How to Write a Cover Letter: 14 Tips for the Best Job Applications
The cover letter is one of the few documents that nearly everyone will have to write at some point in their life.
It has been said that the CV is possibly the most important document you will ever write and if this is the case then arguably, the cover letter could be a close second. The good news is that whilst it might seem complex, in truth it is a just a combination of basic principles that need to be included and followed.
Why does it even matter?
Attaching a covering letter for a job application is often a requirement from employers. As a candidate, it would be easy to assume that it won’t be read and that it is a waste of time. However, whilst this might be an unfortunate truth in some cases, in others the cover letter can be used as the primary decision criteria on whether to spend more time reviewing an application. From an employer’s perspective a cover letter can instantly reveal important information about an applicant.
Here’s what a hiring manager is looking out for in your covering letter:
- Communication — Can the applicant write well? What is their written communication like? Can they spell?
- Best Practices — Do they understand common best practices such as how to structure a letter?
- Fulfilling their need — Has the candidate understood what I am looking for?
- Why them? — Why does the candidate want to join our company?
- Alignment with the role — Why is this person a suitable match for the role?
- Why you? — What makes this person better than the other applications?
- Effort and desire for the role — Has the applicant put in a significant amount of effort in applying for this role that convinces me that they are genuinely interested in the job I’m offering.
It is always a worthwhile process to take time thinking through what the hiring manager’s decision criteria is going to be. This insight into the hiring manager’s thought process will help you shape your cover letter and create a more compelling argument for why you are the person they should hire.
Before we dive into the actionable tips there is one nugget to keep in mind. Your CV should showcase your skills and previous experience amongst other things, and the cover letter should be the bridge that links your CV directly to the specific role and the company that you are applying for. It should explain why the skills and experience that YOU have, set you apart from the competition. In short, why the employer should be hiring you.
With that in mind here is the complete guide on how to write a cover letter.
1) Get the basics right
Your cover letter should be typed in a clear font face in a suitable font size; size 12 or 14 is recommended. Readability is of paramount importance. If a hiring manager has to squint to read then you’ve already failed in gaining their attention.
If you are sending your cover ‘letter’ as an email, then it is advisable to make the cover letter the main body of the email and simply attach your CV. However, in all other circumstances your cover letter should be in the traditional letter layout.
The above screenshot shows the traditional letter template. Writing in this way demonstrates an awareness of best practices and willingness to ‘do things in the right way’.
2) Keep it to one page
A cover letter should not exceed one page of A4. Any longer and it becomes a mammoth task to digest. Equally, it should not be too short as this could demonstrate a lack of effort, lack of desire for the role or lack of a relevant argument for yourself as to why you should be hired. One page in total, including all the necessary layout trimmings (addresses, date, titles etc), is sufficient to produce a compelling story for yourself.
3) Choose an appropriate file format
When applying for a role you should check on the instructions from the company if they are requesting a particular file type. Popular/common file types include .doc, .docx, .rtf, .txt and .pdf. Truth is, there is a lot of conflicting advice on this topic across the internet. The reason for this is that many companies will use an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) to keep track of all incoming candidate applications. The ATS stores and ‘reads’ your application and in some cases will scan it for keywords.
There are pros and cons to each file type; .doc and .docx are Microsoft Word files and whilst Word is pretty universal the limitations are that formatting can sometimes be lost. The other thing to bear in mind with a .doc or .docx is that you are essentially sending a ‘live’ editable copy of your cover letter. This means that a reader could edit it and send it on should they wish.
Alternatively, .pdf always saves the formatting as it creates a version that cannot be edited. The other benefit to a PDF is that it can be opened right inside the internet browser of the end reader whereas a .doc has to be opened in Word. For a recruiter viewing applications it can be a huge time suck having to open a Word file each time.
To get a second opinion on this, I reached out to “self confessed recruiting geek”, Tris Revill.
He clarified that PDF is the best option in most cases with the caveat that the file size wasn’t overly large. He also added that Applicant Tracking Systems such as Workable are pretty adept at handling all file types.
To save your document as a PDF from Microsoft Word, hit File > Save As > and drop down the file format menu as shown here:
To save as a PDF if you’re working in Google docs, hit File > Download As > PDF Document (.pdf) as shown below:
4) Name the document appropriately.
This is one of the simplest things to get right, but one of the most common mistakes I see. When you send the document, the recipient can see what you have named the file. Therefore, it is wise to name it something logical and appropriate.
- FirstName LastName — Company name — Role
- FirstInitial LastName — CompanyName — Role
- FirstName LastName — Role (cover letter)
Essentially, anything that clearly communicates exactly what the document is.
Examples of bad document names include:
- Just “Cover Letter”. The reason for this is that it suggests that the document is a standard template that gets sent to every company you apply for.
- “Cover Letter for [wrong company name]”
- “Cover letter for [wrong job role]”
I’ve even seen a cover letter simply titled “Generic Covering Letter 2014”. Needless to say, it didn’t instill any confidence that this candidate had made any effort at all with their application. What was worse is that this was for an application in 2015.
5) Avoid catch-all buzzwords. Be unique.
It is often tempting to include phrases such as “Confident working as an individual as well as in a team environment”. The issue with phrases like this is that they are catch all buzz phrases. The statement should apply to every single applicant and hence they do not differentiate you from the rest of the applicant pool. The aim with the cover letter is to stand above the noise and communicate why you are a unique candidate. Hence, buzz-words should always be avoided.
6) Infuse your cover letter with personality.
In a similar vein as the previous point, your cover letter should contain elements that communicate your personality. You are unique as a person, and therefore your personality should be communicated. This is even more important depending on the type of job role you are applying for. As an example, if you are customer service expert, then you need to demonstrate your empathy and great communication. If you are a copywriter, your cover letter needs to ooze with skill. If you are an designer, should take the form of a portfolio. Essentially, you want to communicate your personal brand.
7) Don’t mention salary expectations.
Including any mention of remuneration in your cover letter is a huge red flag (unless you are explicitly asked to include it). It screams of desperation and a care of nothing more than the job being a means to an end.
8) Find the right person to address it to.
Something as simple as finding the correct person to address your cover letter can have a huge impact.
“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”
- Dale Carnegie, author of the famous “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
Using the appropriate person’s name can immediately win that person over. As a hiring manager, receiving a cover letter addressed directly to you carries significantly more weight than any other application addressed generically to “whom it may concern”, or “HR Department” (especially if the company doesn’t even have an HR department!).
You can easily discover the person’s name by visiting the Company’s LinkedIn profile and searching through the current employees as shown below. (Make sure your own LinkedIn profile is up to scratch too in case they look at your profile in return!)
9) Focus on the specific role.
This your chance to clearly demonstrate the link between what the company is looking for and your skills as outlined on your CV. As a starter, it is always worth clarifying exactly which role you are applying for, perhaps as a title, and even where you found the role to provide context (extra brownie points here if you were invited to apply by one of the existing team members at the company, or you have some other warm connection from your network).
Making a clear connection and analysis of why the skills and experiences you have gained make you a great fit for the role is the main aim here. The more tailored and focused in your approach, the better.
10) Explain WHY you want to join THIS company.
As a hiring manager you are not just thinking about how well candidates fit the mould of the role but also how they will fit with the dynamic of the current team. For small and medium sized companies with strong cultures, this is particularly important. Hence, demonstrating that you have researched the company, and communicating why this company is of particular interest to you is of the utmost importance. Providing a bit of flattery from your research will go a long way here, eg “I saw you were recently featured in the [insert publication] for one of your recent projects.”
Each hire in a company, either strengthens or dilutes the overall quality of the team and that’s why hiring managers are looking for evidence that you are passionate about joining their company.
Chris Campbell, hiring manager at GrantTree, had the following advice:
“The most important thing is to not send a generic letter. If it’s obvious you’ve sent it to a hundred companies and haven’t bothered looking at our website or blog, then it’ll go straight in the bin. If you want us to think you’re a unique and special snowflake, you need to not assume we’re an identikit employer.
Be honest about yourself, what you like, and especially about what you don’t. Why do you want to work here? If you can’t put it down on paper, then it’s probably not the right job for you.”
This is one of the 3 main questions your cover letter should answer — you can find out the other two as well as everything else your cover letter should include, in our free cover letter cheat sheet.
As you can see, communicating that you have researched the company and can explain exactly why you want to join the company you are applying to specifically is what the hiring managers are looking out for.
11) Provide a value proposition as to why you should be hired.
Having tied your skills to the job role and the company, you can construct a value proposition as to why you are the single best candidate that they will review. One method of doing this is to pitch the employer on how you are solving their pain. They are hiring because they have a need and you can fulfil this need. HR professional, Liz Ryan, has written about how to ‘write a pain letter’ in her Forbes article;
When you begin your Pain Letter congratulating your target hiring manager on something cool the organization has done recently (an item you found in the company’s About Us or Newsroom page) and then make a hypothesis about the most likely Business Pain for your manager, you’re in a great spot. Your manager has a huge incentive to keep reading your Pain Letter. When you tie the most likely Business Pain to your own experience through a Dragon-Slaying Story, your hiring manager’s brain may wake up. He or she may say “I’d like to talk with his person, at least.” That’s all you need!
12) Finish off with a call-to-action.
One of the cardinal sins of sales and marketing communications is to not finish with a call-to-action, ie. a request stating the desired outcome that you wish to happen. Finishing your cover letter with a strong call to action makes the hiring manager more likely to take action on your request. Ensure that your contact details are easily visible and that you make it easy for the employer to reach out and get in touch for a follow up. Simple, yet effective.
13) Check, check and check again.
Writing your covering letter with your job application will take some time and thought. Give it the justice it deserves by going through all the basics such as a thorough Spell Check and proofread. Keep an eye out for words that won’t get picked up on a spell check and make sure your grammar is impeccable. Capital letters are another important thing to keep an eye on, especially on the company’s name (make sure you spell the company’s name right!) and job titles. Ideally, you will have your cover letter checked by someone other than yourself as well.
Sahil puts it better than I can here:
Great written communication is absolutely essential when applying for a job. The number of applications out there that fall down on this alone is staggeringly high.
I have seen cover letters that include:
no capital letters. anywhere. not even on the person’s own name.
- No full stops, anywhere, throughout the entire document, just commas everywhere,
- The company’s name spelled incorrectly. This is a common one.
- Applications for entirely the wrong company and/or the wrong job role.
Don’t be this person. Sounds simple, but you can stand out by avoiding all these common errors.
14) Hustle your way into the job.
Remember that your cover letter is just one part of the application. Any good candidate that really wants a role at the company will go above and beyond the standard application channels to connect with the company. Networking events and social media are the two obvious ways to build a stronger relationship. Here’s some more great stories on how people have hustled their way into a role.
One other thing to bear in mind is that there is a direct correlation between the time and effort spent on an application and the chances of having your application progressed. As a hiring manager there is nothing more frustrating than receiving an application from a candidate whose CV would suggest they’re competent, yet their cover letter reads like it was put together as an afterthought. Worse than that, put together months ago and has been sent to all employers. Contrary to popular belief, there is not a one size fits all method of applying for jobs and a scatter-gun approach to job applications is much more of a time wasting activity.
Hopefully the above pointers will provide some good foundations for creating a stand-out cover letter for a job application.
We’re speaking figuratively, of course!
But if you’re tired of sending garden-variety cover letters into the recruiting void, a modern cover letter — a Pain Letter™ — may increase your odds of landing an initial interview.
What’s a “Pain Letter™,” you ask?
Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder of The Human Workplace, has written extensively on this topic. According to Ms. Ryan, a Pain Letter™ is a lot more specific than a traditional cover letter is, because it addresses a real business pain the target hiring manager is experiencing. Pain Letters™ operate on a simple premise: if there were no pain, there wouldn’t be a job opening in the first place.
The Modern Cover Letter: Moving beyond the traditional
If you want to secure an interview at one of your target food & beverage organizations, try sending a Pain Letter™ directly to the hiring manager. Follow these steps:
Find the hiring manager. While it’s smart to apply via the traditional route listed in the posting (with a traditional cover letter), don’t stop there. Do some research on LinkedIn, ZoomInfo or the organization’s website to find out the name of your potential new boss.
Grab the reader’s attention. Set yourself apart from the first sentence. Instead of leading with the standard, “I came across your job posting on,” start by acknowledging a recent accomplishment or newsworthy item you found about the hiring manager or his department. Don’t worry if the introduction isn’t directly related to the position you want; the idea is to capture the reader’s attention in a positive way.
Identify the pain. Read between the lines when you see an intriguing job posting, looking beyond the essential requirements. Think about the business pain that’s driving the need for the ad. Is the organization growing rapidly? Dealing with talent or skills shortages in their market? Facing quality or distribution challenges? Threatened by new competition in their product category? Tap your network, review the organization’s press releases and search for recent news about the organization, products and key decision makers.
Once you’ve identified the likely pain, name it. Empathize with it. Then explain what you bring to the table.
Tell a good (true) story. Give the hiring manager a taste of what you can really do. Review your measurable accomplishments to find an example of how you solved a problem similar to one the prospective employer may be facing. If none exists, explain how you can use your skills and experience to address the business challenges the hiring manager is currently experiencing.
Keep the focus where it belongs. Throughout a Pain Letter™, write more about the hiring manager’s issues and less about your own skills and competencies. Skip the buzzwords and pat phrases like, “I’m a motivated, results-oriented professional.” The hiring manager can get specifics about your qualifications from your resume if he needs them.
Close strong. End your letter with a one-sentence paragraph that expresses your interest in the position and clearly explains the next steps you will take.
Move beyond traditional job search techniques.
Have a target employer you’d like to work for? Kinsa Group can open new doors in your job search, connecting you with opportunities that aren’t advertised elsewhere. Search executive food & beverage jobs here or submit your resume to get started.
Editors Note: This blog was originally posted in December, 2014. It has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.