Whether you love writing cover letters or view them as a chore, many hiring managers still rely on them to gauge an applicant’s personality, attention to detail, and communication skills. The key to writing effective cover letters, then, is to follow instructions and communicate succinctly but with a compelling voice.
Here are five guidelines to keep in mind as you craft your cover letters.
1. Customize your header based on the format of your application
If you’re writing your cover letter directly within an online job application, there’s no need to include your address or other contact information, as you’ve probably already typed that into other areas of the application form. If you’re including your cover letter as an attachment, you can use the same heading as your resume.
2. Use an appropriate greeting
If you know the name of the hiring manager for this job, begin your cover letter by addressing them directly (Example: Dear Jane Smith). If you don’t know the name of the hiring manager, you can begin your letter with a simple “Hello,” or “Dear Hiring Manager,”. Get a feel for the company’s culture when deciding how formal your greeting should be. More formal introductions such as “To Whom It May Concern:” or “Dear Sir or Madame,” can come across as too stuffy for some organizations, while greetings like “Hey!” and “Hi there,” are almost always too casual for a cover letter.
3. Avoid generic references to your abilities
Whenever possible, tell meaningful anecdotes that tie your skills to concrete problem-solving activities or tangible business results you’ve worked on in your career. Any candidate can say they possess a desirable skill. To make an impact, you need to show hiring managers examples of your skills in action. For example:
Too vague: “My skills would be a great fit for your organization.”
More specific: “In my role as a sales associate, I am frequently required to provide exceptional customer service on short notice. Exceeding customers’ expectations is a point of personal and professional pride for me, and this is a skill I’m eager to continue developing.
Too vague: “I’m a proactive team player.”
More specific: “In my current job, I proactively jumped in to help launch an internal recycling and waste reduction initiative. Together, our team contributed to a 25% reduction in solid waste production within the company.”
4. Keep it short and to the point
Unless specified in the job description, there is no required length for a cover letter, so focus on the details that are most important for the job. Read the job description closely to identify the best opportunities to illustrate your qualifications. What professional achievements are you the most proud of? Choose one or two and map them directly to the desired experience or qualifications the hiring manager is looking for, using just a few detailed but concise sentences. What attributes is the job description calling for in a candidate? Consider using the cover letter itself as a way of demonstrating those traits.
Don’t reiterate everything that’s on your resume. You want to focus on one or two anecdotes, expanding on how you achieved something specific.
[Read more: 6 Universal Rules for Resume Writing]
Here are two examples of cover letters, a traditional version and a less traditional version. First, read the job description on the left, then read the cover letter. In the first example, you’ll see how the writer uses specific phrases from the job description and includes them in the letter. The second example takes a more creative approach. The author tells a personal story and appeals more abstractly to the attributes called for in the job posting. Both are less than 300 words long.
Example 1: Administrative Assistant
In this role, you will be supporting managers and other senior level personnel by managing their calendars, arranging travel, filing expense reports, and performing other administrative tasks.
Strong interpersonal skills, attention to detail, and problem solving skills will be critical to success.
- 5+ years of experience providing high-level admin support to diverse teams in a fast-paced environment
- High school diploma or equivalent work experience
- Excellent Microsoft Office Skills with an emphasis on Outlook and Excel
- Self-motivated and highly organized
- Team players who works well with minimal supervision
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am writing to express my interest in the opening for an administrative assistant at ***.
I am drawn to this opportunity for several reasons. First, I have a proven track record of success in administrative roles, most recently in my current job as an administrative coordinator. A highlight from my time here was when I proactively stepped in to coordinate a summit for our senior leaders last year. I arranged travel and accommodation for a group of 15 executives from across the company, organized meals and activities, collaborated with our internal events team, and ensured that everything ran according to schedule over the two-day summit. Due to the positive feedback I received afterwards, I have been given the responsibility of doubling the number of attendees for the event this year and leading an internal team to get the job done.
I am also attracted to this role because of the the growth opportunities that *** provides. The research that I’ve done on your company culture has shown me that there are ample opportunities for self-motivated individuals like me. A high level of organization and attention to detail are second nature to me, and I’m eager to apply these skills in new and challenging environments.
I look forward to sharing more details of my experience and motivations with you. Thank you for your consideration.
Example 2: Brand Copywriter
We are looking for an experienced copywriter to join our team. If you have a great eye for balance, a quick wit, and can adapt a brand voice for any medium, then this role is right for you.
- Write for branded communications including ads, emails, events, landing pages, video, product marketing, and more.
- Maintain and develop the voice of our brand in collaboration with others.
- Develop copy for internal communications that generate excitement about our company culture
- Work independently and manage your time well.
- Strong copyediting skills: for your own work and for others.
- A portfolio of your work
- Minimum 5 years of copywriting, ideally within an agency
- Strong attention to detail
There are least two less-than-obvious ways to improve your vocabulary (and by extension, your copywriting skills): studying for the GRE and becoming a crossword puzzle enthusiast. I’ve done both but for the purposes of this job application, I’d like to focus on the latter.
My grandmother was the best writer I’ve ever known. She wasn’t a professional writer, but she had a gift and a love of writing was something we shared. It wasn’t until last year that I also took up her love of crossword puzzles, and immediately saw how the two went hand in hand. Before long, I was solving Monday through Wednesday puzzles in the New York Times, needing to look up words less and less frequently as time passed. Soon, I was able to complete Thursday to Saturday, too. Throughout this process, I could feel my stock of quips, rejoinders, and turns of phrase steadily growing. Eventually, I worked up the courage to attempt the Sunday puzzles.
It was this courage that was the real turning point for me. In my current agency, I was already known as a hard worker and creative spirit; my peer and manager evaluations had made this clear. But while I felt confident in my abilities, I had never seen myself as particularly daring. Considering new challenges and mastering each one along the way had given me a renewed sense of myself and clarity about my chosen profession.
I began a career as a copywriter because I was skilled at finding combinations of words to fit a thought or feeling. I’m continuing down that path because I’ve realized how I can shape and hone that skill to reach new heights. I’d like copywriting at *** to be the next step in my journey.
All the best,
5. Always proofread before you submit
Reread your cover letter several times before submitting and keep an eye out for errors of spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Reading the letter aloud can help you pick out awkward phrasing or too-long sentences. There are certain common errors that we all have a tendency to gloss over, so make sure to do a slow, deliberate reading that examines each word. If your salutation includes the hiring manager’s name, triple-check the spelling.
[Read more: Cover Letter Checklist: What to Review Before You Submit]
For jobs that require submitting a cover letter, remember that you’re getting a valuable chance to illustrate your capabilities and share a glimpse of authentic personality. Take advantage of the opportunity to let your greatest strengths shine, while also showing that you respect the hiring manager’s time and attention.
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Posted on by Jon Shields
When it comes to addressing a cover letter, advice columns frequently spotlight these two pitfalls:
- Mistake 1: Failing to address your cover letter to a specific person
- Mistake 2: Addressing a cover letter to the wrong person
Most job postings don’t specify who will be reading your cover letter. This puts job seekers in a tricky situation. Fixing the first mistake could cause you to make the second. So what’s the best way to replace “To Whom It May Concern” atop your cover letter?
Here are 4 top tips for figuring out who to address your cover letter to:
1) Don’t Address the Recruiter
For many job openings, the first person you need to impress is a corporate recruiter. That doesn’t mean you should address your cover letter to them.
“Recruiters do not read cover letters,” a long-time healthcare recruiter told Jobscan. “Bottom line.”
That might be an overstatement — most don’t, some do — but many recruiters would admit that they aren’t the intended audience of a cover letter. “It’s mostly for the hiring manager,” said a recruiter in the non-profit industry. “For us [recruiters], it’s just an extra step in an already elongated process.”
The healthcare recruiter agreed: “If you’re sending it straight to a hiring manager who’s looking at a much lower number of applicants looking in, they might actually read that.”
In order for your cover letter to make an impact with a hiring manager, it’s up to your resume to get past a recruiter and the tracking system they use to rank and filter applicants. Try analyzing your resume against the job description below to receive instant optimization tips and recruiter insights so that the time you spent crafting your cover letter isn’t in vain.
2) Search the Company Website and LinkedIn
Few job postings list the hiring manager by name but many will tell you the position to which you’d be reporting.
With this information, a little detective work can reveal the name of the hiring manager.
How to Search for a Hiring Manager’s Name on a Company Website
Start off by browsing the company’s website. Look for an about page, company directory, or contact page. These pages are frequently linked at the very bottom of the website. Companies that feature employees on their about page make it much easier to figure out who will be reading your cover letter.
You can also try searching the website. If the website doesn’t have a built in search bar, use this syntax in Google:
“[position you’ll be reporting to]” site:company website
This will reveal hard-to-find about pages or other mentions of the position in the company’s blog posts, press releases, and other pages.
How to Search for a Hiring Manager on LinkedIn
If a company doesn’t list the hiring manager on their website, LinkedIn is your next best resource.
Start off by searching for the company page on LinkedIn. Once you’re on the company’s LinkedIn page, click “See all X employees on LinkedIn” near the top.
Depending on the company size, you can either browse all positions or narrow your results by adding search terms to the search bar (e.g. “Marketing Manager”) and utilizing the “Current companies” filters on the right side of the screen.
Search for the “reports to” position from the job listing. If it wasn’t provided in the listing, search for keywords related to your prospective department (e.g. “marketing”). If the company uses an intuitive corporate hierarchy you should be able to determine who will be reading the cover letter.
3) Contact the Company Directly
There is nothing wrong with calling or emailing the company to ask for the name of the hiring manager. Be polite and honest with the administrative assistant or customer service representative. Explain that you’re about to apply for a job and you’d like to know who you should address in your cover letter.
If they aren’t able to provide an answer or transfer you to someone who knows, let it go. The last thing you need is word getting back to the hiring manager that you were pushy with one of their colleagues.
4) If you still can’t figure out the name of the hiring manager…
If your investigation doesn’t yield any results, to whom should you address your cover letter?
Aim High When Addressing a Cover Letter
You don’t want to address your cover letter to the wrong person, but if you do, it’s better to guess high than low. If you are only able to track down a list of executives, Lily Zhang of The Muse suggests that addressing a cover letter to a high-level department head is still in your best interest. “In the end, no one will fault you for addressing the letter higher up than necessary,” she writes. “This approach is definitely better than not using a name in your cover letter because it still shows the time and effort you took to find out who the department head is.”
“To Whom it May Concern” Alternatives
Using “To Whom it May Concern” is considered outdated and overly formal in many hiring circles. It also does nothing to help you stand out as it’s the go-to salutation most applicants use when addressing a cover letter to an unknown recipient.
If you know the position you’d be reporting to, use that. At very least, “Dear Customer Experience Manager” shows that you carefully read the job posting.
“Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Hiring Team” are a couple generic alternatives that are a little less stuffy than “To Whom it May Concern.” You can also address your letter to the appropriate department, for example “To the Design Department” or “Dear Engineering Department.”
As with many aspects of the job application process, demonstrating that you put in some extra effort can make a difference. Doing some research before addressing a cover letter contributes to a positive first impression.