Final Cover Letter Paragraph Breakdown

Every time you send out a résumé, you’ll need to have a great cover letter to send along with it. It’s a good idea to customize your cover letter for each job you’re applying for. The cover letter is another way of introducing yourself to a potential employer. What it says about you can be the difference between getting in the door and missing your chance.

Before You Write

Each cover letter takes preparation. Here we’ve outlined some things to keep in mind when preparing to write your cover letter:

  • Think about yourself and your experiences. Then think about how you would like to relate your experience to the organization you’re writing to. Which of your talents, skills, personality traits and accomplishments should this particular organization know about? Brainstorm a list for yourself.
  • How did you hear about this opportunity? If it was through a personal contact, write down the name. If through an advertisement, write down where and when you saw it, and list the specific points the ad wants you to include.
  • What do you know about the organization you’re writing to? What attracted you to it in the first place? Maybe it’s personal (a friend worked there), or maybe you are impressed with what the organization does or admire their unique work philosophy. Do some research about the company online or through trade magazines, etc.
  • Whom are you writing to? It’s always best to write to a real, live person (with a title) if you can, so if you’re not responding to an ad that includes a specific contact, try to look up the name of someone in particular to write to. Be sure to spell both name and title perfectly. If you cannot find a specific person to write to, try “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Human Resources.” Avoid gender-specific salutations such as “Sir” and “Ma’am.”

The Right Format

Busy people don’t want to read long letters from people they don’t know. The cover letter should be one page long, and in standard business letter format. This means that you may indent your paragraphs or not – but not indenting gives a bit more room. Leave wide margins (minimum 1 inch) and use a clean, simple font like Arial or Times New Roman. Don’t be tempted to use a tiny font just to fit everything on one page; 10- or 12-point type is best. Write clearly and avoid hyphenated words at the end of a line.

Compose the Letter

  • Paragraph One: The first paragraph is the most important. Because it will be the first thing your potential employer reads, it has to make a great impression. Start out by telling how you heard about the job – friend, employee, newsletter, advertisement, etc. This is especially important if you’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance. For example, if a friend recommended that you write someone he knows at a company, don’t start with “My friend, John Peterson, told me you have a job opening so I thought I would write.” That will not “wow” anyone. Instead, try something like “I was thrilled when my friend, John Peterson, told me there was an opening for an assistant photographer at your company.” Show a little excitement and passion for the potential employment; then follow this with a few key strengths you have that are pertinent to the position you’re looking to obtain.
  • Paragraph Two: Here you should describe your qualifications for the job – skills, talents, accomplishments and personality traits. But don’t go overboard. Only pick the top three talents or characteristics that would make you stand out as a candidate. Your résumé is there to fill in the details. When writing this, think about how you can contribute to this company and why your specific skills, talents and accomplishments would be best for the company.
  • Paragraph Three: Describe why you think you’d fit into the company – why it would be a good match. Maybe you like their fast growth, know people who already work there or you’ve always used their products. Companies feel good if the candidate feels some connection to them and has a good understanding of how the company works, even before he or she is hired.
  • Paragraph Four: Mention the enclosed résumé, give them a reason to read it in-depth (e.g., For my complete employment history and applicable computer skills, please see the included résumé) and ask for an interview. Suggest a time and a way for you to follow up. Make sure you give the reader ways to easily contact you.

Essentials

  • Proofread carefully. No mistakes are allowed! No misspellings, no incorrect dates, no grammatical errors. None. Even a single mistake indicates carelessness to the employer and may disqualify you before your résumé has been reviewed. If spelling and grammar aren’t your strong points, ask for help. Having a second pair of eyes proofread your résumé and cover letter can help you catch mistakes you may have missed.
  • Write individual letters. Personalized communications are always the way to go, so take the time to tailor each letter to the organization and person to whom you’re writing. “Stock” or “generic” letters are easily recognizable to recruiters and send the message that you don’t care enough to personalize them.
  • Appearance counts. Invest in nice stationery. Use “Monarch” size paper (7 1/4” x 10 1/2”) if you like, or the standard size (8 1/2” x 11”). Always use a quality printer and send originals, never photocopies or corrected versions.
  • Forget photos. Unless you’re an aspiring actor or model, don’t enclose a photo. It gives the screener one more arbitrary reason not to call you for the interview.
  • Use simple, clear sentences. Choose every word carefully. Constantly ask yourself, “Is there any way I can say this more clearly?” And, “Am I communicating my ideas to the best of my ability?”
  • Keep copies of your résumé and cover letter. You’ll need to have them handy when you follow up later. Always keep a supply of clean, unwrinkled résumés on hand during the process of interviewing for jobs.

Make Your Cover Letter Stand Out

  • Be yourself. A “formula” approach is fine, but each letter should reflect your personality and your enthusiasm. Let it shine through. Take pride in who you are and what you’ve done. The reader is looking for a human being, a person who knows what he or she can offer and can express it well.
  • Clearer expression. Most people come close to expressing what they really want to say but usually miss the target. Take the time to craft your words and sentences to mean exactly what you intend and you’ll be in great shape. Ask others to review your letter/résumé to ensure that you’re communicating what you want to say.
  • Write in the active tense. Active verbs are the key when writing cover letters and résumés. Instead of saying, “...my best attributes include team play and motivating people,” say “I’m a dedicated team player who can motivate people…” The latter promises a go-getter employee – someone who can take action instead of waiting to be led by the hand.

Common Mistakes

  • Writing to a department or title. It’s always best to write to a real person with a real title. The exception to this is when you’re answering an ad and specific contact information is not provided.
  • Using “Dear Sir.” Many cover letter readers are women. If you cannot get the name and title of someone to write to, it’s safer to use either a job title or generic title like “Dear Human Resources Manager,” or “Dear Sir/Ma’am.”
  • Overusing “I.” It’s okay to refer to yourself, but not in every sentence. Remember to use “you” even more. Show the “you” to whom you are writing that you’re more concerned with meeting his or her needs than meeting your own.
  • Exaggerating your experience. Don’t “stretch” anything you say. Be completely truthful while still presenting yourself in the best possible light.
  • Forgetting to give the employer a way to contact you. Never forget to include your phone number or email address or both. How will the employer let you know about your upcoming interview if he or she can’t call and tell you about it?
  • Forgetting to sign the letter or to attach your résumé.

Sample Letter

September 12, 2008


John D. Smith Human Resources Manager Mom's Marmalades, Inc. 123 Main Street New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Smith:

I was thrilled when Tom Townsend, a mutual friend, suggested I write to you about opportunities at Mom’s Marmalades. As a self-starter who’s already had some strong experience as an entrepreneur, I’m interested in a marketing internship with your company.

I am hardworking, analytical and like taking initiative. In the past year I have accomplished a lot:

  • Received one of only three prizes in school science fair
  • Worked weekends two years straight as a telephone call center representative
  • Managed a small online bookstore that grossed over $600 in sales in four months

I’ve always believed in the quality of your jams and have enjoyed them since I was seven years old. I would love to be a part of the specialty foods business, especially at Mom’s Marmalades.

Enclosed, please find a copy of my résumé. I will give you a call next week to see if we could set up a time to discuss my becoming a part of your company for the summer. Feel free to call me at (212) 555-5555 or send email to jhiggins@mail.com.

I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Sincerely, (Signature) Joe P. Higgins

Online Cover Letter

With more employers posting jobs online, it’s likely you will be faced with submitting an online cover letter through email. Generally speaking, an online cover letter should always be used whenever responding to a job posting found online or if specifically requested by the employer. While online cover letters are just as important as print cover letters, and follow the same basic rules, they come with some special considerations.

  • Online cover letters are shorter. An online cover letter should be two to three paragraphs and under 150 words. The idea is that your cover letter should not be any longer than one screen in length (the employer should be able to read it in full without having to scroll down his or her screen).
  • Make the most of an email subject line. Don’t just leave the subject line blank or insert a job number unless that’s what you’re instructed to do. Use the subject line to sell yourself. For example, if you’re applying for a sales position, in your subject line say something like “Experienced Salesperson for Executive Sales position.”
  • Use plain styling. While some email allows special formatting, many will not recognize specialized text, bullets, tabs, boldface text or formatted text.
  • Email your cover letter to a friend before sending it to your employer. This will give you an opportunity to make sure the formatting and content look okay on the receiving end.
  • Use job-specific keywords. As with online résumés, using critical keywords will enhance the likelihood that your cover letter and résumé will get noticed in a future database search.
  • Maintain a professional tone. Email is often written more casually. Remember that this is not an email to your friend or family member. Avoid using abbreviations, slang, wild colors, emoticons (happy faces, hearts, etc.), inspirational quotes as part of your signature or any other everyday email techniques.

Online Cover Letter Example


Subject Line: Experienced Entrepreneur for Marketing Internship position

Dear Hiring Manager,

I am writing in response to the job posting on the Mom’s Marmalades website for a marketing internship position in the New York City office. As a self-starter who’s already had some strong experience as an entrepreneur, I can offer Mom’s Marmalades:

  • Two years’ entrepreneurial experience, including the opening of an online bookstore
  • Computer proficiency, including Microsoft Word, Excel and Photoshop
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills

I’ve always believed in the quality of your jams and have enjoyed them since I was seven years old. I would love to be a part of the specialty foods business, especially at Mom’s Marmalades.

My attached résumé provides additional information on my background and qualifications. I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible to arrange a time for an interview.

Thank you for your consideration.

Joe P. Higgins 777 State Street New York, NY 10101 joe.higgins@mail.com Home: 917.333.5555 Cell: 917.555.4444

“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.

For example:

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.

Format

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].

Or:

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,

Aja Frost



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.

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