“Thanks for helping me customize my resume,” my friend said cheerily. “Now I just have to find the cover letter I used for my last job application and spruce it up a little.”
“Nooooooo!” I said. “There’s no point in taking all that time to tailor your resume to each application if you’re going to use a fill-in-the-blank cover letter.”
We ended up sitting together for another 30 minutes and coming up with a new one that highlighted what a great fit she was—not just for the role, but for the company. And while a half hour is a time investment, it’s absolutely worth it if it gets you the job. (Which my friend did.)
Wondering how to customize your own cover letter? Check out the cover letter template below.
In Your Salutation
Most job seekers already know this, but just in case: You should always address your cover letter to a specific person. It shows you’re willing to do your research. Plus, seeing “Dear John Doe” will impress the person reading it (even if he or she is not John Doe) much more than “To whom it may concern” will.
If the job posting doesn’t include a name, look up the company’s hiring manager. No luck? Search for the person in charge of the department to which you’re applying. If you’re still striking out, try these advanced techniques.
In Your Opening Paragraph
The first section of your cover letter is the perfect opportunity to tell the hiring manager you understand what makes this organization and job special. I like to start with:
I am excited to apply for [job title].
Then I launch into my explanation.
I am excited to apply for the Sales Analyst position. TravelClick has become a leader in the hospitality industry by always focusing on its clients—whether they’re huge global brands or local hotels. Your commitment to customer satisfaction is something I’ve always strived for in my own career. I’d love to bring this dedication, along with my relevant skills and experience, to your award-winning company.
If you’re having trouble with this section, look through the company’s site, social media profiles, employee LinkedIn accounts, and so on to focus in on the key reasons you want this job and would be good at it. Sure, we all need a salary, but you should be able to explain why you’re enthusiastic about this opportunity in particular. (Oh, and make sure you’re describing how you can help the company, rather than how the company can help you!)
For even more ideas, check out these 31 cover letter examples of attention-grabbing intros.
In Your Body Paragraphs
Your next two paragraphs should describe your most relevant previous roles, the skills you’ve learned and experiences you’ve gotten from them, and how you’d apply those skills and insight to this position. I know, that sounds a little scary, so let’s break it down.
The first line is super simple:
During [time period], I worked as [job title] for [company name].
In your next couple sentences, talk about the specific responsibilities you had in that role that are the closest to the responsibilities you’d have in this job.
As [job title], I was responsible for [Task 1, Task 2, and Task 3].
In this role, I worked on several projects, including [Project 1, Project 2, and Project 3].
Now, it’s important not to regurgitate your resume here; rather, you want to take the most relevant experiences from your resume, expand on them, and describe why they’re so applicable for the job.
It’s even more important to bring it home in your last one or two lines by discussing how you’d use what you learned from those experiences in this position.
Here’s the whole thing:
For the past three years, I’ve been working as a technical product manager for Blue Duck, where I’ve developed more than 30 high-level features that incorporated client requests, user needs, and design and product team capabilities with deadline and budget demands. Balancing so many needs was often challenging, and I learned how to find the solution that satisfied the maximum number of stakeholders. As your product manager, I’d apply this knowledge to ensure we delivered innovative solutions that worked for our customers and their users while staying on-time and within budget.
Choosing Your Examples
Wondering how you know which jobs and qualifications to highlight?
Your current or most recent position should usually be in your cover letter (unless it was for a very short time period, or it’s not at all similar to the one you’re applying for). To find your second example, go back to the job description and highlight the three things they’re asking for that seem most important—as in, you couldn’t get hired if you didn’t have them. Maybe that’s familiarity with a niche field, or great writing abilities, or leadership talent.
Whatever three things you highlight, make sure they’re reflected in your cover letter. Choose the job experience where you utilized those traits. And if you don’t have the exact skill they’re looking for, use the closest example you have.
In Your Closing
Most people use their closing paragraph to essentially say, “Thanks for reading, looking forward to hearing back.” But that’s a waste of valuable real estate! Just like the rest of your cover letter, your closing should be personalized.
First, if you want to proactively answer a potential concern, here’s a good place to do it. Let’s say you’re currently living in Atlanta, but you want to work in Portland. End with one sentence explaining that you’re moving, such as “I am relocating to Portland in May and look forward to working in the city.” This line shows your reader you fully read the job description, and that location (or relocation) won’t be an issue.
Perhaps you’re not quite qualified for the position. You should never say, “I know I’m not as qualified as other candidates, but…” However, you can say, “My background in [industry or profession], combined with my passion for your company and this role, would make me uniquely qualified to tackle [specific responsibility].” Ending on a strong note and highlighting why your unexpected experience is actually an asset will put the hiring manager’s mind at ease. (More on that here.)
Alternatively, you can use your closing to reinforce your strong interest in the job.
For example, you could write:
Again, TravelClick’s focus on customer service has made a huge impression on me. I would be thrilled to work at an organization where every employee—from an intern to the CEO—cares so much about the people they help.
Thank you for your time,
There’s no arguing that it takes longer to compose a custom cover letter for each application than just changing out the company names in a canned one. But if you care about getting the job (and I hope you do, since you’re taking the time to apply for it), personalizing each one is the way to go.
Photo of typing courtesy of Shutterstock.
Use the t-format to tailor your cover letters for each job application.
Many of you out there have asked me about cover letters. What do I say? What should I not say? Is there a general one I can use for all my applications? Is there a template you can give me? Do I really have to write one?
Here’s what I think. I’ve talked to a lot of recruiters while working at Ladders, and about 50 percent of them say the cover letter is essential. The other 50 percent admit they never look at them and jump straight into the resume.
So what does that mean for you?
You better write that cover letter! When you’re submitting an application, how do you know what side of the fence that recruiter falls on? Better safe than sorry, right?
I know that as a job seeker, it’s really hard to understand how these recruiters operate. We could talk for hours about recruiter behavior and how frustrating it can be when we don’t hear back or get feedback. But that’s another topic for another day …
Here’s what you should keep in mind for today. They’re busy. I mean, really busy. They’re typically trying to fill a number of positions at the same time, all with hiring managers hovering over their shoulders or bombarding them with emails, wanting to know when they’ll have resumes to review for their open positions.
So it’s in your best interest to make it as easy as humanly possible for a recruiter to quickly scan your cover letter and get the important information out of there. There are a number of ways this can be done. If you’ve come up with something that’s getting you a ton of responses, keep using it (don’t fix something that’s not broken!)
But if you’re struggling with the cover letter, check out one format that I’ve always liked – it’s called the “t-format”.
The main components of your cover letter don’t really change:
- The first section introduces you and then talks about why you are interested in the job and company. This is your chance to demonstrate you’ve done your homework and know something about the company or industry.
- The middle section show why you are qualified to do this job – how does your experience and skill set meet the must-have core requirements of the position?
- The last section closes the note, showing your enthusiasm and creating a “call to action”. You don’t just ask them to review your resume; you let them know when you will follow up with them about your application.
The t-format comes into play with the middle section. It’s designed to show a recruiter how you stack up against the job requirements quickly and clearly. Recruiters look at a resume for an average of 6 seconds – how long do you think they spend on your cover letter? My guess is not very long.
To write a t-format cover letter, make two columns for the middle section: the left column is “Your Needs” and the right column is “My Qualifications”. Go through the job description and pick out what you think are the must-haves for the job.
Remember that a job description will have a long laundry list of ideal nice-to-have skills. Your job is to choose the top three requirements that match your experience. If you’re trying to make a career transition and have to get a little creative by choosing a requirement that doesn’t seem as high-priority, so be it. These requirements will become the mini sections under the “Your Needs” column. Now write a little blurb for each of the requirements in the “My Qualifications” column. Try to reference examples of your work that demonstrate how you meet each of the hiring manager’s primary needs.
Take a look at thissample job description and cover letter to get a better sense of what this would look like. I’ve marked them up to highlight where the must-have requirements were pulled from, and how I incorporated them into the cover letter.
Don’t forget to make sure whatever you highlight in your cover letter is easy to identify on your resume. You may need to make a few tweaks to the resume to that it speaks more clearly to the must-haves in the job description.
Try this exercise out and compare the cover letter to what you would typically write. Does this seem clearer? Give it a try with your next few applications and see if there’s a difference in the response rate. Remember, since approximately 50 percent of recruiters aren’t interested in your cover letter, you’ll need to try this out with a number of your applications before you can really determine if it’s making a difference.