Writing a cover letter can be a dreaded task, but with a little guidance it might just be the document that wins you the job. In case you need any convincing, a cover letter is almost always an essential companion to a resume. Surveys of hiring managers have found that the failure to include a cover letter is among the top reasons job applications with only a resume are rejected.
While your resume focuses on the facts of your work experience, education and skills, your cover letter gives you the chance to make a human connection with the hiring manager and expand on your biggest achievements. The extra effort that goes into your cover letter might just land you on the shortlist for the interview.
With that, let’s dive into our top 20 tips for writing a good cover letter.
Cover letter basics: the devil is in the details
1. A cover letter is a professional business letter, but it should also be personal.
The goal of a cover letter is to establish a personal connection with a hiring manager. Despite all the automation in today’s hiring landscape, employment decisions are made by people just like you. Charisma and passion for the job can go a long way.
Do not write like a robot, using stock phrases and HR cliches. Do not be cold and distant, like you’re cautiously approaching someone you don’t know, or like you’re writing this letter just because you have to.
Be warm, friendly, human, personable, relatable, likable. Nobody wants to hire someone they don’t like. If a machine could do this job, they wouldn’t be looking for a person. So write like someone the recruiter would want to meet for lunch – bearing in mind that if all goes well, the two of you may have to do exactly that.
2. Find a tone that exudes confidence and competence, but never arrogance.
Nobody likes people who are arrogant, superior or egotistical. Yet you DO have to blow your own horn in a cover letter, portraying yourself in the best light possible.
It’s a fine line you need to walk to find the right tone for your cover letter. Yes, you’re great, but you don’t have an oversized ego and don’t consider yourself better than everyone else.
You have to embrace an oxymoron called “humble boasting.” You want to lay out the qualifications that will make the recipient of the letter think you are, in fact, better than other candidates. Yet you don’t want to write like you’re God’s gift to this profession and the company would be crazy not to hire you.
3. On the other hand, don’t make the mistake of being too humble.
Some cover letters seem to be written by people who are so self-effacing that even they sound like they don’t think they deserve the job.
They may note that they have little experience in the field, yet they would feel “enormously privileged” to have a chance to give it a try. They may promise that they are “quick learners” who will catch on fast. They may say that they would be “extremely excited” to be invited for an interview – like it would be a huge surprise to them if this job application bore any fruit.
Low self-esteem is never a selling point in a cover letter. Nobody wants to give you a job because they feel compassion for you. If you have a tendency to undervalue yourself, throw that out the window and write a letter that projects a little moxie. Never beg for a job, and never let recruiters think they would be doing you a favor by offering you one.
4. Write about the company’s needs, not yours.
Always remember that this letter should be about the employer’s needs, not yours. You are not writing to convince anyone that you deserve a job. You are writing to convince a manager that you can help solve the company’s problems – not that the company can help solve yours.
Convince the recipient of your letter that you can help the company improve its efficiency, its effectiveness and its bottom line. While there’s no denying that the bulk of this letter will be about you, you must find a way to convince employers that your contribution will help them.
Before you start writing, make a cover letter outline , it helps you keep your cover letter to the point and keeps the number of words in check.
5. Write “like a boss” without claiming to be one.
There are myriad videos on YouTube labeled “like a boss,” where people are filmed doing an excellent job at something (even if it’s skateboarding). We love these videos because it’s fun to watch people who are good at what they do.
If you’re not applying for a job as “a boss,” you can at least try to come across as “an equal.” Try to convince hiring managers that you are “one of them” – and that you should have a place at the table because of your competence at doing your job.
But avoid striking a tone that’s too presumptuous or familiar – as if they absolutely have to hire you because you’re so good.
Getting the structure and writing just right
6. Hold your cover letter to one page.
Do not write a cover letter longer than one page – a maximum of 400 words. Demonstrate that you are capable of writing economically, and that you don’t want to waste the hiring manager’s time. No manager wants to read a cover letter that’s longer than one page .
It’s actually easier to write long than to write short, so many people find that their first draft exceeds one page. Do not be tempted to use a tiny font or half-size margins to force it to fit. Experiment with different layout styles, and you’ll see that some leave you more room than others. But above all, if your letter runs long, start by cutting the fat from your text.
Often you’ll find a “widow” – a very short line of text, or even a single word, appearing at the bottom of a paragraph, making your letter one line longer. Find a few words to trim somewhere in the paragraph to eliminate these widows, saving vertical space.
7. Start with a standout header.
Also known as a letterhead, the header is the space at the top of the page where you provide your name, occupation, address, email and phone number. In addition to supplying your crucial contact info, the header is a design feature that allows you to play with typography, layout and color to make your overall letter more eye-pleasing.
The header is the easiest part of the letter to write but the hardest to design – and the design is important. This is why we recommend using a cover letter template where the design is already done for you. Resume.io offers dozens of cover letter templates and 150+ cover letter examples and writing guides. Find one you like, click on it, and you’ll be guided through the simple steps to making it your own.
The design of your resume and cover letter should be a matching set, using the same cover letter fonts , styles and colors. This gives you a “visual brand” and makes it clear that these two documents were meant to go together. If the styles are totally different, it may look like you wrote a new letter and paired it with an old resume, or vice versa. So when choosing a cover letter template, find a resume template that matches it.
8. In proper business letter style, you need the recipient’s name and address too.
This rule is often ignored in the age of email, but a formal business letter is also supposed to include the name, title and address of the recipient. Known as an “inside address,” this goes below the header and is followed by the date. Here is an example, with the header followed by the recipient’s address, date and salutation:
Dr. Martha Peabody
Human Resources Director
University of Arkansas Human Resources
222 Administration Building
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Nov. 18, 2021
Is the recipient’s address absolutely necessary when sending an electronic document? Some would say no, but this is the proper way to format a business letter “by the book.”
9. Use a greeting that addresses the hiring manager by name.
The greeting (also known as a salutation ), is the line that starts with the word “Dear” (or some prefer a more informal greeting like “Hello” or “Greetings”), followed by “Mr.,” “Ms.” or “Dr.” and the recipient’s last name.
Always endeavor to address a hiring manager by name. People like to read their own names, and it shows both respect and attention to detail if you’ve bothered to find out the name of the person you need to be writing to. Also, you’re more likely to get a response if you address an individual by name, rather than generically addressing your letter to an entire company or a department within the company.
If you’re responding to a job posting that doesn’t include a name, make an effort to find out who is processing applications for the job you’re seeking. If online sleuthing doesn’t answer your question, just call the company and ask.
Use a greeting that says “Dear Mr./Ms./Dr. (Last Name),”
Never address a letter “To Whom It May Consider” or “Dear Sir or Madam.”
10. Write an irresistible introduction that compels the recipient to keep reading.
Your introduction, the first paragraph of your letter, needs to grab readers’ attention and give them no excuse to stop reading.
Typically, the introduction will mention your most impressive qualification for this job, which is often your years of experience in the field. Or if you’re graduating from college with a degree in the field, that may be your top selling point.
The introduction needs to make it clear which job you’re seeking (as a hiring manager may be responsible for several openings), and you need to make a persuasive opening case that you’re the right candidate for the job. Another way of saying this is that you need to hook the fish before you start reeling it into the boat.
It may also be appropriate to say in the introduction how you heard of the job. And if you have contacts who already work at the company, it may be useful to say so.
Here is an example of a cover letter introduction from a physician :
Having worked as a family doctor in two general practices over the past 30 years, I have cared for multiple generations of patients and become an additional “member of the family” in many cases. Your job description emphasizes the close-knit nature of your patient base, and when you work in a small-town practice such as yours, the level of trust that you earn in the course of your work cannot be underestimated.
11. Use the body of your letter to make an unbreakable case.
The central two to four paragraphs of your letter, known as the body, are where you need to lay out your primary case.
Here again, work experience is usually key. Your resume should already list the places you’ve worked in the past, but your cover letter gives you an opportunity to expand on that information. One useful way to do this is by relating an anecdote, a short little story, about a job challenge you once faced, what action you took to address it, and the satisfactory result you achieved.
You can also mention your education, certifications or licensure in your field – anything that’s useful for building your case.
Try to mention the company you’re applying to, and explain why you want to work there as opposed to somewhere else. Let the reader know that you aren’t just sending a mass-produced cover letter to multiple employers.
Seeing an average of 20 patients a day over such a long period has meant that I have had to deal with some of the rarest medical situations, as well as exploring innovative treatment options for some of the most common. I know that heart disease, obesity and strokes are particularly frequent in your community. In my last practice, a mix of education and proactive medical interventions helped to reduce heart issues by 45% and obesity rates by 20%. Patients need to understand what they are doing to their bodies.
I have taken time out from general practice on two occasions to undertake year-long work experience in a local hospital. You have to understand the realities of medical care if you are to care for your patients in the most efficient way.
The age profile of my previous patients reflects the makeup of your community: mainly young families and a higher-than-normal proportion of elderly care home residents. I have therefore focused mainly on both pediatric and geriatric care approaches.
12. Conclude with a call to action.
Your last paragraph, the conclusion, can serve as a wrap-up and a thank-you, but it should also include a call to action urging the recipient to reply in some way. You may say you would be delighted to arrange an interview, in person or remotely. You may ask if it would be OK to follow up with a phone call in a couple of weeks. You may want to mention that you’re always reachable at the contact info provided.
But you want to plant the idea in recruiters’ heads that they should do something as a result of receiving your letter (other than throw it away). You’ve done your part, and the next step is up to them.
I enclose some references from both colleagues and previous patients as a testament to my medical expertise. I would be delighted to discuss your job opening in an interview.
13. Find an appropriate closing salutation, and add your name.
You can’t go wrong with “ Sincerely ,” “Yours truly,” “All my best” or “Thanks so much,” but avoid anything too familiar or informal. Add a space below that and type your full name.
In the old days when cover letters were sent on paper, you had to leave enough space to sign your name (which didn’t make it any easier to contain your letter to one page). In electronic correspondence today, an actual signature is not considered necessary, though you can add a digital signature if you choose.
14. Save your cover letter as a PDF.
Assuming you are submitting your resume and cover letter electronically, you should usually save them in the PDF file format. PDFs preserve the style and design of your letter so that it will look the same on the recipient’s computer as it does on yours.
Some employers prefer a Word document, and if they ask for one, of course you should comply. But Word documents and other formats have a tendency to display differently on different devices – and some of the text may even turn to garble.
Don't forget the filename. The best filename for your cover letter is your name, followed by the position you're applying to. Do make sure your cover letter matches your resume name, so you won't confuse the hiring manager.
5 tips for creating an attractive and effective design
15. Use a modern, professional, readable font at 10-12 points.
There are many fonts that are acceptable for cover letters, but many others are not. You want your font to be readable, professional and not too old-fashioned, so that the reader focuses on your content and not your font choice.
Review our article on “What are the best fonts for cover letters?” and follow its advice.
Your font size should be no larger than 12 points and no smaller than 10. Don’t resort to using a tiny font size to cram an overly wordy letter onto one page.
16. Use one-inch margins on all sides of your letter.
Include at least a one-inch margin on the left, right, top and bottom of your letter. Some designs include a “well,” a large margin on the left or right that contains your contact info, and this is also acceptable.
But if you’re having trouble fitting your letter onto one page, do not resort to using tiny margins, or your letter will look too jam-packed.
17. Align text left.
Your text should be aligned left, not justified from margin to margin. Justified text is common in books and newspapers, but it gives letters a blocky look, and it sometimes spaces words out unnaturally.
In text that’s aligned left – also known as “flush left” or “ragged right” – each line ends in a slightly different place (like the text you’re reading now). This gives the eye a break, introduces a bit of white space and makes it easier to navigate from one line to the next.
18. Leave a space between paragraphs, and do not indent.
Indented paragraphs (also used in books and newspapers) leave a small space in front of each paragraph, but no space between them. This style used to be somewhat common in letters too, but today it’s considered very old-fashioned.
Start every paragraph at the left margin, and at the end of the paragraph add two returns so there’s a space between them.
19. Use paragraphs of roughly equal length, and avoid paragraphs that are too long.
You don’t want a first paragraph that’s only one line long and a second paragraph that’s 20 lines long. Long, unbroken paragraphs are daunting for the reader, and they give your letter a heavy, blocky look.
Both the eye and the brain need a rest every now and then, so add paragraph breaks where appropriate. Strive for a sense of balance on your page with paragraphs of roughly equal lengths.
20. Leave an appropriate amount of white space.
There’s a saying among page designers: “White space is your friend.” White space refers to the parts of your letter that contain nothing at all, and again, it’s there to give the eye and the brain a break.
Page designers will also tell you not to “trap” white space, but to push it to the outside. This means you don’t want a bunch of white space in the middle of your page, but you do want it on the outside. (This is what margins are for.)
Should you find yourself with a letter that’s a bit short, do not space it out internally by adding two or three returns between paragraphs in a misguided effort to fill the page from top to bottom. This creates “trapped white space,” and the same would be true if you added five returns between your header and the start of your text.
Instead, you can make your four margins slightly larger, or use a design that places your contact info in a “well” on the left or right. You want all your text to appear roughly in the middle of your page.
Tackling the most common cover letter questions
What are the 7 things you should include in your cover letter ?
- Header with contact info
- Recipient’s name and address
- An appropriate salutation
- An attention-grabbing introduction
- A body that makes an unbreakable case
- A conclusion with a call to action
- An appropriate sign-off and signature
How do I make my cover letter stand out?
While the writing is vitally important, never underestimate the importance of good design. Your letter needs to look as good as it reads, so pay close attention to its visual appeal.
Imagine that a recruiter has placed five cover letters side by side on a desk and is standing over them, comparing them visually without reading them. Will yours look better or worse than the others?
The header is the most important part of the visual design, so choose very carefully. Use a professionally designed cover letter template and don’t just wing it.
What information should NOT be included in a cover letter?
You have a lot of work to do in just a few hundred words, so make every one count. Leave out your hobbies and interests, unless they are relevant to your ability to do your job.
Avoid cliches like “I am a team player who thinks outside the box.” Avoid “fluff,” which is language that sounds fancy but says nothing. And do not start your letter by saying, “I am writing this letter to.…” or “Please consider this letter my application for.…” The reader can see you have written a letter, so you don’t need to mention it.
Do not start your letter by saying, “My name is….” Your name should already appear at the top and bottom, so there’s no mystery about what your name is.
- A cover letter is one of the keys to landing a great job, so make sure to write one – even if the employer describes it as “optional.”
- Make sure to include the five key sections that hiring managers are looking for on every cover letter.
- Keep your writing concise and error-free, as typos and grammar mistakes can quickly ruin credibility.
- Don’t forget about the cover letter formatting ; it should look as good as it reads.
- Use a professionally designed free cover letter template and build your own cover letter .