How to Write a Cover Letter: A Step-by-Step Guide

A woman is reading a cover letter while seated at her computer.

Realizing what you want to do is a significant step in the right direction when seeking a job. But simply knowing what you want to do–or what you don’t want to do–isn’t enough to actually land the job.

What you really need is a complete portfolio that explains who you are as a job candidate. Part of that is knowing how to write a cover letter.

You may have spent a long time surfing company job boards and platforms such as Indeed, Glassdoor, and LinkedIn, hoping to come across the next best job for you.

You open up the job posting, read through the role, the responsibilities, and the required experience, and you begin thinking about all the ways you fit the description.

If you’re lucky enough, you’ve come across a job that lines up perfectly with your skills and what you want to do. You fill out your contact information, and you see that the next step is to upload your resume and cover letter.

Maybe you’re proud of your resume, a polished list of your accomplishments that you’ve spent hours and days perfecting… But you don’t have any experience writing a cover letter. What then?

Throughout this article, we will provide you with a full understanding of:

  • what a cover letter is
  • how to write a cover letter
  • what makes a cover letter successful
  • what to avoid in the letter as a job seeker

Plus, we even provide a cover letter outline and a sample cover letter for reference!

So, what is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a document used to:

  • Showcase your highest-level achievements and experiences
  • Introduce yourself to the employer
  • Explain why you’re the person for the job and a good fit for the company to which you’re applying

It is supplemental to your resume, which is a bit more formal and extensive in terms of showcasing your experiences. A cover letter, on the other hand, allows you to show more personality in fewer words.

Cover letters and resumes are a bit like siblings. They’re similar, but not the same.

Generally, people struggle with putting together cover letters more so than resumes because it can be difficult to talk about yourself and your experience outside of bullet points.

However, throughout this process, remind yourself of all the education, experiences, and skillsets you’ve learned throughout school, internships, and previous jobs. Remember how much you have to talk about! A cover letter is your highlight reel.

An example of a cover letter broken down by its structure.
Credit: novoresume.com

Why is a cover letter so important?

Cover letters are a great (and occasionally necessary) supplement to your resume, online job application, or LinkedIn/social media profile.

While resumes are great and necessary tools for highlighting all of your experiences, skills, and education, they usually don’t show your personality or passion about the job you want. When hiring managers are receiving hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of resumes and job applications, they’re not able to spend much time reviewing your list of accomplishments.

In reality, hiring managers spend just a few minutes skimming through your job application and work experience, which is why resumes use bullet points to get to the point quickly.

A cover letter can grab their attention for even longer.

A 2020 survey found that 83% of hiring managers, recruiters, and HR staff think a candidate’s cover letter is an important part of the hiring process. Over three-quarters also said a strong cover letter can make up for a weaker experience section on a resume.

In order to have an effective portfolio that stands out among hiring managers sorting through hundreds of resumes, you’re going to want to have a strong cover letter.

Important things to remember about your cover letter

While having a cover letter as part of your job application is a great way to stand out, you don’t want to stand out the wrong way. A hiring manager is going to notice a bad cover letter, and you don’t want it to be yours.

Whether you have an up-to-date cover letter, have tried writing one, or submitted one in the past, we are going to provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to write an effective cover letter that doesn’t end up in the trash bin.

An important thing to remember is that a cover letter will not replace your resume. It can supplement and enhance it, though.

Having a quality resume is absolutely necessary.

There are many people who don’t go the extra mile to draft a cover letter because it can be time consuming and tedious. A cover letter then can become a tool that’s going to help you stand out–as long as it’s a good one.

What makes an effective cover letter?

1. Your Cover Letter is On Brand

There are many details that go into making your cover letter effective. First and foremost, your cover letter should be “on brand.”

In other words, your cover letter should not only reflect you, your personality, and your legitimate achievements, but it should also visually be on brand.

Every person drafts their resume a little differently, and there’s not one specific visual format that’s better than another. But keep in mind that however you have set up your resume to look visually, you should use a similar format to brand your cover letter. This includes everything from font to spacing to colors. (We’ll talk about more of these in just a moment.)

Consistency on a visual level says a lot about you, your attention to detail, and your professionalism. It helps people remember you because it’s easier to associate your style with your name across different documents.

2. The Nature of Your Cover Letter is Specific

Similar to your resume, you want to make sure that your cover letter is specific to the job for which you’re applying. Depending on the job and company you’re applying to, different work experiences are going to apply.

For example, if you are applying to work at a marketing company, your work experience as an accounts receivable specialist is probably not the work or skillset you want to highlight. If you have work experience running the social media account for a company or developing the marketing strategy for a certain project, though, you’ll want to ensure those experiences are what you place on your highlight reel.

Don’t be generic

Your cover letter should be addressed to the specific hiring manager for a company. Your cover letter is not meant to serve as a general template or document for every single job application.

The cover letter is about why you qualify for that specific role at that company, so you need to be careful about what information you decide to present. You only have so many words when writing a cover letter.

3. Length Is Not Over-Bearing

The cover letter is meant to be short, sweet, and to the point while highlighting your experiences and showing your personality.

Do not rewrite your resume in paragraph form. Do not write an autobiography of your entire career. Avoid gushing about your love for the company or begging to work there.

Though the best cover letters show a bit of personality, the most effective ones give the reader a taste of who you are while showing passion and applicable experience in as few words as possible.

Remember, hiring managers only have a few minutes to devote to each applicant. You want to be memorable in the short form.

Keep your cover letter around 250-500 words, and make it fit on one page.

4. Use a Professional Format

Font Style

Font and font sizes are important because they goes hand-in-hand with your visual brand consistency. There’s no need to use a fancy scripted font or Comic Sans to try to stand out.

You should follow the same guidelines you had to follow for writing your resume. Use a formal font like Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri. Stick with size 11-13 font.

The words shouldn’t be hard to read in size or style because hiring managers will immediately move onto the next candidate if it’s too much of a strain to read — no matter how good the content of the cover letter is.

Margins and Spacing

Additionally, put away your double-spaced lines. This document is not about making it appear that you have more pages in your document or more text on the screen.

Also, stick to single spacing with one-inch margins. The smaller you make your margins, the more obvious it becomes that you were trying to fit too many words on the page. It’s okay to adjust margins a bit smaller on your resume, but with your cover letter, keep it standardized to the classic one-inch margins.

Maintain these levels of spacing and margins to keep the cover letter at one page.

Someone typing on a computer in Google Docs

What to avoid when you write a cover letter

As with everything, there are a few things you can avoid to ensure you’re writing the most effective cover letter.

1. Repeating Yourself

You only have a certain number of words to get your point across. Not only do you need to preserve as many words as possible to touch on the different points you need to, but you also need to avoid being repetitive.

It will help to outline the structure of your cover letter so you can nail down the “mission statement” for each of your points. Try using this outline when crafting each of your cover letters (The A, B, and C represent small details about each note):

Intro Paragraph:

    1. Unique introduction
    2. Specific position and the company
    3. Why you’re a good fit

First Body Paragraph:

    1. Responsibilities of a past position
      1. A
      2. B
      3. C
    2. Projects in which you participated
      1. A
      2. B
      3. C
    3. Impact
      1. A
      2. B
      3. C

Second Body Paragraph:

    1. Examples as to why you’re a good fit for the role
      1. A
      2. B
      3. C

Third Body Paragraph:

    1. Examples as to why you’re a good match for the company
      1. A
      2. B
      3. C

Closing:

    1. Re-emphasis on why you’re passionate about the opportunity
    2. Re-emphasis on why you’re a good fit for the job and company
    3. Your plan to follow-up
    4. “Thank you”

Benefits of the Outline

An outline will help you get your message across clearly and concisely, without repeating yourself.

It helps to take brief notes so that you can expand in detail once you begin crafting your message. Use the outline to organize your notes first. Challenge yourself to be as concise as possible without extra words. Challenge yourself again to remain close to that same messaging when you actually write your cover letter.

Repeating yourself appears as though you don’t have enough to say or didn’t think it out beforehand. It also wastes valuable room to talk about other skills and experiences.

Your cover letter is a way to present yourself in a positive way, so you want it to be as clear and commanding as possible.

2. Avoid Clichés

Recruiters at Insight Global spend hours and hours reviewing resumes, portfolios, and job applications every week. Trust us when we say that clichés are not your friend.

Avoid commonly used phrases throughout your cover letter such as:

  • “Feel free”
  • “Truly”
  • “Really”
  • “To Whom It May Concern”
  • “Think outside the box”
  • “Detail-oriented”
  • “Forward-thinking”

Hiring managers are always looking for the next stand-out candidate. Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t come by way of using phrases like the above.

It’s easy to look online for examples of cover letters and find generic letters that use the above and other similar phrases. But you are unique! Your experiences are not the same as anyone else’s. Even if you have similar experiences, you want to take the time to distinguish yourself and your experiences.

3. Don’t Use Generic Cover Letters

At some point in time when learning how to write a cover letter, you may have been advised to craft a generic document that works for any position. However, you shouldn’t send a generic cover letter to hiring managers.

In one way or another, the general overview of your portfolio is meant to be covered by your resume.

Your cover letter is meant to introduce you as a unique candidate who is different from the rest. The hiring managers want to know why they should be paying attention to you, putting your portfolio to the side, and considering you for hire.

Why do you care about their company? Why do you care about the specific job to which you’re applying? And why are you the right fit for their company?

Imagine if you had just a minute or two to give the hiring manager a pitch in person. You would impress them by drawing on your greatest attributes and achievements and showing how applicable they are to the job opening and the company.

In addition, you need to show that you did your research and found the person who would be specifically reviewing the resumes and cover letters. Use LinkedIn and Google to the best of your ability to determine who that person is and find the best way you can to address them by name.

Tailoring your cover letter to the specific job will only benefit you in the long run.

4. Avoid Bad Formatting Practices

A first impression is one of the most significant moments in networking, interviewing, and applying for jobs. You’ve worked so hard both to acquire your experiences and to detail them to the best of your ability on your portfolio, resume, and cover letter.

Don’t throw all that hard work out of the window with bad formatting.

For example, when it comes to a cover letter, you shouldn’t use bullet points. Save the bullet points for your resume where you briefly detail your experiences, education, and skillsets.

This is a letter. Write out paragraphs.

Woman writing on a notepad while looking at her computer

Breakdown of How You Write a Cover Letter

1. The Header

The header of your cover letter will be made up of a few components. It should include the following in some order:

  • Your full name
  • Your email address
  • Your city and zip code
  • Your phone number (usually your cellphone)
  • The date you are drafting and sending your cover letter to the hiring manager
  • The name of the hiring manager or specific recipient
  • The professional title of the recipient
  • The name of the company
  • The company’s address (usually the HQ address)

These don’t all need to appear in one straight line with no spacing. Your personal information, the company/hiring manager’s information, and the date you’re sending the letter should each have their own section.

The Importance of the Header

Your cover letter’s header allows the hiring manager to follow-up with you. If your contact information is hidden or hard to read, the person reading your cover letter might be deterred from reading the entire thing. When you make their job easier, they are more interested in carefully reviewing your application. Plus, when your primary details are front and center, they can focus on reading what you have to say.

In this example, you can align some personal information on the right side of the page, and align the hiring manager’s (Susan Rhodes) information on the left. The date will go below Susan’s information.

John Smith
[email protected]
123 Frankfurt Dr.
Los Angeles, CA
444.555.0000

Susan Rhodes
Hiring Manager
Insight Global
123 Apple Rd.
Atlanta, GA

October 5, 2021

Here is a brief visual example of what a basic cover letter header can look like:

Example of a cover letter header

2. The Greeting

As previously mentioned, “To Whom It May Concern” is a cliché phrase you should avoid. If you did your proper research, you likely came across the hiring manager or person you want to address.

You can use a greeting such as “Dear Hiring Manager,” if you have trouble coming up with the exact contact. (However, if you’re finding the job on LinkedIn, it shows who is hiring. You can also call the company to see who the main point of contact is on this job).

If you have found the exact hiring manager or point-of-contact, then you’ve already added this person’s information to the header. Be sure to correctly address the same person in your greeting.

If the hiring manager is a woman, avoid addressing her as “Mrs.” Not only should you not assume her marital status, “Ms.” is more professional. If you’re unsure of the hiring manager’s gender, use their full name instead of a title.

But, if you can be specific, using the example header, you can use the following examples to greet your hiring manager:

  • “Hello, Ms. Rhodes,”
  • “Dear Ms. Rhodes,”
  • “Dear Susan Rhodes,”

Using a specific greeting with a specific name will ensure that you are not sending a generic letter.

3. The Opening Paragraph

This is where the real work begins when learning how to write a cover letter. After the greeting, start your cover letter with an introductory paragraph.

As you begin the opening paragraph of your cover letter, properly introduce yourself. This paragraph is your next impression after the way your work is formatted and visually presented. If you’ve gotten the hiring manager this far, you want to keep them locked in.

The opening paragraph is a great opportunity to mention the role to which you’re applying. Briefly explain your interest in the role and company so you can prove you’ve done your research. Also, detailing this information on the front end gives the hiring manager the context they need to keep reading or make notes.

Lastly, this is a good place to state the number one achievement, experience, or skillset you bring to the table concerning the specific role to which you’re applying.

A good example of what this looks like is as follows:

As a writer passionate about the way words inspire others, I am thrilled to apply for the copywriter position at ABC Company. It’s my understanding that you are working on rebranding your company website, and I believe my prior experience developing and editing website content for Fortune 500 companies will bring an extraordinary level of ease to your project. As someone who has been a long-time follower of your blog, I am excited for the chance to help you create a new and improved voice and tone for your brand.

Using the intro paragraph, you want to say who you are (beyond the obvious), letting them get a quick insight into what fuels your passion and where your skillset lies. By doing so, hiring managers can immediately start thinking about the needs for the role and position and whether or not they should keep reading more about you.

4. The Second Paragraph

The second paragraph is going to contain the meat of your cover letter. You’re going to use this to show off your skillset.

You’ve got to make sure that you’re not just listing your accomplishments or taking your resume from bullet-point form to paragraph-form. While you want to pick a handful of your top accomplishments, they still need to be specific for the role and the company to which you’re applying.

Reference the Job Description

Before ever filling out the application online, you had to read the job description. That information was everything you needed to know in order to see if you fit the need.

Do you have the amount of experience they require for applicants? Have you met the education requirements? Do you have the skillsets, passions, and characteristics of the person for which they’re looking?

Usually, job postings do a fairly good job of detailing what:

  • the day-to-day of the job will look like
  • roles and responsibilities are necessary for being successful in the role
  • characteristics and attributes they’re looking for in the ideal job candidate

Those details are important to note as you work through any job application. As you did with your resume, you want to point out qualities and characteristics in yourself that align with the job and candidate description. By using specific details from the job posting as a blueprint, your cover letter will be less generic and more intentional.

You want present yourself to the hiring manager as the ideal candidate. You have read through the application and job description, and you now know the specific needs of the company, so give them that.

How to Start Your Second Paragraph

Reference what exactly the company is looking for. Once you identify one or two of those key attributes, tell them how and why you’re the expert.

End the paragraph by describing how your previous experiences will help them in the future in that role and with their future plans.

Suppose the job and candidate description included the following:

  • Must be able to meet with clients to understand message, brand voice, and target audience
  • Collaborate with PR and marketing departments to brainstorm and develop a variety of marketing materials to present to stakeholders

A good example of what the second paragraph should look like is as follows:

In my current position at DEF Company, I have been tasked with leading a team of copywriters to ensure all stakeholders in the business are getting the copy materials they need, consistent with our brand and tone. Last year, our entire company underwent a rebrand, which required copy to be produced for our external, internal, and individual stakeholder audiences. It was my team’s responsibility to meet with stakeholders to understand their individual campaigns and ensure they were aligned with the overall objectives of the business. In doing so, we were able to work with the marketing organization and internal creative agency to produce content, which we did for 100% of the business who had requests. Under this same project, we optimized DEF’s search capabilities and secured their spot in the top five results on Google.

To break down the above example, this candidate showed they are an expert in their skillset by noting that they have been leading a team.

In addition, they used this paragraph to address two of the notes under the job and candidate description: they worked with clients and other business stakeholders and worked with the internal marketing department to achieve the goals of the business.

Lastly, they threw in a few quantitative examples that measured how well the work performed for the company, hopefully leaving the hiring manager impressed and curious as to whether or not this candidate could have the same positive effect on their business.

5. The Third Paragraph

The third paragraph is a great place to identify why your experiences make you excited for the new opportunity and a great fit for the company. The hiring manager will want to know why you want this job specifically at this company, not just any available job anywhere.

Perhaps through your research or general knowledge of the job description, you’ve noticed a company initiative or project. You should try and have a good understanding of how the project or initiative aligns with the job you’re applying to.

Did the project or future plan initially spark your interest? Why? This is the place to tell the hiring manager.

Following in line with our example, ABC Company mentioned they are rebranding and in need of a copywriter who would help their stakeholders develop content for the website and individual divisional needs.

With that in mind, a good example of a third paragraph in an effective cover letter could read as follows:

I’m aware that ABC is undergoing a rebrand and in need of new content for the website, in addition to individual company stakeholders. This initiative aligns with my previous experiences and personal passions, as it would give me the unique opportunity to help the company reach new clients and a greater scope of business. With my ability to lead a team, my knowledge of SEO practices and optimization, and my track record of quality improvement, I believe I will be the best fit for this role and, ultimately, your company.

Following this paragraph’s format, the candidate has addressed the needs of the business in addition to why their prior experience will help them achieve similar results. The candidate also lets the hiring manager know that ABC’s rebranding initiative is something the candidate is passionate about, and they have experience doing so for other businesses.

The third paragraph is all about letting the hiring manager know why they need you, so they aren’t left connecting the dots on their own.

6. The Closing Paragraph

Just as important as the rest, the closing needs attention, too. This is the last thing you leave with your reader. You want to ensure it’s not overly needy or coming off as though you’re begging for the job.

Remind yourself that you and your skillset are desirable and valuable. Leave the hiring manager wanting you more than you appear to want the job.

Sign off by letting them know you would be excited to have another conversation and that you would feel grateful for the opportunity to connect.

An example of a good closing would look like the following:

I would be grateful to connect with you further on this opportunity and show you how my experience with DEF Company will translate to success and innovation at ABC.

Lastly, you will want to close the letter with a more formal sign-off like the following:

  • “Thank you,”
  • “Sincerely,”
  • “Best regards,”
  • “Kindly,”
  • “Thank you for your consideration,”
  • “I look forward to hearing from you soon,”
  • “Regards,”
  • “Best,”

Place your name afterward on a line below.

Put It All Together — Cover Letter Example

(Aligned on the right side of the page)
John Smith
[email protected]
123 Frankfurt Dr.
Los Angeles, CA
444.555.0000

(Aligned on the left side of the page)
Susan Rhodes
Hiring Manager
Insight Global
123 Apple Rd.
Atlanta, GA

October 5, 2021

Dear Ms. Rhodes,

As a writer passionate about the way words inspire others, I am thrilled to apply for the copywriter position at ABC Company. It’s my understanding that you are working on re-branding your company website, and I believe my prior experience developing and editing website content for Fortune 500 companies will bring an extraordinary level of ease to your project. As someone who has been a long-time follower of your blog, I am excited for the chance to help you create a new and improved voice and tone for your brand.

In my current position at DEF Company, I have been tasked with leading a team of copywriters to ensure all stakeholders in the business are getting the copy materials they need, consistent with our brand and tone. Last year, our entire company underwent a rebrand, which required copy to be produced for our external, internal, and individual stakeholder audiences. It was my team’s responsibility to meet with stakeholders to understand their individual campaigns and ensure they were aligned with the overall objectives of the business. In doing so, we were able to work with the marketing organization and internal creative agency to produce content, which we did for 100% of the business who had requests. Under this same project, we optimized DEF’s search capabilities and secured their spot in the top five results on Google.

I’m aware that ABC is undergoing a rebrand and in need of new content for the website, in addition to individual company stakeholders. This initiative perfectly aligns with my previous experiences and personal passions, as it would give me the unique opportunity to help the company reach new clients and a greater scope of business. With my ability to lead a team, my knowledge of SEO practices and optimization, and my track record of quality improvement, I believe I will be the best fit for this role and ultimately, your company.

I would be grateful to connect with you further on this opportunity and show you how my experience with DEF Company will translate to success and innovation at ABC.

Kindly,

John Smith
(Enter your LinkedIn profile or personal website.)

Final Tips for How to Write an Effective Cover Letter

Your cover letter is incredibly important in the grand scheme of the job search and job application process. In tandem with your resume, your cover letter needs to be effective in getting your personality, accomplishments, and passions across to the hiring manager while also providing need-to-know information.

Before you finish your cover letter, have it proofread by someone other than yourself. You may have looked over it a hundred times, but usually after staring at the same thing for hours, your eyes make up for anything you’ve missed.

Lean on a friend, colleague, or professor who can put fresh eyes on your cover letter to ensure it looks clean and contains no mistakes.

Learning how to write a cover letter will prove to be your best friend, especially in competitive job application scenarios. Let your light shine through your cover letter and show the hiring manager your capabilities, value, and personality.

The hiring manager should finish reading your letter wondering what they would ever do without you!