“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.
I’ve read a lot of cover letters throughout my career. When I was a fellowship program manager, I reviewed them in consideration for more than 60 open positions each year. So I saw it all–the good, the bad, and the standout examples that I can still remember.
As a result, I’ve become the go-to friend when people need feedback on their job applications. Based on my own experience putting people in the “yes” (and “no”) pile, I’m able to give these cover letters a quick scan and immediately identify what’ll turn a hiring manager off.
While I can’t give you insight into every person’s head who’ll be reading your materials, I can share with you the feedback that I give my own loved ones.
1. The Basics
First things first, I skim the document for anything that could be disqualifying. That includes typos, a “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, or a vibe so non-specific that it reeks of find-replace. I know it seems harsh, but when a hiring manager sees any one of these things, she reads it as, “I didn’t take my time with this, and I don’t really care about working here.” So she’s likely to pass.
Another thing I look for in this initial read-through is 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 his job. If you align considering your application with the biggest favor ever, you’ll make the other person think it’s because you’re desperate.
So, skip 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.
2. The Opening Sentence
If your first line reads: “I am writing to apply for [job] at [company],” I will delete it and suggest a swap every time. (Yes, every single time.) When a hiring manager sees that, she won’t think, “How thoughtful of the applicant to remind me what I’m reading!” Her reaction will be much closer to, “boring,” “meh,” or even “next!”
Compare it to one of these statements:
I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. 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].
See how these examples make you want to keep reading? That’s half the battle right there. Additionally, it makes you memorable, which’ll help when you’re competing against a sea of applicants.
To try it out for yourself, pick a jumping-off point. It could be something about you or an aspect of the job description that you’re really drawn to. Then, open a blank document and just free-write (translation: write whatever comes to mind) for 10 minutes. Some of the sentences you come up with will sound embarrassing or lame: That’s fine–no one has to see those! Look for the sentence that’s most engaging and see how it reads as the opening line for your cover letter.
3. The Examples
Most often, people send me just their cover letter and resume, so I don’t have the benefit of reviewing the position description. And yet, whenever a letter follows the format of “I am skilled at [skill], [skill], [skill], as evidenced by my time at [place].” Or “You’re looking for [skill], and I am a talented [skill], ” I could pretty much re-create it. Surprise: that’s actually not a good thing.
Again, 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. And–again–you want to be memorable.
If you write a laundry list, it’ll blend into every other submission formatted the same way. So, just like you went with a unique opener, do the same with your examples. Sure, you might still include lists of skills, but break those up with anecdotes or splashes of personality.
Here’s a real, two-line excerpt from a cover letter I’ve written before:
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 lines like this will not only lighten up your letter, but also highlight your soft skills. I got the point across that I’m a take-charge problem solver, without saying, “I’m a take-charge problem solver.” Plus the “(gracefully)” shows that I don’t take myself 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.
You want your cover letter to stand out for all the right reasons. So, before you click submit, take a few minutes to make sure you’re putting your best (and most memorable) foot forward.
Related Video: This Is What People Really Think Of Your Resumé
This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.