How to Write the Perfect Cover Letter: Steps, Tips, and Common Pitfalls

how to write a cover letter

In general, unless otherwise stated, a cover letter is an integral part of your job application. It is just as important as your resume and can make or mar how your recruiter perceives you.

That said, writing the perfect cover letter isn’t necessarily complex. It is a straightforward task. And this guide strips the process into simple actionable steps. Cover letter writing tips as well as pitfalls make following these steps even easier.

What is a Cover Letter?

To put it simply, a cover letter is a short, formal prose that answers the question, “Why are you a good fit for this job?” It is a formal letter; therefore, you should structure it as one—complete with a salutation, a few paragraphs, and a closing.

When you write a cover letter, you are aiming to tell the recruiter: ‘Sir/Madam, I’m applying for X job, because I think Y skills, experiences, and/or accomplishments make me an ideal candidate; and I politely request an opportunity to meet.’

The Differences between a Cover Letter and a Resume

A cover letter and a resume are the marketing documents that sell you to a prospective employer. They are complementary. And they both share the common purpose of validating that you the right expertise to excel at the job for which you are applying.

But that is about as far as their similarities go.

A cover letter is not an extended repeat of your resume. The primary difference is in the structure. A cover letter is a formal prose, while a resume is a sectionalized list.

It goes farther.

A resume summarizes your educational qualifications, job history, certifications acquired, skills, and accomplishments attained in an itemized format.

A cover letter is a more precise body of text that highlights the qualifications you have for the job, interprets your background as presented on your resume, and holistically explains how you meet the criteria detailed in the job posting.

Furthermore, a cover letter gives you the latitude to share information that is more subjective, such as why you are interested in a position or why the company culture appeals to you. A cover letter is a better conduit to convey this than a resume.

In a nutshell, while a cover letter pinpoints the qualifications that make you an obvious choice, the resume aggregates the details to back the information in the cover letter.

Preparing to Write a Cover Letter

Understanding the purpose of a cover letter doesn’t mean you can bang your keyboard (or fiddle with your pen) just yet. First, you’d have to prepare.

Your preparation entails two steps:

  1. Research the company
  2. Know your audience

Research the company

At this point, you clearly know the name of the company, what industry they’re in, the name of the CEO, where the company headquarters is located and all that. But what else do you know that could make your cover letter more targeted?

  • Do you know the core work principles of the company?
  • Do you know the culture and values of the company?
  • Do you know the extent to which the company has influenced the industry they’re in?

Every company has a unique identity and vision. And it is in your best interest to show that this identity, vision, culture, value system is not lost on you; that you have a real interest in the role and the company; and more importantly that you would be able to thrive.

The best resources to glean valuable information from are obviously the company website and from current/former employees. But if you aren’t getting anything worthwhile or want to increase your scope, then head on to the search engines.

Know your audience

Here is an apothegm to keep at the back of your mind: Getting ahead is not about what you write, it is about what the recruiter reads. You may write a cover letter that reads excellent to you, but sounds off to the recruiter.

The standards and expectations of companies and industries differ when it comes to the formality and style of a cover letter. Therefore, as part of your preparation, get a concrete knowledge of how to address your prospective employer with their peculiar style and policies.

Tips to Note before Writing a Cover Letter

Technically, noting these tips is part of preparing to write a cover letter. It deserves a sub-section because these tips are the antidotes for common pitfalls in cover letter writing.

  1. Keep it short and simple

The acronym of this tip is certainly alluring and the message is doubly important. You do not have the room to go to town with high-sounding words, lengthy expositions, and long-winded stories.

Your cover letter should be short and direct. That means NO verbosity (no matter how tempting it might be). You simply want to tell the employer why you like the job and how you are qualified for the job. It isn’t a chance to write your autobiography.

  1. Shorter is better

This isn’t a groundbreaking tip and it is actually obvious. But oftentimes, it is critical to echo it.

Have a heart and consider that your employer is going through tons of applications. He or she certainly does not want to meet a wall of text, when you could alternatively send an abridged variant.

Most recruiters overwhelmingly prefer one page cover letters—about 70% of respondents in a Saddleback College Resume Survey. Unsurprisingly, many are even finicky on if the cover letter should be a full page, half page, or even shorter.

Unsurprising because in a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Survey on Cover Letters and Resumes, 83 percent of respondents opine that they or a member of their staff spend an average of ONE (1) minute or less reading a cover letter.

Your cover letter should be 3 to 5 short paragraphs long.

  1. Endeavor to go the extra mile to find out the name of the person who will receive your application. The purpose is to append the name of person in your salutation (Dear [Insert Name Here]). However, if you are unable to get a name, “Dear Sir/Madam” works too.
  2. Personalize/Customize/Tailor your cover letter

Follow two cardinal rules:

  • NEVER use one cover letter for multiple applications; you want to connect with the employer
  • Do NOT use generic statements; make an effort to stand out
  • Only highlight relevant past accomplishments; nothing screams “good fit” as much as a verifiable metric of success in a similar role
  1. Formal and professional is the way to go

A cover letter is a formal correspondence. Your writing shouldn’t deviate from this standard. That means a casual tone with slangs, colloquialisms, and/or awkward jargons are a no-no.

Writing a Successful Cover Letter

Phew!

Finally, you can put together that coherent and concise cover letter you have prepared for. The template below is for a four-paragraph cover letter that should provide helpful pointers.

Salutation

Use Dear [Insert Name of Recruiter Here] or Dear Sir/Madam when you aren’t sure of the name of the recruiter.

First Paragraph

Like every well-written introduction in a prose, the aim of your first paragraph is to captivate the recruiter. Get his or her attention locked and walk him or her through your cover letter.

You want to use language that is in the middle of two extremes—too rigid and too personal.

Example: “With X years of high-level hands-on experience creating, implementing, and troubleshooting software applications, I confidently express my interest in your posting on ________ for the position of ________.”

For entry-level positions such as graduate assistant and similar positions where your main qualifier is education, emphasize the course you are studying or have studied instead.

Second Paragraph

After letting them know that you are a viable prospect, you comprehensively prove why you are perfect for the role.

In this paragraph, you have to curate relevant information gleaned from your research about the company, mix in your enthusiasm about blending seamlessly into the company culture, and mention how you want to be a budding part of the company’s success story.

Example: “I recognize _______’s immense contribution to the industry with attendant rise in market share, aptly pointed out in back issues of ________ Newspaper. Industry watchers are excited about the impressive potential of _______ that was featured in _______ Journal last month. I am delighted at the prospect of being a part of ______ success, and, from my research about your company/speaking to some of your employees, it appears that my personality aligns with your company culture; signifying that I could enthusiastically help realize the potential of _______.

Third Paragraph

Now, you let them know what you are bringing to the table. You should carefully share relevant accomplishments or achievements that reiterate that you are result-oriented and would get the job done.

It is a common feature to itemize these accomplishments in bullet form.

Examples: “I supervised a factory renovation with a budget of $400,000, and meeting set deadline without going over budget.”

“I increased participation rate by 36% while maintaining a record 69% retention rate by launching new partnerships and replacing the old curriculum with an evidence- and tech-based curriculum.”

“I overhauled the inefficient client billing system to increase turnover of bills sent on schedule and clearing an inherited three-month backlog in only two weeks.”

Fourth Paragraph

Rounding up, you would want to state when you would be available for an interview, the channels through which the employer can contact you, and your availability.

You may include a mention of your intention to follow up with a call or a mention of your resume (especially if are sending via regular mail or making a delivery in person). Typically, since most cover letters are sent via e-mail or .doc/.pdf attachments to an online application form, it isn’t relevant to make mention of an attached resume.

Example: I am available to take calls (Insert Phone Number) and email (Insert Email) every day between 7 AM and 9 PM. I look forward to discussing this position further in person.

Closing

This is nothing fancy. Simply end with “Yours truly” and your name. If you are sending an e-mail cover letter, you may add your telephone number and e-mail beneath your name.

Example:

                  Yours truly,

                  [Insert Name]

                  [Insert Phone Number]

                  [Insert Email]

Tips to Note After You Are Done

  1. Use the pre-writing tips to edit your letter

Now is a good time to cut out any fluff, reword ambiguous sentences, and generally fine-tune your cover letter.

  1. Go over your contact details again
  2. Check for errors

A face-palming irony is stating that you pay attention to detail in your cover letter but didn’t pick up a spelling or grammar error. And don’t trust your eyes to do a thorough job. Having a second pair of eyes go through your letter may through up errors that you didn’t catch.

  1. Structure your cover letter accordingly

For physical cover letters you intend to send via regular mail or deliver in person, it is standard to include the recipient’s address at the top, yours at the bottom, append your signature et cetera.

For an e-mail cover letter or attached .doc/.pdf file, you’d rather keep it simple by only adding your telephone number and e-mail address when you close. If the recruiter needs your address, he or she can find it in your resume or application form.

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