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How to Write a Cover Letter That Gets You an Interview

If you want to add one more factor in your favor when trying to win an interview, be sure to include a good cover letter with your resume when applying for jobs. As a Hiring Manager, I can tell you this is frequently overlooked by applicants.

This is unfortunate because I enjoy reading a good cover letter. It’s more conversational than a resume. Done right, it will convince me to read your entire resume, instead of just skimming it. I’ve seen cover letters so good that I gave more weight to them than I did the resume.

I see it all the time. An applicant has taken great care in crafting their resume and then either didn’t include a cover letter or used one that’s so generic it doesn’t tell me anything.

Remember: the cover letter is the first thing read and sets the tone for the impression you create as an applicant. A great cover letter means I’ll more carefully read your resume.

So let’s review how to create a great cover letter.

Most savvy job seekers have researched how to write a resume. As a result, their resumes will usually be pretty good. They’ll do a good job of outlining their experience and qualifications and the best ones will also highlight accomplishments.  

And yet, many of these otherwise savvy applicants will then use a generic cover letter that is the same for each application they submit. My guess is that they assume their resume is strong enough to speak for itself.

Big mistake! Huge!

When I receive a generic cover letter, or worse yet, none at all, it means I have to weed my way through your resume, trying to determine if you meet my qualifications. If that isn’t immediately obvious in the first 20 or 30 seconds that I’m reading, chances are I’ll go on the next resume. I don’t have the time to dig through your resume for the gems.

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A good cover letter will do this for me and bring out the areas of your resume that will be of interest. It’s also been my experience that a good cover letter is usually accompanied by a good resume – one that I’ll want to read.

Generally speaking, the best cover letters I receive will:

  • Be addressed to someone by name, preferably the Hiring Manager if possible.
  • Mention the company and exact position right upfront.
  • Recap in a conversational tone the information from your resume most relevant to that position.
  • Use the keywords from the job posting when recapping your experience, qualifications, and accomplishments.
  • Convince me you’re qualified before I’ve even read your resume.

If your cover letter effectively makes the case that you are very qualified, there is an excellent chance I’ll read your entire resume carefully.

The format of the cover letter isn’t as important as it is for your resume. Since it’s just that – a letter – good letter writing rules apply. But some guidelines will make your cover letter more polished and convincing, which I’ll cover below.

I know it seems I’m beating a simple subject to death with all these tips. However, you would be shocked at how many truly awful cover letters I’ve read.

The worst mistake is using a generic letter that was obviously used for multiple applications. I’ve even received cover letters addressed to another company and others that reference a completely different job posting!

These people were using a shotgun approach without consideration for the unique aspects of each job. When I receive these, I’ll frequently not even read the resume, because most of the time it is too generic and tells me nothing about how you meet my unique qualifications.

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Then there are the (admittedly few) excellent cover letters that make me sit up and take notice. Almost without fail these are accompanied by an excellent resume and I’ll always give them special consideration.

This is the power of a good cover letter.

Here are some tips to help you create a cover letter that gets your resume read and increases your chances for an interview.

Use a Specific Person’s Name in the Address

This can be difficult because many job postings don’t give a specific name, so you’ll need to do some research.

The easiest way is to simply call the employer and ask whoever answers if they can give you the Hiring Manager’s name. Be sure the job posting doesn’t say “No Phone Calls”. You’ll be surprised how often this works and very few people try it.

Once you have a name, be sure to use a formal greeting in your letter: “Dear Mr. Jones”, not “Dear Mike”.

Be Specific With Titles

If you can’t obtain a specific name, then use one of the following: “Dear Human Resource Manager”, Dear Recruiter (if it’s a third party), or “Dear Hiring Manager”. Do not use “To Whom It May Concern”.

Hand Sign Cover Letters If Sent via U.S. Mail

Almost all applications are now submitted online, but there may be that rare (usually very small) company that asks you to mail your resume and cover letter. If this is the case, be certain to hand sign your cover letter. This avoids giving the impression that you’re mass mailing applications

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Keep the Format Simple

This is a cover letter, not an advertising mailer. Avoid using italics, bold, underlining, different colored text, etc. Just as I advised in another post about your resume, use a basic Times New Roman 12 point font and short paragraphs.

You want your words to stand out, not your formatting.

Be Creative With the Closing

Don’t use conventional and worn-out closings such as “Sincerely” and “Thank you for your consideration”.

Instead, use a closing that can make you stand out and be remembered. My personal favorite is “Best Regards”. There are many more non-traditional closings, so pick one. Just make sure it sounds business-like, not one that looks like it belongs on a greeting card

Customize Your Cover Letter to that Specific Job

This is my number one tip for a resume and it applies equally to a cover letter. It needs to be customized to match the specific requirements of each job to which you apply. There are no exceptions to this rule.

You should highlight your qualifications and accomplishments as they apply to that exact job. Use lots of keywords from the job posting when doing this. Don’t give in to the temptation to create a generic cover letter that you use for all applications, just to save yourself some time.  

It’s okay to use the same template, so long as the information is unique for each job. However, BE SURE to remove all references to another company each time you use the template. It’s pretty much the kiss of death to send a cover letter to ABC company that has XYZ company in the address.

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Make Sure Printed Copies are Attractive

Just like for your resume, for those rare instances where you mail a paper copy of your cover letter, use good quality stationery (20-pound weight minimum) and a quality printer with a recent ink cartridge. You’ll also need copies to take if you get an interview.

I can’t state it enough: your cover letter and resume are the first things seen and you want the impression they make to be professional.

Keep it Short

A cover letter should never be more than a single page in length. And that single page should be no more than two-thirds used at the most.

The intent is not to restate your resume, but rather to encourage the reader to read your resume. You’ll show you understand the reader’s time is valuable by being brief and concise.

Focus on Accomplishments

Highlight your two most significant accomplishments and relate them to the requirements for that specific job. If the two you choose are significant, there’s a better chance your resume will receive special attention.

Avoid Using General Words and Phrases

Many of the rules for good resumes also apply to good cover letters. One of them is to avoid using generalized statements such as “Proven Leader”, “Team player”, and “Exceptional interpersonal skills”.

Unless you have specific examples that apply to each one, you’re simply making statements with nothing to back them up. Hiring Managers are skeptical and will find it hard to believe you have a skill simply because you say so. They want tangible proof.

Don’t Exaggerate 

This is a polite way of saying don’t lie. Never overstate your skills, experience, or accomplishments in your cover letter. Don’t even tell a small white lie. There’s a good chance these will be uncovered during an interview.

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If you don’t have every qualification required by the position, highlight the ones you do have by framing them in terms that relate to that specific job.

Use a Little Humor

Your resume should never contain humor. A cover letter, since it’s more conversational, can handle a bit of business-oriented humor if handled professionally. It’s the only thing the Hiring Manager will read that can show some of your personality.

I’ve seen few cover letters containing humor and I always remember these. This is difficult to pull off well, but if you can most Hiring Managers will appreciate it. But be careful not to cross the line into “gimmicky”, as you’ll see below. 

Don’t Use Gimmicks

Using gimmicks to attract attention to your application almost always backfires, even if you think it’s clever and humorous. 

One Hiring Manager received a resume and cover letter in a box. Inside the box were two plastic teeth. The note included said: “I’ll give my eye teeth for an interview!”

Another Hiring Manager that I know received a pair of dice and a note that said: “Roll the dice and give me a chance!”

These are two classic and corny gimmicks that are shown all over the Internet. They’ll get the Hiring Manager’s attention all right, but not the kind of attention you want.

The possible exception might be for certain types of sales positions. Some Hiring Managers with openings for sales jobs don’t mind seeing some assertiveness and creativity and may not mind the use of gimmicks.

However, this can backfire even for sales positions if your gimmick is not truly original. Sending plastic teeth and dice both score low on originality. For non-sales positions, gimmicks will almost always backfire. Don’t use them!

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Use a Conversational Tone

While your resume is a concise outline with bulleted lists, your cover letter should use a more conversational style. It’s your only chance to let some of your personality show.

After you’ve written your cover letter, have someone read it out loud to you. Make sure you didn’t use words you wouldn’t use in a normal conversation. Save these for your resume.

If you can write a cover letter that Hiring Managers enjoy reading, they will almost always pay more attention to your resume.

Have Someone Else Proofread

You should of course run your completed cover letter through a spell checker, as well as through a grammar checker (the free version of Grammarly is fine). In addition, go the extra mile and have a trusted friend read it, looking for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.

Software doesn’t catch everything. If you rely on it completely you can end up with some odd-looking sentences. You can read your letter a dozen times and not see that one error that the Hiring Manager sees immediately.

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