3 must-haves when writing a cover letter

·4 min read

Applying for jobs can get daunting. With updating your resume, finding open positions, signing up on career sites, and applying for jobs, there’s still a chance you’ll never hear back from hiring managers or agencies. One way to set yourself apart is a well-written cover letter.

“Cover letters should not rehash the resume but act as a supporting document in your application,” said Melanie Denny, resume expert and president of Resume-Evolution. “Your resume is a detailed account of your work history and the cover letter serves as an introduction of who you are professionally.”

Not all jobs require a cover letter, but if you have the chance to include one, you could increase the likelihood that you’ll stand out versus those that don’t include one. The key to cover letters? The more you write, the easier they become. Here are some top tips.

Young business women writing document in office
(Photo: Getty Creative)

Cover letter must-haves

Not all cover letters are the same; what you write depends on the industry and the type of job you’re applying for. But there are some things you should include — and some things you should leave out.

Keep it short

Cover letters don’t need to be long; around 250 words is enough, Denny said.

“Recruiters and hiring managers don't have much time, so keep it brief,” she said. “Three short paragraphs should do the trick.”

The first paragraph should grab the reader’s attention and tie you to the company and position you’re applying to, Denny said. The second graph should include unique or interesting information about your work history that’s in line with what the open position calls for. The last paragraph should be a closing, requesting an interview, or ways to follow up with you for more information.

Keep it original

General cover letters are just that: General. That means they won’t be beneficial.

“Your goal as the job seeker is to ensure that you are conveying the most relevant information to a potential employer, so they can easily see how you'll be a great fit,” Denny said. “A general cover letter may not be able to achieve this, so try to incorporate something about the company so they know it was written specifically for them.”

Rear view at woman writing email on laptop screen online working from home, female applicant typing cover letter applying for job, lady mailing customer support to give feedback or sending request
(Photo: Getty Creative)

It’s extra work, but when a job calls for a cover letter, include something specific that helps you stand out from the crowded pool of applicants.

Keep it clean

With a short letter, there are things you can leave off. For instance, you don’t need to include how you found the open position or job posting.

“These openings don't work because they sound cookie-cutter and boring,” Denny said. “You can also omit the ‘to whom it may concern’ line. Do some digging and find out who will be reading the letter so you can address it to a real person.”

If you don’t know who will read your application — especially if it goes into an automated system — you may need to use “to whom it may concern.” But the more you find out about the open position and company, the more you’ll recognize who will get to read your cover letter.

What to do if you don’t have a lot of experience

Serious businessman reading cv new job candidate and using laptop. Handsome young leader listening terms of transaction from partner. Difficult business decision about make corporate deal.
(Photo: Getty Creative)

Some entry-level positions require cover letters, which makes it more difficult for workers just graduating college or those who don’t have much work history.

“If you don't have much work experience, you can include your passion for the work you're looking to do or your personal reason for going into this field,” Denny said. “Another thing you can discuss is any extracurricular, leadership, volunteer projects you've completed that will showcase your transferable skills.”

If you’ve gone to school for this type of work, explain how your education has prepared you for this position and industry.

If you’re switching industries, share how the work you’ve done thus far has prepared you for this position. Try to outline commonalities, like leadership, teamwork, and projects you’ve managed or completed. Hiring managers want to see results, so if you can prove them, you may not need to show relatable industry experience.

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Dori Zinn is a personal finance journalist based in South Florida. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, CNET, Quartz, TIME, and others.

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