A perfect cover letter can be written in just ten words. In fact, I’ve done it right here:
I want to work for you. You should hire me.
It’s perfect in the sense that it communicates the entire message of a cover letter in the most direct, truthful way. But most of life is not direct nor 100% truthful. Just as the peacock needs its shiny green feathers to find a girlfriend, you’ll have a display to put on to get your next job.
The cover letter is part of that intricate display. It’s cordial but not informal. It’s respectful, but not grossly deferential. It communicates your value but not your vanity.
That’s why so many job-seekers stress out over their cover letter. They’re so simple - just a couple of paragraphs about yourself - but doing them the wrong way can set a nasty tone for your entire application.
That’s why we’re here to give you an easy five-step process to writing a great cover letter every time. With the help of our little formula, you’ll be able to churn out effective cover letters at a record pace.
1. Formatting your cover letter
Let’s start by putting up the scaffolding for a great cover letter.
Every cover letter should follow some simple rules. It should be three paragraphs long. It should be in a personal letter format. It should take up about a half a page and it should use a font size of 14. Here’s why.
To begin, three paragraph structures give you a perfect framework to focus on the three ideas that every cover letter needs.
First Paragraph: Who you are and why you’re perfect for the job.
Second Paragraph: Why you want the job.
Third Paragraph: Thanks for reading your application.
It’s also extremely traditional. Your hiring manager will be expecting to see a three-paragraph letter. That’s a good thing because they’ll know where to look for the info they want if they’re only going to spend a few seconds reading your letter.
That’s also why you’ll want to use a personal letter format for your letter. Start it with a “Dear [Name]” and end it with a “From [Your Name]”. Some people agonize over the particular sign off they use in a professional cover letter (is Cheers too informal?!!?!) but I say don’t overthink it.
The letter should take up half a page. Don’t take my word for it though. In a recent survey of employers, the largest group (43.7%) agreed that a half-page cover letter is the perfect length.
Last, you want your cover letter to be easy to read. Fortunately, there are lots of studies that show which fonts and sizes are easiest to read. That’s why you should always format your cover letters using the font type Georgia at a size of 14.
2. Opening your cover letter
Now that the scaffolding is in place, let’s start building the foundation. That’s the first paragraph. The goal for the first paragraph in your cover letter is to grab the reader's attention and tell them about yourself.
It’s critical to grab the reader’s attention because, if you don’t, your cover letter probably isn’t going to get read. And that’s not an exaggeration. The simple fact is most hiring managers skip over cover letters. Even the ones that read them spend an average of six seconds scanning each one.
Even though they probably won’t read it, that same survey showed that the majority of hiring managers expect you to include a cover letter. Is that confusing? Maybe. But I’m not going to jeopardize a chance at a great job by skimping on a quick little letter.
So to maximize the chances that your hiring manager will read your letter and get a better sense of your personality, you need a grabby opener. Something more interesting than “Hi my name is…”
My tried and true openers are:
- Referencing something you learned about the hiring manager
- Referencing your personal experience with the company or brand
- A funny anecdote about yourself
After your grabby opener, the rest of the opening paragraph should be two sentences that show you’re qualified for the role. Here’s where you’ll mention relevant degrees or work experience. Prove that you meet their minimum requirements right from the start.
3. Filling your cover letter
You’ve laid the strong foundation, so let’s main floor. The meat of your cover letter is the second paragraph. Here, you’ll communicate the pieces of information a resume never can: why you want the job.
In 3-4 sentences, you’ll demonstrate that you understand why the job is special and why it matches your aspirations.
Many people miss that first part. A huge element of demonstrating desire for a job is showing that you understand its critical characteristics. What does the company do? How does the role fit into the company’s goals? What will you be doing day to day? A recent survey of hiring managers in the US and the UK showed that 88% prioritized “informed” candidates above all others.
Next to being informed, those hiring managers wanted candidates who were passionate about the job. Once you show that you understand the nature of the position you’re applying for, you’ll tell them why it’s the sort of job you want.
Here’s your chance to get personal. Tell them about why you got into the line of work you do. Show them why you care. If you can prove those two things — that you understand and that you care — you’ll be heading to the first interview in no time.
4. Concluding your cover letter
Here’s another step that people often stress over without need. Once you get to the last paragraph of your cover letter, you’ve probably already lost 95% of your audience.
I don’t mean that to be discouraging. I mean it to be freeing. Why obsess over your sign-off when the majority of your hiring managers won’t read it? That’s not to say that the final paragraph of your cover letter is pointless.
Its function is to thank the hiring manager for reading your application. This is a surprisingly critical step because the gatekeepers to your next job show a strong preference for feeling gratitude from their applicants.
It’s why you’ll want to send a thank you note after each interview, and it’s why you want to conclude with a note of appreciation in your cover letter. There’s no need to brown nose though. I conclude ever cover letter with a nearly identical note that looks like this:
“Thank you for taking the time to review my application. I look forward to discussing the role further soon.”
Then close it with a “from” or “sincerely”, and you’re done!
5. Packaging your cover letter
Okay, I lied. You’re not actually done. But you are close! Just make sure not to overlook the essential step to review and properly package your cover letter.
To make this easy, I’ll let you in on our 3-step review that I put every cover letter through before sending it out.
Step 1: Serious, aggressive spell checking
NO, DO NOT SKIP THIS SECTION. I know you think you know how to spell check. But looking for all the red squiggly lines is NOT ENOUGH. Read it once through. Then read it out loud. Then put it through a grammar check platform like Grammar.ly.
Don’t believe me? In 2013 a study found that a whopping 59% of resumes contain at least one typo. I’d be willing to bet the number for cover letters is even hire. And hiring managers frequently use typos as an excuse to toss out an application.
Step 2: Convert to PDF or Use Online Tools
It’s hard to know how many job applications aren’t read every year because the applicant sent it in in a format the hiring manager couldn’t open/wasn’t comfortable with. But I know it’s too many. Don’t be one of them.
At minimum, you should use a PDF file. Everyone can open a PDF. Plus, they’re as professional as a digital document can be. If you haven’t made a PDF before, it’s probably simpler than you think. Check out this video for a quick explanation how.
A better option is to use an online resume tool. We’re fans of the Resume.io system, which makes it super easy to write, design, and send killer looking resumes. Are we biased because it’s the system we built? Yes. But that doesn’t make us wrong.
Step 3: Save with a friendly file name.
All of us are used to clicking the Save As button without checking the name of the file name. But doing that with your cover letter is missing an opportunity. Or actively hurting you.
You probably know that a file name like “SumDumApp.doc” is not going to win you any friends. But what’s the best file name to use instead?
I like to make sure that my name and the company’s name show up in my file name. That way, they can easily associate my application files with me. And they know I made it custom for their application. So, for example: JohnDoeMicrosoftCover.docx.
With that, you’re ready to send it out!
A system for success
Unfortunately, writing a cover letter that’s actually going to get you the job takes more than ten words. But that doesn’t mean it has to be an impossible task.
Because the job search is normally a multi-month task, it’s always worth setting up systems for success. Relying on a proven step-by-step system for cover letters will make them dramatically easier to churn out and improve their quality.
Fortunately, using the process I outlined for you above, you’ll be writing up a storm in no time.