For a long time, I dreaded seeing those 5 words at the end of an amazing job listing: “Please include a cover letter.”
I absolutely hated cover letters. I found them unnecessary, boring, and anxiety-inducing. After all, if I did not write them perfectly, wouldn’t that completely stop me from getting a job, even if everything else checked out?
As I began to write more and more cover letters, I realized something crucial: There is an incredibly obvious pattern to writing these in a way that does not come across as robotic or awkward. In fact, after I figured out the formula, cover letter writing became the easiest part of putting together a job application — yes, really!
At this point, I have written hundreds of cover letters and have helped dozens of people with their own, and I have got crafting them down to a science. Whether you are writing a more casual cover email to a small tech startup, or writing a formal cover letter to a huge tech corporation, here is the step-by-step guide to writing a rockstar message that gets you hired.
Header: Keep in Line With the Industry
When starting your cover letter, the big question is, should you provide any information in your header? In a cover email, it is not necessary (after all, it would look awkward to have random personal contact information at the top of a post), but with formal cover letters, it becomes trickier.
A general rule of thumb: Usually larger companies or those in more formal industries require a header for your cover letter; smaller companies or startups usually do not.
What should go into your header if you need one? First, put the date you are writing the letter, followed by your name, address, phone number and email address. Then, skip a line on the page and include the name of the person your cover letter is addressing, that person’s title within the company, and the company’s address.
If you have tried to find the name of the person who will be reviewing your application and have had no luck, or if you know that a non-descript group will be looking at it (for example the “Tech Fellowship Selection Committee”), feel free to put that in the header instead of the name of the person.
“To” Line: Establish a Rapport
As noted above, figuring out to whom you should address your cover email or letter is tricky business, especially if the company you are applying to does not give any indication of who that could be.
If you really want to dazzle a company by personally addressing someone, feel free to shoot a quick email to the company’s support line, or if you know someone who is definitely involved in the hiring person, reach out to a specific employee within the company. Did not get a clear response or just got radio silence? There are other approaches you can take.
If you are sending a cover email, you have the ability to be a little more informal. Drop the “To Whom It May Concern” entirely, and opt for a simple “Hi there … ” or “Hi [Company] team … ”
If you are writing a more formal cover letter, you can still avoid the dreaded “To Whom It May Concern.” If you want to keep it broad, feel free to address it “To [Company’s] Tech Fellowship Panel” or “Dear [Company] team.”
Sentence 1: Introduce Yourself in an Interesting Way
Regardless of if you are using a cover email or cover letter, the first sentence of your email should have more oomph than using the tired “I’m applying for X role …” or “My name is …”
Why should you avoid these situations? First, chances are the hiring manager already knows what you are applying for from all of your other application materials. Additionally, you name is elsewhere in your message (for instance, your header or in the sender line of the email), so including that information is redundant.
So how can you open with something that will grab someone’s attention and take your message seriously? Here are some of my favorites (that have helped me get hired!):
Use a quote that best describes you. There is a reason why so many great speeches and messages start off with quotes from others: They are effective.
Include your personal tagline. Some professionals have created a tagline or personal motto for themselves. If you have thought of one and it shows why you would be great at the job you are applying for, use it.
Write a (very) short anecdote. If there is a striking way to show your most important professional attribute in a sentence or two, use it!
Paragraph 1: Explain Why You are Excited About This Role
Once you have caught a hiring manager’s attention, it is time to finish up your first paragraph by explaining why you are excited about the role.
This “paragraph” should be short (only 2 or 3 sentences) to briefly explain who you are — your education background and current role — and why you love the company and want to work there.
Regardless if you are writing a cover email or formal cover letter, be sure that your reasons relate back to the job listing in some way. Steer clear of vague language that is not descriptive or thought-provoking (“I am excited to work with a cool team!”).
Think of it this way: If you could swap out the name of the company for another organization and your reasons for loving the company still make sense, you need to get more specific.
Paragraph 2: Hone in on the Company’s Pain Point
Once you have briefly but effectively established why you love that specific company and your potential role, it is time to turn your attention to the second paragraph.
The biggest question you need to ask yourself: What is this company’s pain point? In other words, what is the main objective for the company to be hiring this role? Obviously, they would not create a listing and find money in the budget unless they needed someone, so focus on the main problem they would solve by hiring you.
Once you have established that you understand a company’s pain point, it is time for you to shine by answering this crucial question: Why are you uniquely qualified to take on that position and fix that pain point over other people?
To do that, give 1 or 2 short and specific examples based on your past experience. Want to keep your anecdotes from dragging on? Here’s my favorite formula for keeping it short, sweet and effective:
Sentence 1: Briefly introduce the skill or ability.
Sentence 2: Explain a scenario where you showcased this skill.
Sentence 3: Give the result. If you can do so with numbers or other tangible data, that is ideal.
This section is also a good time to quickly mention (in one or two sentences) anything that a hiring manager may have questions about after reading your resume and other materials (for instance, an obvious 2-year employment gap). Feel free to explain you are willing to further elaborate in an interview or through any follow-up.
Paragraph 3: Wrap it Up
Your wrap-up should be short (only two or three sentences) to reiterate the following:
Your excitement about this role.
Your appreciation for the company taking the time to read your materials.
Where the company can contact you with any further questions.
Call-outs to any attachments (if you include them in a cover email) or relevant links (if you include them in a cover letter).
That is it! Do not drag on the end of your email or letter.
Your sign-off may differ based on if you are writing a cover email or cover letter, so here is how to tackle each of those.
For your cover email, feel free to sign off with “Best” or “Thank you” and then your name. You can add your email address, phone number, personal website, or portfolio below if you want, but definitely steer clear of having too many links after your name.
For your cover letter, it is fine to sign off with just your name, especially since all of your contact information is at the beginning of your message. If you really want to add something, feel free to include the easiest mode of contact (like an email address).
Armed with this formula, you will never spend hours tearing your hair out over cover letters again. Trust me!
Image credit: CC by Adikos