Cover letters. We’ve all seen them, we’ve all fretted over them. Have you ever applied for a job and breathed a sigh of relief when the cover letter field is optional? (It’s OK to admit; we won’t judge you.) We know the job search process can already be stressful enough — add a personalized cover letter to the mix and you wouldn’t be alone if it’s caused you some kind of anxiety.
But the truth is that a cover letter doesn’t have to be stressful. It’s a good opportunity to expand upon your experience more thoroughly than you could in your résumé. It also gives you a chance to tell a company why you’d be a good fit for the position and how your skills and experience can be utilized for the role. Writing a poor cover letter can certainly be held against you, but writing one well—particularly one that stands out as unique—can speak volumes.
A hiring manager will always notice a good cover letter, but a well-written cover letter is what'll get them to reach out to you for that job interview. So the next time you’re pulling together a cover letter, consider these eight tips for success and write a cover letter that'll work to beat out the competition.
Eight Tips for Writing a Memorable Cover Letter
1. Read the job description before writing your cover letter.
This one feels like a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s so critical (and perhaps not done enough) that it should be said again: Read the entire job description before starting your cover letter. A lot of people start with a templated résumé-and-cover-letter combination for every job search. While this can save time, it can also serve as a huge disadvantage. By reading the job description and writing a résumé and cover letter to fit it accordingly, you can be sure that you fully understand the role for which you’re applying. It also gives you a better understanding of how to position yourself to your potential employer.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: The ability to showcase your understanding of the need an employer is looking to fill — and how you can fill that role if you get the job.
2. Don’t repeat what’s included in your résumé. Do elaborate on the things that may need explaining.
While a cover letter should be concise and focused, it’s also a perfect opportunity to elaborate on the things within your résumé that may need more explaining. If you managed a really successful project that applies to the role for which you're now applying, explain what you felt went well and your role in the project. If you are looking for a job after a short period of time, explain how this new role fulfills a job need that a previous employer didn’t fill for you. The last thing a recruiter wants is to read your cover letter, then read your résumé, and still only know one dimension of you.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: The opportunity to further elaborate on details that you weren’t able to include on your resume.
3. Make a case for why you’d be a good fit for the job for which you’re applying, and give concrete examples.
A cover letter is often a screening tool — by the time a recruiter finishes reading your cover letter, he or she should be compelled to give you an interview opportunity. So give concrete examples of why you deserve a further conversation. Be convincing on why your experience matches the experience they’re seeking. Showcase how you can bring skills learned from other job opportunities to their company, and how it will be beneficial to them to hire you. And if your experience doesn’t happen to match what they’re seeking, give them a reason to want a discussion with you: Tell them about why you’re looking to switch industries or fields and why you want to work for their company.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: Your prior experience and how you can incorporate this into the role for which you're applying to benefit their company.
4. Be confident in your skills.
Try to replace sentences like, “I think I would be a good fit for this role because…” to “I believe I would be a good fit for this role because…” Better yet, remove the “I believe” part of it all together and, instead, say, “I would be a good fit for this role because…” Confidence is key, and to be confident in your skills is an important part of the job search process. Women are generally less self-assured than men, so it’s important to keep the positive self-talk up.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: Confidence in your ability and yourself. You’re worth hiring — now show them why!
5. Don’t be afraid to provide suggestions/recommendations.
It’s bold, and it’s a little scary, but if (and only if!) you’ve done enough research about the role, provide a few recommendations on what you’d work on first. What’s the first thing you’d tackle if you got this role? What process have you followed when completing a relevant project at a prior job that may be worth following once you get this job? This could potentially set you apart from other candidates and certainly warrant a further conversation or follow-up point via email.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: Suggestions on what you’d work on first if/when you get the role. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you’d work on first, give credit to the experience you’ve had and how you’d implement this into your role.
6. Share about yourself and show some personality… without overdoing it.
This is widely contested, and many people have differing opinions on this, but I always liked reading cover letters that give a bit of background on the candidate. So when writing yours, perhaps include a sentence or two about yourself.
If you’re applying to a job in a different city, explain why you’re planning to make the move and what’s drawing you to the new place. If you notice a company has a “bring your dog to work” policy, mention that you have a crazy mutt at home, too. Don’t overdo it and spend your entire cover letter on this, but show some personality and do your best to create a relevant connection.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: Some personality that could potentially spark a connection between you and the company. They’re looking to see if you can fit their culture as much as they’re looking to see if you can fit the role!
7. Watch out for too many buzzwords.
Don’t get caught up in a buzzword trap. While reading a job description is a good thing (see point #1 above), showcasing concrete examples (see point #3) confidently (see point #5) as to how your skills can and will fit the proposed role doesn’t mean regurgitating all the words the company has used in the job description.
Nor does it mean an opportunity to sound smart by using acronyms and jargon that may mean something different at another company. (I once mixed up the acronym “SOP” without knowing it meant something totally different at one company versus another!) I try to balance sounding conversational and genuine with formality and professionalism.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: Real talk — don’t sound too informal, but don’t over-formalize by using buzzwords, industry jargon or acronyms that would make you unapproachable or misunderstood.
8. Go beyond spell check; check grammar and format, too.
Don’t just spell check. Make sure your grammar and cover letter formatting is correct, too. I always include the same header in my cover letter as I do on my résumé. I also use the same font so there’s consistency between the two documents (which are often submitted separately). When done well, accuracy in spelling, grammar and formatting doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when done poorly, it can be incredibly off-putting.
- Don’t leave off of your cover letter: Accuracy in spelling, grammar, and formatting.
When to Make Your Cover Letter Memorable vs. Traditional
While many hiring managers will welcome memorable cover letters that take a creative approach, there are some cases under which it might be best to err on the side of caution and go a more traditional route. Instances may include:
- Industries or businesses that are very formal such as some law or medical practices
- Applications with very specific or detailed instructions on what to include in your cover letter
- Any situation in which you believe a traditional cover letter is a better approach
That doesn't mean you can't still inject some personality into your cover letter, but do be mindful of your audience and what types of humor, for example, the hiring manager might appreciate.
Standout Cover Letters: The Bottom Line
Deciding what to include in a cover letter can be difficult, and many people have different opinions. You can easily find a sample cover letter online, but in order to write a really well-written cover letter or transform a good cover letter into a great cover letter — and take your application to the next level to score that interview — it'd be a good idea to really personalize this. Your potential employer or hiring manager will better be able to recognize your qualifications and career experience because of it.
What are some things you include in every cover letter? Which of these resonate with you? What other tips can you share with fellow job searchers?
Nicole Brooks is an integrated communications wiz with experience in agency, in-house, and nonprofit PR/marketing. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two crazy dogs. Tweet her @nicolebrookspr.