“Thanks for helping me customize my resume,” my friend said cheerily. “Now I just have to find the cover letter I used for my last job application and spruce it up a little.”
“Nooooooo!” I said. “There’s no point in taking all that time to tailor your resume to each application if you’re going to use a fill-in-the-blank cover letter.”
We ended up sitting together for another 30 minutes and coming up with a new one that highlighted what a great fit she was—not just for the role, but for the company. And while a half hour is a time investment, it’s absolutely worth it if it gets you the job. (Which my friend did.)
Wondering how to customize your own cover letter? Check out the cover letter template below.
In Your Salutation
Most job seekers already know this, but just in case: You should always address your cover letter to a specific person. It shows you’re willing to do your research. Plus, seeing “Dear John Doe” will impress the person reading it (even if he or she is not John Doe) much more than “To whom it may concern” will.
If the job posting doesn’t include a name, look up the company’s hiring manager. No luck? Search for the person in charge of the department to which you’re applying. If you’re still striking out, try these advanced techniques.
In Your Opening Paragraph
The first section of your cover letter is the perfect opportunity to tell the hiring manager you understand what makes this organization and job special. I like to start with:
I am excited to apply for [job title].
Then I launch into my explanation.
I am excited to apply for the Sales Analyst position. TravelClick has become a leader in the hospitality industry by always focusing on its clients—whether they’re huge global brands or local hotels. Your commitment to customer satisfaction is something I’ve always strived for in my own career. I’d love to bring this dedication, along with my relevant skills and experience, to your award-winning company.
If you’re having trouble with this section, look through the company’s site, social media profiles, employee LinkedIn accounts, and so on to focus in on the key reasons you want this job and would be good at it. Sure, we all need a salary, but you should be able to explain why you’re enthusiastic about this opportunity in particular. (Oh, and make sure you’re describing how you can help the company, rather than how the company can help you!)
For even more ideas, check out these 31 cover letter examples of attention-grabbing intros.
In Your Body Paragraphs
Your next two paragraphs should describe your most relevant previous roles, the skills you’ve learned and experiences you’ve gotten from them, and how you’d apply those skills and insight to this position. I know, that sounds a little scary, so let’s break it down.
The first line is super simple:
During [time period], I worked as [job title] for [company name].
In your next couple sentences, talk about the specific responsibilities you had in that role that are the closest to the responsibilities you’d have in this job.
As [job title], I was responsible for [Task 1, Task 2, and Task 3].
In this role, I worked on several projects, including [Project 1, Project 2, and Project 3].
Now, it’s important not to regurgitate your resume here; rather, you want to take the most relevant experiences from your resume, expand on them, and describe why they’re so applicable for the job.
It’s even more important to bring it home in your last one or two lines by discussing how you’d use what you learned from those experiences in this position.
Here’s the whole thing:
For the past three years, I’ve been working as a technical product manager for Blue Duck, where I’ve developed more than 30 high-level features that incorporated client requests, user needs, and design and product team capabilities with deadline and budget demands. Balancing so many needs was often challenging, and I learned how to find the solution that satisfied the maximum number of stakeholders. As your product manager, I’d apply this knowledge to ensure we delivered innovative solutions that worked for our customers and their users while staying on-time and within budget.
Choosing Your Examples
Wondering how you know which jobs and qualifications to highlight?
Your current or most recent position should usually be in your cover letter (unless it was for a very short time period, or it’s not at all similar to the one you’re applying for). To find your second example, go back to the job description and highlight the three things they’re asking for that seem most important—as in, you couldn’t get hired if you didn’t have them. Maybe that’s familiarity with a niche field, or great writing abilities, or leadership talent.
Whatever three things you highlight, make sure they’re reflected in your cover letter. Choose the job experience where you utilized those traits. And if you don’t have the exact skill they’re looking for, use the closest example you have.
In Your Closing
Most people use their closing paragraph to essentially say, “Thanks for reading, looking forward to hearing back.” But that’s a waste of valuable real estate! Just like the rest of your cover letter, your closing should be personalized.
First, if you want to proactively answer a potential concern, here’s a good place to do it. Let’s say you’re currently living in Atlanta, but you want to work in Portland. End with one sentence explaining that you’re moving, such as “I am relocating to Portland in May and look forward to working in the city.” This line shows your reader you fully read the job description, and that location (or relocation) won’t be an issue.
Perhaps you’re not quite qualified for the position. You should never say, “I know I’m not as qualified as other candidates, but…” However, you can say, “My background in [industry or profession], combined with my passion for your company and this role, would make me uniquely qualified to tackle [specific responsibility].” Ending on a strong note and highlighting why your unexpected experience is actually an asset will put the hiring manager’s mind at ease. (More on that here.)
Alternatively, you can use your closing to reinforce your strong interest in the job.
For example, you could write:
Again, TravelClick’s focus on customer service has made a huge impression on me. I would be thrilled to work at an organization where every employee—from an intern to the CEO—cares so much about the people they help.
Thank you for your time,
There’s no arguing that it takes longer to compose a custom cover letter for each application than just changing out the company names in a canned one. But if you care about getting the job (and I hope you do, since you’re taking the time to apply for it), personalizing each one is the way to go.
Photo of typing courtesy of Shutterstock.
“Cover letter required.” This statement on a job listing produces groans among countless job seekers. We frequently get the question, “Does anyone even read them?” With that concern, it can feel like you’re putting it a whole lot of effort for no good reason.
To gain some clarity around this topic, we spoke with four nonprofit professionals who have influence in hiring decisions at their organizations. Their comments about cover letters shed a much-needed light on this document and its purpose. Read on to learn more.
Who reads cover letters?
Don’t get discouraged if you’ve heard “no one” reads the letters. It’s important to know who is making the comment- recruiter, HR administrator, or hiring manager– and understand their role and degree of involvement in the hiring process. If you ask a recruiter or any other person who does a first screening of candidates, they may say they don’t read them. Bettina Marshall, Office Manager at Alliance for the Great Lakes screens applicants and confirms: “I personally do not read them but there are some hiring managers here that do.”
In that first screen, they will be focusing on your resume. So why write a cover letter if it’s not being considered at that point? While it might be disappointing that your carefully crafted letter is not being read yet, remember it’s still a level playing field. The recruiter is not picking and choosing which letters to read, so it’s not like they are reading another candidate’s letter but not yours.
This is why it’s so important for all your application documents to be strong. If your resume lacks key evidence of your candidacy, your cover letter is not going to save you…but once you’ve made the first cut, you can wow the hiring manager even more if your cover letter speaks to them.
What if you don’t send one and it’s required?
The professionals we spoke to use this omission as a clear means of reducing the applicant pool. Mary Jo Loparco, Director of Talent Management at AmeriCares says, “If we make it a requirement and somebody doesn’t include it, it’s likely we will not consider them because it shows they don’t follow directions. We really want to know an individual is thoughtfully considering our organization.” She continues, “They are a pretty important part of our consideration process in hiring.”
Okay, so hiring managers read them. What might they be looking for?
Details about your interest in the cause area and the organization itself
Deborah Collins, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Ford Foundation reflects on her years as a hiring manager, “I want to see if the application is boilerplate (standard generic cover letter and resume) or if the applicant has spent effort and time crafting something aligned to the posting/role.” She also adds, “Show extracurricular activities that are relevant to the position or organization. If you are looking for a job at Ford, any volunteer positions that show social justice involvement would shine through.”
According to Mary Helen Foglia, Senior Recruiter at Planned Parenthood, “Credentials are great, CVs are great, but it’s up to the recruiter to make the connections between what they did”…unless your cover letter makes that connection for them. She explains, “I believe cover letters provide us with a view into the person and insight into how they view their credentials and fitting into the organization. Sometimes it provides us insight into what we believe their legacy will be here.”
Written communication skills, as well as appropriate spelling and grammar
At AmeriCares, an emphasis is placed on writing in almost all positions, so the cover letter is used as a writing sample. “We are definitely looking at their ability to write,” Loparco states. “In general, in almost any position here you’re going to have to know how to write concisely, summarize, and get to the point, and have all the right grammar. It’s really important to every role.”
She also notes that they are even more important for particular roles. “We look at cover letters especially for those applying to fundraising and development positions because a big part of a being a successful fundraiser is about customizing your message to a donor. If an applicant can’t articulate that in a cover letter, that’s kind of telling that they won’t be able to deliver on the job.”
Also pay careful attention to names and other details. “I immediately trash any that call me Mr. Collins. I don’t even read them,” warns Deborah Collins. “If you go through the trouble of personalizing it, get the name right.”
The contribution you can make to the organization
The cover letters that have really wowed Collins are those that clearly show their intended contributions to the organization. “It’s as important as meeting the requirements of the posting,” she explains. She uses the following questions to assess the letters: “What do they want to learn while they are here? Do they take the risk to highlight an area where they don’t have a lot of experience because they want to dive more deeply into it in order to round out their skills?”
Foglia echoes this sentiment, “Do your research on the organization. If you are not following the company but think it’s a great opportunity, be very succinct on how your experience is going to bring value to the organization. Understand what the values and the vision of the organization are before you write that letter.” She adds, “Especially with nonprofits, always look for what impact you are going to make on the organization.”
Career plan and vision
Another way applicants get Collins’ attention is in regards to taking ownership. “I look at the cover letter as a writing sample that is thoughtfully crafted to the job you are going for, giving a sense of (their creativity) and their role in the larger context of the organization.” She describes that the cover letter provides, “A lot of references and touch points for where they see themselves in their career and the organization.” When she hires for assistant roles, she notes, “It’s interesting to see if they see themselves as a ‘career assistant’ or if they are going to use it as a platform to progress to new roles at the organization. It’s a two way street. I need to understand what they deliver and what they need to be delivered to help them.”
What else do hiring managers want you to know?
Be familiar with the organization’s branding
Aside from double and triple checking your cover letter for any grammar mistakes, also pay careful attention to the spelling of the organization and the way the organization presents its name. For example, AmeriCares uses a capital “C” in its name. Loparco remarks that this is part of its branding: “Make sure you get the branding correctly and use the branding the way the organization uses in the spelling and showcasing of its name.”
Don’t regurgitate your resume on your cover letter
Loparco advises giving more details in your cover letter. “We are looking for them to tell us something that is different from the resume, not just a regurgitation. We want to know why them? Why does it make sense for us to consider them as an applicant? What about the mission of the organization is appealing to them?”
Get someone to review your document
For those who do not consider writing their strong suit, Collins offers the following advice: “Find somebody whose work you admire—a colleague, friend—who writes well and have them look at your cover letter with you. It really helps to get a different perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. A lot of people will oversell or undersell themselves.”
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I became acquainted with Idealist in late 2000 while working in the career development office at a private liberal arts college in NYC. I used it almost daily to help students and alumni find meaningful careers. After a 12-year stint in higher education, I worked as a career coach for professionals in various industries (and still used Idealist). During one of those many searches, a listing really caught my eye- the one for the newly-created position, Careers Program Coordinator. So... I jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I took on the role of Manager of Career Content for Idealist Careers, creating career content for job seekers, leaders, and other nonprofit professionals. Understanding the roles that a positive outlook and holistic self-care play in career success, I've shared with our readers time-honored methods for improving confidence and productivity. Now, as Manager of College and Professional Development, my focus is on lifting the advice from Idealist Careers "off the page". Drawing from my experience in career development, I propel job seekers and career changers towards taking control of their searches with confidence and removing fear, uncertainty, and other blocks to success via in-person workshops and seminars, webinars, and conference programming. My great loves are cooking (preferably without a recipe, otherwise I doctor it up), dancing, live cultural performances, identifying the tasting notes in a good cup of coffee, exploring neighborhoods for hidden gems, and anything else that sparks the senses and allows me to experience all the beauty, dynamism, and intrigue that vivaciously living in a remarkable world offers.