When you apply for a job opening, you might be tempted to let your resume speak for you, and give the cover letter just passing attention. However, that would be a mistake.
Your cover letter is often your best opportunity to sell your skills and show your interest in a position. It should intrigue the employer enough to read your resume, which in turn should convince them to contact you for an interview.
In your cover letter, you can focus the employer’s attention on the achievements and qualities that make you an ideal candidate for the job, more specifically than you can in your resume. But the first step to writing a great cover letter is choosing the format that works for your purpose.
What are the different types of cover letters?
- Invited cover letter. Use this format when responding to an ad or other listing. Describe how your qualifications meet the needs of the position.
- Cold-contact cover letter. Use this format to contact employers who have not advertised or published job openings. Research careers to find the requirements for the job you’re applying for, and then match your qualifications with that research. Check out CareerOneStop’s Inquiry letters for ideas.
- Referral cover letter. Use this format if you were referred to a job opening through networking, informational interviews, or contact with employers. A referral may be to a specific job opening (advertised or unadvertised) or to an employer who may or may not be hiring now. Make sure you mention the person who referred you.
- Job match or “T” cover letter. Use this format to match the specific requirements of the job one-to-one with your qualifications, for example “You need 10 years’ experience” and “I bring 12 years’ experience.” You can learn about the requirements from a job ad, position descriptions, phone conversations, career research, and informational interviews.
Next, great cover letters include all the key information an employer wants to see.
Cover letter content essentials
- Heading and greeting. Include the date, your name, and your contact information. Address the letter to a specific person whenever possible. If you can’t find an individual’s name, use the job title of the recipient (Maintenance Supervisor, Office Manager), or “Human Resources” or “Search Committee.” Avoid addressing your letter to a business, or “To Whom It May Concern.”
- Opening paragraph. Explain your reason for writing, including how you learned about the opening. Express your energy and enthusiasm about the position.
- Body – usually 1-3 paragraphs. Sell yourself. Show why you are a perfect and unique match for the position. What do you know about the employer’s needs? What can you offer that meets them? How do your skills and education relate? Rather than listing your qualifications (the resume should do that), aim to tell the employer how your talents, experience, and achievements, will help them solve a problem, earn more money, or address their mission.
- Closing paragraph. Thank the employer for taking the time to read your letter, and leave with a plan of action – usually, how you intend to follow up with them, unless you are responding to a job ad that states the employer will take the next step. Include any additional contact information not already in your resume.
- Keep it concise. Cover letters should be no longer than one page. E-mailed cover letters should be even briefer than mailed letters.
The last key to a great cover letter is targeting it for each position.
How can you target your cover letter?
An especially effective targeting method is to use specific achievements or experiences that will clearly illustrate the point you want to make. If dedication is critical to the employer, instead of just saying “I’m a dedicated worker”, show an example. For instance, “I volunteered to serve as lead teacher, coordinating teaching assistant schedules, and closing up classrooms after evening classes, ensuring the building was secured.”