The Ultimate Guide to Writing an Effective Cover Letter

Image of a job seeker writing a cover letter at his desk. Cover letters may seem antiquated, but the reality is that they can be a valuable, door-opening tool for job seekers.

That’s because a cover letter builds on your resume to grab a hiring manager’s attention. Rather than simply showcase your qualifications for a job, it expresses your interest in the opportunity.

An effective cover letter also:

  • personalizes your application
  • explains your resume and helps it stand out
  • allows a potential employer to get a peek at your personality
  • shows that you are willing to do research/work for the job

Wondering how to do all that in a short letter? Don’t stress. 

We’ve put together an extensive guide to help! Not only will it make your cover letter-writing easier, it will help you grab a hiring manager’s attention!

Tips for crafting a great cover letter

Feel free to jump to any specific tip that seems interesting to you. 

But first, 

Do you even need a cover letter?

Unless a prospective employer explicitly asks for a cover letter, it can be unclear whether one is necessary. 

Even hiring managers seem to disagree. While 56% of hiring managers prefer that job seekers submit a cover letter with their application, only 26% of recruiters consider cover letters important when deciding who to hire. 

So if you’re unsure whether to submit a cover letter, you’re not alone. 

Luckily, we can help.

When to include a cover letter  

  • Always include a cover letter if: 
    • The job posting requests or requires one. 
    • Someone at the company tells you to include one.
  • Consider including a cover letter if: 
    • The job demands good writing and communication skills.
    • You’re applying for a competitive job where your letter could make you stand out.
    • You have employment gaps in your resume you want to explain.
  • Don’t include a cover letter if: 
    • There’s no way for you to upload one.
    • The job posting specifically states you don’t need one. 
    • You don’t have time to write a good one. (No letter is better than a poorly written one.) 

When in doubt, your best bet is to submit a cover letter.  

How to Write an Effective Cover Letter

Before starting your cover letter

1. Look for samples.

Most cover letters follow the same basic format. That’s why, before getting started, you should do an online search for cover letter templates and samples

These are great resources. They will show you how to structure your cover letter and give you an idea of what it should sound like. 

Having said that, while templates and samples are great tools to help get you started, you should avoid copying a cover letter you found online.

If you copy a template, it WILL be obvious. That won’t make a good impression on a hiring manager. 

2. Know your audience.

It’s always useful to cater your cover letter to your prospective employer. 

So before you start writing, do some research on the employer and specific job you want. Check out their website. Read their story. Learn about their company culture. And read the job description carefully. 

Then, think of how you can tie your skills and experience to the job posting as well as the company’s mission and values.

You’ll also want to mirror the company’s tone, language, and keywords. Pay attention to how they communicate. Are they particularly formal? Are they casual? Do they use humor? 

Taking a little time to research an employer will ensure you don’t sound generic and help you appear like a perfect company fit.

Writing your cover letter

1. Use a human voice.

While it’s great to use a template as a guide, don’t overload your cover letter with robotic language. 

Let your personality shine through. Think of what makes you stand out from others and include it into your letter. Try to go beyond some of the formulaic language found in lots of cover letters, and write in a way that is true to you. 

For example, you could try leading with a creative first sentence. Instead of simply stating “I am applying for X position”, lead with a relevant anecdote about how your experience led you to this role. 

That’s not to say you need to “dumb-it-down” or be informal. Professionalism is always important. Just don’t force jargon into your cover letter that doesn’t sound like you.

The idea is to show recruiters who you are and grab their attention long enough for them to consider you seriously for the position. 

2. Tell a story.

Rather than repeat everything that is on your resume, use the cover letter as a platform for sharing your story. 

Everyone loves a good story! So tell stories from your career (or related experiences.) Think about the job you’re applying to and describe, using real examples, what makes you a uniquely good fit for the company.

Stories are also a great way to convey your enthusiasm about the company and the job. For example, what makes this company your go-to choice? Why is this company special to you? Why does the job personally appeal to you? How does that relate to the rest of your story?

This is an opportunity for you to catch an employer’s attention, while highlighting why you’re the perfect candidate for the job.

3. Showcase your success.

The job or company may be awesome, but don’t get caught up in gushing about the opportunity. Brag about yourself – without being arrogant.

Highlight your skills. Prove to the hiring manager that you’re great for the role. And don’t just tell them about your successes. Show that you were successful, by using numbers and stats.

Avoid overused terms like “self-starter” or “uniquely-qualified.” Differentiate yourself by proving that you are. 

For example,  “I developed a system to help streamline communication between my coworkers. As a result, our team’s productivity went up by 50%.” This shows a measurable and concrete way you took initiative and added value to your employer. 

Remember, your goal is to stand out from the other applicants and make it as easy as possible for a hiring manager to visualize you on their team.

Adding final touches

1. Include the hiring manager’s name.

When addressing your cover letter, avoid writing “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Hiring Manager.”

Instead, take a moment to find out the hiring manager’s name. It adds a personal touch and demonstrates that you cared enough about the opportunity to do the research. 

That said, don’t spend hours looking for a name either. A lot of companies have recruiters or HR people that deal with applications before they make it to a hiring manager.   

So if you’re not able to find out who the hiring manager is, that’s OK. Just try. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to impress. 

2. Keep it short and sweet.

The goal of a cover letter is to capture the hiring manager’s interest so that they call you back. You’re not writing your autobiography. Keep your cover letter between half a page to one page.

Hiring managers usually don’t have time for anything longer than that. You may be writing one letter, but chances are they’re reading many more. Make it as easy as possible for them to see why you’re perfect for the job. 

To keep your letter short, highlight only the experience most relevant to the job and avoid including any unnecessary details, such as “references upon request.”

If a hiring manager wants to learn more about you, they are going to ask you for a list of references.

A short and well-constructed cover letter will have a higher likelihood of grabbing and maintaining a hiring manager’s attention.  

3. Proofread.

If you are taking the time to create a cover letter, take the time to proofread what you’ve written. Your cover letter is one of the first impressions a recruiter will get of you after all. And the last thing you want is for a recruiter to interpret mistakes as a lack of care or effort towards landing the position.

So don’t let a simple grammatical or spelling mistake be the reason that a potential employer doesn’t call you back. 

Review your cover letter and let it sit for a bit. Then come back to it with fresh eyes. You can also have someone else review it, too. A new set of eyes will help catch any mistake you might’ve missed. 

Taking a few extra minutes to proofread your letter is more than a good idea. It’s a must.

All in all, having a strong cover letter increases your chance of landing an interview. So keep these tips in mind so you can write a cover letter that wows your potential employer. 

And if you’re looking for more job-search tips, check out our blog. We have many great articles to help you land the job of your dreams: 

How TERRA Can Be a Resource

TERRA Staffing is a leading staffing agency with many resources available for job seekers. We partner with companies large and small, across a variety of industries and we can help open the door to new career opportunities.

Getting started with us is simple. Just check out our current job openings. We have offices in the Seattle-Puget Sound, Portland, Phoenix, and Denver Metro areas.  

Don’t see what you’re looking for? Contact us! Our expert recruiters are waiting to speak with you. 

(Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2018 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.)

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