Writing an effective cover letter has changed a lot in the past few years.
Gone are the formal, stilted rules governing the “Dear Sir/Madam” page-length introductions. As attention spans shrink, emails pile up, and recruiters and HR people are busier than ever, cover letters have simplified.
Now the cover letter is shorter, to the point, and reinforces your pitch to prospective employers by highlighting what’s great about your “brand.” And its purpose is to get your résumé read.
A great cover letter does this by connecting the positive achievements of your past and future to the present needs of future employers. Your cover letter does this by touching on four points about your career: your yesterday, your today, your tomorrow, and your enthusiasm. One great sentence for each of these points is all you’ll need. And it should invite response by making it very clear what you’re looking to do next and why.
Here’s how it breaks down.
A brief statement of what you’ve done
In your first sentence, share the most relevant details about what you’ve done, and inform your audience of your successes and achievements in your field.
So it’s not:
“I’ve been working at a company since college.”
“I followed my boss to her next job after she was hired there.”
“I’ve been working in the Eastern Division of my company for the past five years.”
None of these communicates any information to your future boss or recruiter about the work you’ve done day-to-day or your successes.
“I’m a top producing sales professional in pharmaceutical sales.”
“I’m a DevOps expert with deep experience in AWS and security.”
“I come from a creative background where I’ve done award-winning TV ad creative for the automotive industry for the past 15 years.”
In this first sentence, provide the specifics about the type of work you do, who or how you do it, and an adjective or two to describe your success.
A brief statement of what you’re doing now
In your second sentence, explain to your audience your current role and how it demonstrates the connection between your past success and your future achievements.
So it’s not:
“I’m currently Director at Acme Inc.”
“I’ve been working in sales for the past seven years.”
“I’ve always maintained my interest in the water industry”
“I’ve been rapidly promoted in the Aerospace industry.”
“I enjoy my work as a client services manager in media companies.”
“The challenges of semiconductor design captivate me and inform my present work.”
Share the energy, interest, or passion for what you’re doing today. It never makes sense to denigrate your current employer or position; instead focus on the positives that you want to carry forward with you.
A brief statement of why you’re enthusiastic
Employers respond to enthusiasm. It’s a great signal of your positive, achievement-oriented outlook, and speaks most effectively to your motivations. By providing a positive spin on your search in your third sentence, you are inviting HR professionals and recruiters to welcome you into an interview process.
So it’s not:
“I’m looking for more money for the work I do.”
“I need to get away from my current toxic environment.”
“While uncertain about where it will take me, I’m just looking for a change.”
“I enjoy handling the accounting issues for growing companies and am particularly interested in venture-backed opportunities.”
“I’m passionate about hardware manufacturing and am looking for positions of increasing responsibility in tech manufacturing here in the Bay Area.”
“I love the challenges of data-driven marketing and applying statistical analysis to ad spend—not just for online, but for radio and TV as well.”
A brief statement of what you want to do
Your fourth sentence should follow, logically, persuasively, from the professional you’ve described in the first three. It should also be focused on the benefits you’ll bring to your future employer, not your fears, setbacks, or unhappiness.
So it’s not:
“I’m worried about my company’s finances, so I’ve got to move.”
“My boss was terminated last year, and I’ve lost my corporate support.”
“I’m fed up with the office politics and have to move on.”
All of these are inward reasons for a change that hold little appeal to your audience and might, in fact, turn them off. Instead, you need to persuade them that your next step is obviously in their direction.
So you’d rather position it this way:
“I’m looking for bigger challenges in logistics, either inside or outside of retail.”
“I’d like to do project management at the same scale as a defense contractor after my 13 years in government.”
“As I’ve been adding more benefits, compensation, and succession planning work to my portfolio, I’m ready to step up the senior HR business partner role at my next employer.”
“I’m looking to move to a smaller hospital group where I can take a step up the scope of administrative responsibility.”
You may think it is obvious what someone with your background and résumé would want to do next. Pro tip: it’s not. Because people’s careers are as different as snowflakes, don’t make your future boss guess your intentions. Make it as obvious as a drug commercial, and spell it all out.
Finally, cover letters no longer cover anything, and they’re not really letters anymore. In 2020, a cover email with the above four sentences and perhaps a brief introduction and wrap-up is at most two paragraphs in length. It’s even better to write one or one-and-a-half paragraphs.
If you use this format, you can convey a positive, forward-looking image to future bosses and their recruiting assistants in four brief, polished sentences. And that’s what is most likely to get you the invitation to interview in the terrific employment market of 2020.