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The ultimate cover letter checklist

Use these 12 tips to help your cover letter stand out.

The ultimate cover letter checklist
[Photo: DaniloAndjus/Getty Images]

Résumés and LinkedIn profiles may get the lion’s share of attention, but a good cover letter can go a long way toward impressing hiring decision-makers. One survey by ResumeLab found that 83% of respondents claimed that a great cover letter can land an interview even if your résumé isn’t good enough.

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“When you write a cover letter, the goal is to connect and find a common link,” résumé writer and expert Angela Aylward told Fast Company. “A résumé is an overview of your job history and skills, while the cover letter brings in your personality.”

But what makes a good cover letter? Part of it is length. According to another ResumeLab survey, 82% of experts reported that the ideal cover letter length is about a single page, and while others said less than half a page is preferred.

This checklist will help you write a letter that’s short, sweet, and attention grabbing.

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Write with the job description in mind

Your cover letter, like your résumé, should be tailored to the job description rather than falling into the trap of pitching to the company in general. As Dan Geiger, Buzzfeed’s former senior manager of people operations, previously told Fast Company, a lot of entry-level hires spent their time sharing their thoughts about how great Buzzfeed is. According to Geiger, it’s better to show your enthusiasm “for the specifics of the role,” rather than the organization. After all, if you just wrote your cover letter with the company in mind, you’re making the recruiter and hiring manager do all the work. By tailoring your pitch to the role, can sell yourself more effectively.

Get the tone right

Branding and content consultant Sara McCord, formerly with career platform The Muse, once held a position where she reviewed résumés and cover letters for roughly 60 positions per year. With that kind of volume, good cover letters stand out. She found that one of the things she looked for in her initial read-throughs was the tone.

“Even if you’re applying to your dream company, you don’t want to come off like you think someone entertaining your candidacy is the same as him offering you water at the end of a lengthy hike. You don’t need to thank the hiring manager so incredibly much for reading your application–that’s [their] job,” she advised. If you align considering your application with the biggest favor ever, you’ll make the other person think it’s because you’re desperate.

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Skip the effusive thanks and demonstrate genuine interest by writing a cover letter that connects the dots between your experience and the requirements of the position. Telling the reader what you’ve accomplished and how it directly translates to meeting the company’s needs is always a better use of space than gushing.

Craft a personalized salutation

When possible, it’s best to address your cover letter to a person instead of a generic option like “To whom it may concern,” said career coach Ronald J. Auerbach, author of Think Like an Interviewer: Your Job Hunting Guide to Success. However, if you’re responding to an ad, you may need to choose a generic option.

Just be sure not to veer into overly formal territory. Hari Kolam, CEO of the talent acquisition platform Findem, told Fast Company in a previous report that it’s a delicate balance. “All too often applicants err on the side of formality, and it actually backfires.” Although “Hey,” is not appropriate, “Dear Sir or Madam” will sound too quaint. “Avoid overly formal language and long, complicated sentences that may disinterest the reader,” he said. “Aim to make the letter friendly, clear, and professional. A good best practice is to research the company’s brand and tailor the wording in a way that speaks their language.”

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You could also check LinkedIn to try and figure out the name of the hiring manager, career coach Merryn Roberts-Huntley told Fast Company. “Ideally, it should be addressed to the actual person who is hiring for the position,” she said. “If you can’t find the name of the hiring manager with confidence, then address the cover letter to “Dear Hiring Manager.”

Grab their attention

Whatever you do, don’t start your letter with an old chestnut like “I’m writing to express my interest in x position.” After all, applying to the right listing or making your purpose obvious in your subject line should already be established.

A more interesting way to grab the hiring manager’s attention is to start with a specific anecdote highlighting why you are a great candidate. In The New Rules Of Work: The Modern Playbook For Navigating Your Career, the cofounders The Muse shared examples of engaging cover letter introductions. Try a dynamic introduction like this:

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While you won’t find the title “Community Manager” listed on my résumé, I’ve actually been bringing people together online and off for three years while running my own blog and series of meetups.

McCord agreed. When she is reviewing letters for others, if the first line reads something like”I am writing to apply for [job] at [company],” she says she will delete it and suggest a swap every time. “When a hiring manager sees that, she won’t think, ‘How thoughtful of the applicant to remind me what I’m reading!'” she wrote. “Her reaction will be much closer to, ‘boring,’ ‘meh,’ or even ‘next!'” Think about using a statement like one of these:

  • I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Ms. Dorchester, helped me discover a love of reading.
  • My approach to management is simple: I strive to be the kind of leader I’d want to work for.
  • In my three years at [prior company], I increased our average quarterly sales by [percentage].

Such examples make you want to keep reading. That’s half the battle right there, McCord wrote. Additionally, she noted, it makes you memorable, which will help when you’re competing against a sea of applicants.

Connect to the company

Find and make a connection to something the company is doing, said Aylward. If you were referred by someone in your network, mention it immediately. Otherwise, do some research on the company and find something to connect to.

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“Immediately saying what about the company drew you to their job post helps create a connection with the hiring manager,” she said. “Do a Google search, visit a company’s career page, or pull up things from Forbes or news agencies that give insight into the kinds of things a company is doing and being talked about.”

Show, don’t tell

McCord explained that if you write a laundry list of your skills, your cover letter will blend into every other submission formatted the same way. The goal isn’t just to show you’re qualified; it’s to make the case that you’re more qualified than all the other applicants. You want to make clear what distinguishes you, so the hiring manager can see why you’re worth following up with to learn more. You want to be memorable. So, break up those skills recaps with anecdotes or splashes of personality.

This is a real, two-line excerpt from a cover letter she wrote:

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If I’m in a conference room and the video isn’t working, I’m not the sort to simply call IT and wait. I’ll also (gracefully) crawl under the table, and check that everything is properly plugged in.

A couple of lines like this will not only lighten up your letter but also highlight your soft skills. This introduction illustrated that she is a take-charge problem solver, without saying, “I’m a take-charge problem solver.” Plus, the “(gracefully)” reference shows that she has a sense of humor and doesn’t take herself too seriously–even in a job application. If your submission follows the same list-type format all the way through, see if you can’t pepper in an example or anecdote that’ll add some personality.

Make your case for the job

Between the opening and close, make a powerful case for why you’re the right person for the job and company, said career coach Rachel Montañez. Use active words to describe how you truly made a difference. Instead of “I have worked on financial reports,” try “I single-handedly created my team’s financial reports and presented them to senior management.” Bring a sense of enthusiasm to the writing, she advises. Your cover letter shouldn’t just repeat what’s in your résumé. Add something fresh.

The goal of your cover letter is to have the person read past the first sentence, said Roberts-Huntley. Get right to the point: the position and why you’re a good fit for it.

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“The bulk of the cover letter, which in its entirety should be about half a page, should be about your competencies and any results you can share that would help sell you for the position,” she said.

Showcase your value

Many candidates (especially those starting their careers) make the mistake of focusing too much on how the job will benefit them, rather than how they can benefit the company. As a previous Fast Company article reported, one of the best ways to show your value to the company is to understand their pain points and troubles, and then identify how you, as a candidate, can help them. Beyond reading the news, you can try to organize informational interviews with people in the company (who aren’t your hiring manager) to find out more about their issues.

When you’re not an insider, however, it’s easy to misidentify a company’s problems. If you can’t get the employees to share the issues they’re facing, talk about your previous successes. Recruiter and professional résumé writer Donna Svei called this an “opportunity letter.” Svei suggested writing about a time that you over-delivered on a project and based on those experiences, how you’d bring that level of excellence to the role you’re seeking.

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Close strong

Just as the right salutation sets the tone for your letter, a strong close can help you end on the right note. Close the letter reiterating your interest in the position, Roberts-Huntley said.

“Say something along the lines of, ‘I hope to have the opportunity to make a positive impact on your business and the team,'” she suggested. “Adjust it to make sense for the position but create a positive statement about what you’ll do or bring to the position if given the chance.”

Be brief

Many companies now use applicant tracking systems, which can typically accommodate a cover letter of up to 250 words, Montañez said. “There has been some research done that shows that the length that typically gets past an applicant tracking system,” she said.

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As for structure, Montañez typically recommends a compelling lead paragraph, then two to three short paragraphs or bullet points in the body highlighting your key strengths, and a closing that includes your interest in the next steps.

Proofread carefully

Once you’ve got the cover letter drafted and polished, it’s critical to spend some time proofreading, said Amy Soricelli, vice president of career services at Berkeley College. McCord wrote that typos and mistakes caused her to toss some résumés. Typos can indicate carelessness and put you out of the running before you start. Here are some ways to make sure your résumé is error free:

  • Use your word processing program’s spell check and editing functions.
  • Find a professional proofreader—or even just a friend who’s good at proofing—to review your letter.
  • Try the old “writer trick” of reading each word and sentence from the end to the beginning. This can help you disrupt the flow of the writing and more easily spot mistakes.

The reason career experts keep telling people to proofread is because the advice is often ignored, Soricelli said.

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Ditch the clichés

While you’re proofing, scan for clichés and remove them, said Aylward. “For example, everyone says, ‘I’m very excited to see your job posting,'” she advises. “Your letter should reflect your personality without being over the top. Be creative with your language, but don’t make it look like you walked through a thesaurus.”

Also, avoid clichés in your examples. “Everyone says they’re a hard worker or creative problem solver,” said Aylward. “Instead, you could say, ‘I solved this particular problem when I worked at this company and was able to reduce their end-of-month open invoices down by 90%.’ Use statistics and specific examples instead of clichés.”

Write your cover letter carefully, specifically, and with intention and it can bolster your chances of landing that first interview. Consider it a supplement to your résumé and another opportunity to show the company how you will add value as an employee.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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