Here's what you should put in a cover letter.

Whatever work you normally do, you become a salesperson when you start job hunting – and your product is yourself. Think of your cover letter as the glossy brochure you can use to promote yourself to prospective employers. But before you start writing, you have to know what to include in a cover letter to make it stand out from all the others. The essential elements of a cover letter include:

  • Your contact information

  • An address to the HR manager

  • An introduction, including the company and role you are applying for

  • A description of why you're a good fit for the role

  • Your relevant experience and skills

  • A conclusion and signoff

Professional-looking contact information

Your CV and cover letter should include both your phone number and email address at least, but consider adding links to relevant social media profiles as well, particularly LinkedIn. Beware though, because some kinds of contact information can hurt you instead of help you. 

For example, having the email address sexybody456@yahoo.com might give you and your friends a giggle, but it won't impress an HR manager.

If your email address is even faintly dubious, set up a new, professional-sounding one to put on your cover letter and CV. Using your name in your email address is a surefire way to give it a professional tone: janedoe@gmail.com, a.smith@gmail.com.

If you're currently employed, don't use your work email address or phone number on your cover letter; that's an excellent way to lose your current job before you're ready to change employers. Even if your boss knows about your job hunt, they won't be thrilled about your use of company resources to do it.

An address to the HR manager

Your cover letter is exactly that: a letter. That means you are writing to someone, and your letter should be addressed appropriately. You may have come across a number of suggestions for how to address your cover letter: 'Dear Hiring Manager' and 'To Whom It May Concern' are two favourites. However, there is only one truly correct way to address your cover letter, and that's to the HR manager themself.

Finding the name of the relevant hiring professional isn't always easy, but it is always worth it. If it isn't directly on the job advert, start with the company website. There may be a directory that will help you find the right person. If that doesn't work, head to LinkedIn. You can browse through the "People" tab of the company's own page to search through employees, where you may be able to deduce who will be reading your cover letter.

An introduction

Time is tight for recruiters and HR managers, so it's important to grab their attention quickly. This is possible through the introduction in your opening paragraph.

Appropriately, you should start by introducing yourself to the HR manager with your name. You should also mention the name of the company and role you are applying for. From there, you can go into your elevator pitch.

Your pitch should provide a brief summary of who you are, what you do and why the other person should care. Keep in mind that the first person to read your cover letter will likely be a human resources employee rather than someone in your own field, so industry-specific words and acronyms may fly right over their head.

For example, let's say you are a website developer with top-notch coding skills. Whilst you're no doubt proud of your technical expertise, throwing a bunch of programming jargon into your opener will just make a hiring manager's eyes glaze over. Instead, consider something like:

I'm a website developer who provides companies with cutting-edge, award-winning websites that customers love.

Now that's a pitch that might make even the most non-technical hiring manager sit up and take notice.

A description of why you're right for the role

Now, get into specifics. As you begin, it's important to remember your primary goal: to demonstrate why you are a good fit for the opening.

Start with your background. If you are a younger job seeker, you can talk about your schooling ‒ modules, dissertations or even extra-curricular activities that speak to your goals. If you are more established in your career, focus on the defining elements of your professional history, such as your areas of expertise. Leverage your professional interests and any unique perspectives you have on the industry.

All of these details can help illustrate the career path you've set out for yourself, which should align with the open position at hand. As you go about it, don't shy away from narration. Whilst you shouldn't write an autobiography, describing yourself as a professional is key to showing that you're a fit.

Your relevant experience and skills

Once you show that you are compatible with the role and team, you still have to prove that you're qualified. To do this, share highlights from your experience or examples of your skills. Most likely, you will write about projects or situations you've encountered in your professional history. Give a brief description of what you faced, how you approached it and the result you achieved.

Just like your CV, your cover letter should be tailored to the role for which you are applying. Therefore, choose details that speak directly to the position. One strategy is to analyse the job advert and identify keywords that seem essential to the job. Incorporate them into your cover letter to ensure that it is specific to each application.

As you do this, remember that your cover letter should not be a regurgitation of your CV. Whilst you may recycle some of the information, it should be written differently to be more conversational (whilst remaining professional).

A conclusion and signoff

The conclusion of your cover letter should have three elements. First, restate your interest in the role, and include a mention of your greatest selling point for why you think you would excel. Then, thank the HR manager for their consideration. Finally, add a call to action. A statement like 'I look forward to hearing from you' shows that you are proactive and ready to take the next steps in the hiring process.

Finish off the letter with a professional but friendly signoff and your name. 'Sincerely', 'Best' and another thank you are a few of the many good options for outros.

Writing a good cover letter

Now that you know what to put in a cover letter, it's time to fire up your favourite word processing program and start writing. Once you've written one really good letter, you can use it as a template for others – but you still need to take the time to customise each and every cover letter you submit.

A generic-sounding letter ‒ or worse, one that includes bits of information from a previous job application – will get binned. One that clearly shows the recruiter both your excellent qualifications and your professionalism, however, can move you up to the next stage of the hiring process.

Make sure your CV is as strong as your cover letter. Get a free CV review to find out where yours stands.

This article was updated in September 2020. It was originally written by Wendy Connick.

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