter is not meant to replicate your resume. For example, if you list five different skills in your resume, don’t list the same skills in your cover letter. However, you may choose a skill from your resume and provide an example in your cover letter of how you’ve used that particular skill.

The point of your cover letter is to add the personal touch your resume does not provide. Your resume is basically a work history timeline, whereas your cover letter gives you a chance to speak. Think of your cover letter as a stage where you are given a short amount of time to persuade a potential employer to consider you. As you can imagine, you’ll need to choose your words carefully and give relevant information.

In your cover letter, you’ll argue why your skills match the skills of the position. Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes to determine what they need and let them know how you can get the job done.

You want to arouse a potential employer’s curiosity in you. Your cover letter gives you a chance to speak.

Not only do you want to arouse a potential employer’s curiosity in you, but you also want to express your curiosity in them. Companies are more likely to hire someone if they show a genuine interest in their company. Your interest in a company conveys the message that you believe in their mission and that you are willing to work hard to help them reach their goals.

Be sure to research a company before you apply. This will help you prepare to write your cover letter and customize your resume — and it will tell you if the company seems like a good fit for you. Your well-written cover letter will include:

  • The date
  • Your contact info
  • The position you are applying for
  • How you learned about the job opening
  • Specific reasons why you are qualified to perform the job duties
  • Why you want to work for the company — how their mission, values, or goals match yours
  • Appreciation for their time and consideration
  • How to take the next step in contacting you

How Do I Format a Cover Letter?

Employers expect a high level of professionalism when they read a cover letter. A cover letter that fails to meet their expectations will affect your chances of getting an interview. According to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 14 percent of employers eliminate potential candidates when they receive a poorly written cover letter. Seventy-seven percent will still read the resume, but they keep the unimpressive cover letter in mind. When it comes time for an employer to make a hiring decision, you want a cover letter to work in your favor.

14 percent of employers eliminate potential candidates when they receive a poorly written cover letter.

Show an employer you’re a hard worker and take your career seriously. Structure your cover letter to include the following elements:

  • Contact information: Your name, address, phone or cell number, and email address. Make sure your email address is professional-sounding. If needed, create a separate email account just for job-searching.
  • Salutation: Try to get the name of the person you are addressing by searching the company’s website or social media pages. If you have a name, address them as “Dear Mr. or Mrs. Smith,” for example. Follow the name with a colon and then skip a line to start the body. If you can’t find a name, use “Dear Hiring Manager” or another acceptable salutation. Capitalize the nouns.
  • First paragraph: Grab their attention with your enthusiasm. Explain why you are excited about the position. State the specific position you are applying for, where you found it, and why it interests you. List about two or three important and specific qualifications that make you a good match for the position and company. Use this space to include any references or company contacts you know.
  • Second paragraph: Illustrate how you possess one of the qualities mentioned in the first paragraph. Give specific examples. Argue how you can use your skill in the position you are applying for. Mention awards or accomplishments only if they are relevant to the job and serve as examples of your skills.
  • Third paragraph: Talk about the company and how you share the same values. Use this paragraph to express your passion for the type of work you are applying for. Give examples of how your passion drove you to succeed in the past.
  • Fourth paragraph: Summarize your skills and what you have to offer. Request to meet in person for an interview or speak on the phone to further discuss your qualifications. Consider stating you will follow-up with them to answer their questions in a few days. Let them know they can reach you in the meantime.
  • Closing: Use a formal closing such as “sincerely” or “best regards.” Place a comma after the closing. Place your name on a new line.
  • Signature: If you’re sending a printed cover letter, type the closing phrase, skip three or four lines, and type your name. Once you print the cover letter, sign in the space between the closer and your typed name using blue or black ink. If you’re emailing the page, type your name, skip a space, and then include your contact info or email signature.

Want to know more about an email signature? A thoughtful email signature can leave a lasting impression. If you are sending your cover letter via email, create an email signature in your account settings or with a signature tab. Your email signature should be about three or four lines of text and might include:

  • Your name
  • Your title
  • Your company name and a link to your company website
  • Your email address
  • Your phone number
  • Your professional Twitter account link or a link to your LinkedIn profile
  • Your company’s logo or a professional picture of yourself

It is not necessary to include your email address in your email signature because the recipient only needs to hit the reply button to reach you. Also, the idea of an email signature is to show your credibility and be visually appealing. Don’t add more information than is necessary.

What Are the Specifics?

In general, you want your cover letter to look clean and be easy to read. A hiring manager will likely spend only a few moments with your cover letter, so you want to avoid a visually busy or confusing appearance. Use the following details as a guide:

  • Font size: 10 or 12-point font
  • Font type: Arial, Verdana, or Times New Roman. Match the font used in your resume for a cohesive look.
  • Spacing: Single-spaced with one blank space between paragraphs
  • Margins: About 1 inch all around
  • Alignment: To the left for all paragraphs
  • Length: One page of three to four paragraphs of around 300 to 350 words. Paragraphs should be three to four sentences each.

Almost 70 percent of employers preferred a half-page cover letter and only 12 percent wanted a full page. The SHRM survey found that cover letters are often read in a minute or less.

According to the 2011 Orange County Resume Survey, almost 70 percent of employers preferred a half-page cover letter and only 12 percent wanted a full page. The SHRM survey found that cover letters are often read in a minute or less.

As you can see, you don’t have much room or time to say a lot, so make sure each word is relevant and carries a punch. Remember: your cover letter is meant to help you get to the next step. If an employer is impressed and wants to learn more about you, you’ll likely have more opportunities to share your qualifications and interests in the future.

What Are Some Attention-Grabbing Keywords?

The words you choose to use in your cover letter must reflect your passion and abilities as concisely as possible. One way to make sure you include the right words is to refer to the job description. What keywords does the employer use? What specific skills are they looking for?

Use this information to guide your word choice. However, feel free to explore other keywords, too, as long as they represent your skill level and are relevant to the position. Focus on using powerful descriptive adjectives and avoid clichés. Consider choosing from the following list of keywords to describe yourself:

  • Inspired
  • Enthusiastic
  • Passionate
  • Versatile
  • Energetic
  • Adaptable

Consider using these adjective replacements:

  • “Adept” instead of “skilled” or “proficient”
  • “Driven” instead of “motivated”

You want to be approachable and sound human, so the trick is to not sound overly formal while maintaining a professional tone. Use common yet colorful and energetic words. Choose words that exude confidence, focus, and a positive attitude. Aim to use at least two or three adjectives listed in the job description. Avoid the passive voice and choose strong, active verbs like the following:

  • Launched
  • Led
  • Managed
  • Analyzed
  • Budgeted
  • Ignited
  • Navigated
  • Negotiated
  • Reorganized
  • Rescued
  • Identified
  • Generated

The Balance recommends using some of these powerful verbs:

  • Achieved
  • Assisted
  • Advised
  • Assembled
  • Boosted
  • Brainstormed
  • Coordinated
  • Challenged
  • Communicated
  • Developed
  • Helped
  • Improved
  • Operated
  • Persuaded
  • Produced
  • Resolved
  • Shaped
  • Steered
  • Supported
  • Trained
  • Transformed
  • Targeted
  • Tailored
  • Utilized
  • Verified
  • Visualized
  • Wrote

We use many of these words every day. These words are simple, but they’re also active and direct — and they make excellent cover letter verbs.

What Are Tips for Writing a Cover Letter?

Typos can destroy your chance of landing a job. Make proofreading a priority.

We’ve covered the basics of how to write an effective cover letter. Before we part, here a few more general tips to take with you:

  • Don’t mention salary: You want to focus on what you can offer a company in your cover letter, not what they must pay you. Don’t include salary requirements unless asked. However, if a company requests a salary requirement, be sure to include this information in your cover letter. If you don’t, you might hurt your chances of an interview.
  • Use bullet points: If you include several skills or qualities in a paragraph, consider listing them with bullet points instead. Bullet points make a cover letter easier to scan and draws attention.
  • Be brief: Although it seems you need to add a lot of information, remember to keep it to one page. Avoid redundancy.
  • Focus on the employer’s needs: A cover letter is not meant to be written as an autobiography, so try not to include too many instances of “I” or “My.” Keep the focus on serving the potential employer.
  • Be genuine: Don’t be afraid to show your personality as long as you keep it mature and professional.
  • Use examples as guides: Refer to online templates to make sure your cover letter is clean, easy to read, and attractive.
  • Proofread: Typos can destroy your chance of landing a job. Seventy-six percent of SHRM survey respondents claimed they eliminate candidates whose cover letters contain typos or grammatical errors. Make proofreading a priority.
  • Be a problem-solver: Figure out the problem an employer needs solved and offer to solve it. Make it known that you have the skills to solve their problem in the first few sentences of your cover letter.
  • Know their tone: Research the company’s website and gain a solid understanding of their tone. Try to match their tone with your cover letter.
  • Don’t be too flattering: You want to show the company you share their values, but try not to go overboard. Remember to keep the focus on the skills you can offer them.
  • Keep examples short: Describe situations where you’ve put skills to the test as briefly as possible. In other words, introduce the skill you’re highlighting, explain the situation where it came in handy, and give the result.
  • Make the first line count: Avoid opening your cover letter with “My name is…” or another generic phrase. Instead, consider starting with passion, with your love for the company, or with a desirable quality or accomplishment.
  • Avoid generic adjectives: Instead of describing yourself as “a team player,” focus on giving specific examples of your skills.

Ready to show a potential employer what you’ve got? With a well-written cover letter, you’ll prove to companies you cared enough to put effort and time into your cover letter. That’s one sure way to show that you’ll care enough as an employee, too.

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