3 steps to writing an effective cover letter

January 15, 2019

Why write a cover letter if you’re giving all the details an employer needs in your resume or CV?

Because a cover letter is the written version of projecting self-confidence and capability, along with a smile and a good handshake. Recruiters and hiring managers get dozens, if not hundreds of resumes for each posting. Including a cover letter that introduces yourself gives you a great opportunity to specifically target yourself for that position, and your resume then provides the extensive evidence to back up your cover letter. A cover letter is your first chance to make an impression on the hiring manager or recruiter, and a carefully researched and crafted letter is an excellent way to make sure that first impression is a great one.

Follow these tips from the Capella University Career Center for writing an effective and memorable cover letter.

Step 1: Craft the perfect introduction

It all starts with the intro. Specifically name the position you’re applying for, tell them why you’re interested, and what would make you a good fit for the role. Don’t worry about being too detailed—that’s what the resume is for. The introduction in the letter is a way to create a solid connection that makes the reader want to continue reading.

Step 2: Let your skills and experience shine

Here is where you get to dive in to the qualities and skillsets you could bring to the position. Be sure to detail how your past experience is relevant to the position you’re applying for. While you want to keep the cover letter fairly short, it’s fine to use more than one paragraph for the body. When writing this section, consider these tips:

  • Show that you understand the organization’s needs by aligning your skills, experience, and expertise to the role you seek.
  • Specify your successes. People like to see quantifiable results. For example, instead of saying “I’m an effective fundraiser,” describe a specific example such as, “Over the past 3 years, I have increased community giving by 200% bringing in $500K annually.”
  • A focused approach is better than a comprehensive listing of what you have to offer. What defining roles will you bring to this role if hired?

Step 3: Creating a memorable conclusion

This is not the time to showcase humility. You need to end with why you (and only you) are the best choice for the position. Strengthen the closing by including:

  • A reference to what the reader will find when they read the accompanying resume or CV.
  • A restatement of your interest in the position.
  • Your plans for follow-up.
  • Links for additional information (online portfolio, LinkedIn, etc.).
  • Sincere appreciation for their time and consideration.

How to customize your cover letter

When you tailor the content of your cover letter to address the organization’s needs and requirements, you stand out as an applicant and demonstrate that you have sincere interest in the position. Here are some techniques for customizing your cover letter to a specific job.

  • If you have a direct connection to the company, bring that in right away. Personal connections, such as referrals from a current employee or if you recently conducted an informational interview with someone at the company, that should be in your first paragraph.
  • You should have done research on the company or industry before applying, so use what you learned in the letter to let them know you’ve done your due diligence.
  • Make a connection between your key accomplishments and the requirements of the position. Provide details and specific skills, along with outcomes.
  • Mirror the language of the job posting.
  • Avoid starting every paragraph or sentence with ‘I’, which is repetitive.
  • Keep the focus on what you can do for the employer in this position.
  • Follow the instructions on the job posting. If they ask for anything specific in the cover letter, make sure to include those items.

How to format your cover letter

The nitty-gritty details matter. A properly formatted cover letter demonstrates your professionalism and attention to detail. Keep these factors in mind when composing your letter.

  • Length: Keep it to one page. This shows your ability to communicate in an effective and concise manner.
  • Font: Use an 11-12-point font that is professional and legible—Arial, Calibri, Times New Roman, Verdana, or Tahoma are good options. Use the same font and font size throughout your entire document. Mirror your cover letter format (font style and size) on your resume or CV, reference sheet, and any other application documents you may have. Black font only; multiple colors could make you stand out—in the wrong way.
  • Paragraphs and spacing: Use single-spacing throughout your letter, with a space between paragraphs. Do not indent your paragraphs. It’s fine to use bullet points to highlight relevant qualifications.
  • One space after a period or other sentence-ending punctuation. There was a time when two spaces were used. That time is past. Using two spaces now looks like you’re not current.
  • Structure: Use this letter structure from top to bottom, inserting a blank line between each section:
    • Your contact information
    • Submission date
    • Recipient’s contact information
    • Salutation with recipient’s name (such as “Dear Ms. Anderson:”)
    • Letter content (intro, body, conclusion)
    • Closing (e.g., “Sincerely,”) and your signature

How to proofread your cover letter

No matter how good your cover letter is, if it’s riddled with spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, it will hurt more than help. A thorough proofreading is critical.

When proofreading your cover letter, look at whether it:

  • Uses a consistent font and font size and is the same style as my resume or CV
  • Uses a business letter structure
  • Contains no abbreviations
  • Is single-spaced, with a space between paragraphs, paragraphs are not indented
  • Does not have two spaces after a sentence
  • Uses a specific person in the salutation
  • Is no longer than one page
  • Has no spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors
  • Does not begin every sentence with the word “I”
  • Clearly identifies the name of the position
  • Includes my current contact information and uses a professional email and a phone number with a professional voice mail message
  • Is customized to the position for which I am applying

It can be difficult to proofread your own work. If you’re worried that you’ll miss something, find someone in your network that can be a trusted resource to lend a pair of helping eyes.

Repeat for each job you apply for

Once you have the process down, you should be able to relatively easily customize your cover letter for each new position you apply for. Be careful to proofread more than once, so that you don’t mistakenly tell Google how much you’re looking forward to joining the Yahoo team. It’s an investment of time and effort up front, but in the end, a polished, error-free cover letter is vital to a successful job search.

Want feedback on your cover letter? Capella University students and alumni enjoy free, lifetime access to the Capella Career Center for career planning and advice.

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