Cover letters seem simple in theory, but when you’re about to send them off, suddenly you may have doubts. Everything from the format to the tone of voice can come into question. Here are my answers to the most common questions I get about cover letters from clients.
Do I really need one?
It’s not always required, but it can be a way to set yourself apart. In your portfolio of job hunt documents, cover letters can be about who you are, not just what you did. So much of your resume is about achievement, and if you’re like me, you may struggle with defining yourself solely by what you’ve achieved. The cover letter can be about so much more. This is the place to include your values and how they connect with an employer’s values. It can be about your “why.”
I recommend having a base cover letter for your job hunt that you can customize for applications. Always follow application instructions. If a posting says, “no cover letters,” take them at their word and don’t waste your time. Otherwise, a good cover letter can help your application.
What should I include?
I recommend 3-4 paragraphs. In the first paragraph, let the employer know why you’ve chosen to apply. In the second and possibly a third paragraph, share compelling highlights from your career that directly address their needs in the job posting. Finally, the last paragraph should conclude with your interest in a meeting, the best way to contact you, and any other details about your availability.
Many cover letter templates include the address of the employer at the top, a date, and a line “Re: Position Title.”
In the interest of space, you can delete the addresses if you’re sending it by email. I also prefer including the cover letter in the body of the email itself unless you’re instructed to upload the cover letter as part of the application.
Do I need to address the letter to a certain person?
One of the most important ways to stand out isn’t in the body of the letter, it’s in the salutation. If you find the right person to send the letter to – a recruiter assigned to the position, for instance, that you’ve located on LinkedIn – it can show that you’re motivated and interested in the organization.
But sometimes you just can’t find that information. In that case I’d recommend a simple, gender free, “Dear Hiring Manager:” or “Dear Hiring Team:”
How long should it be?
I recommend one page. There are always exceptions. Some academic positions request descriptions of your teaching philosophy, for example, that will go to 2 pages.
What tone should I use in the letter?
I believe cover letters sound too stilted as a rule. Job hunters should eliminate jargon, and what I call resume-ese… those words and phrases that people think sound professional but sound like you’re on the set of Downton Abbey. An example: “I wish to express my interest in your fine organization.” Just jump in and tell them why you think you can solve their problems instead.
But be careful to consider your industry and even the target company for striking the right tone. If you read McCormick’s website, it’s very different than Under Armour, for instance. One is punchy and sporty, the other is more traditional. You can echo their tone slightly while remaining yourself. Consider adding one of their key words or phrases from the company’s “about” page or recent social media posts.
How tailored does my cover letter have to be? I have a life, you know.
I know! No one wants to feel like they’re just a number, an anonymous target for whatever you’re trying to sell. That includes employers. They want to feel special, so tailor the letter enough to truly connect with them. Your letter needs a paragraph that addresses their pain point. Why can you be the solution to at least one of their problems?
Also, ask yourself what interests you about their organization? Go beyond the obvious. If you’re applying to Under Armor, it can’t just be because they’re a big employer in town and you figured you’d just send them something. Do the research. It shows enthusiasm more than saying “I’m enthusiastically applying for this position.” (Also, never write that).
As to the “having a life” bit… I know you do. Spend your limited time on quality, not quantity. Three outstanding, targeted applications to companies you’ve researched is better than 50 applications that you’re just spamming with the same cover letter with no tailoring.
What are the common mistakes I should avoid?
The most common mistake I see is cover letters that are too long. If you’re on paragraph 5 or 6, think carefully about the need to go on. Another mistake is repeating the content in the resume. Your cover letter should include fresh information, explain job gaps or unexpected job shifts, and show your personality. Always spell check and proofread.
One final formatting tip:
You can use the same header on your cover letter as on your resume. Cut and paste your name, and include phone, LinkedIn URL, and email address in one line below. This can streamline your application and leave a nice impression.
If you have more questions, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.