9 Elements of a Highly Effective Cover Letter

Kristen Jacoway Beasley, a Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) counselor and social media consultant, has joined us as a contributor to the Telecom Toolbox blog.  Kirsten is a great resource for VR professionals who desire more information on how they can assist consumers with job search.


A good resume details your general experience, but the cover letter introduces you as a candidate the company should consider. In the digital age, where you can apply to a job with just a click of a button, it’s tempting to ignore the cover letter. A strong cover letter, however, can mean the difference between getting the interview and not. It provides an opportunity to highlight your skills.

Are you doing it right, though? Take a look at these nine essential elements to improve your cover letter.

#1 Formatting

Cover letters are formal business letters.  They should be formatted with your address in the top right or left corner and the company’s address on the left. They should only be a few paragraphs long, including a brief introduction, some details about your experience, and a short paragraph about further contact.

These formatting requirements hold true even if you’re sending an application by email. Save and attach your letter and resume in PDF files to maintain formatting. This will ensure that any printed copies will be visually correct.

#2 A Specific Recipient

If possible, address your cover letter to the person doing the hiring. Taking time to research the company to identify the hiring agent will show the employer that you’re a committed go-getter. At the very least, it will make you stand apart from the other candidates writing a letter “To Whom It May Concern.” To find this type of information, check the company website for contact information, ask a friend who works for the same company, or call the company to ask who is the hiring manager is for the posted position.

#3 A Fantastic Introduction

Many people start their cover letters by writing, “My name is Joe Smith and I’m applying for the project management position I saw advertised on Indeed.com.” This is boring and doesn’t really encourage the reader to keep reading. Instead, jump right in to who you are and why the company should consider you for employment. Rather than the above example, you might say, “With 10 years of project management experience under my belt, I believe I have the skills you’re looking for.”

#4 A Proper Sales Pitch

Instead of thinking of your cover letter as an introduction to you and your resume, think of it as a 10-second sales pitch. What makes you different and how can you help the company? The main body of the letter should give some specific examples of experience from your previous jobs, and how these skills can help the company. The purpose isn’t to brag about your experience, but to show why you’re the right person for this company. Focus on the benefits that you bring to the table.

#5 Knowledge of the Company

Research the company and weave this information into your cover letter. This shows the employer you’re interested in working for them specifically rather than desperately applying for any job that might be a reasonable fit. For instance, if you were applying for a marketing position, you might look up the company’s sales numbers, and describe how your previous experience with another company could help you take the new company’s sales to the next level. Employers appreciate this kind of detailed knowledge.

#6 A Call-to-Action

The call-to-action is a sales term that asks the reader to take a desired action. In a typical sales letter, you’d ask the person to buy a product, donate some money, or sign up for a newsletter. In a cover letter, you’re asking the hiring manager to contact you for an interview.  Be sure to use language that makes the person want to take action. Instead of “looking forward to hearing from you about scheduling an interview,” say that you’re “excited to meet and discuss how you can help their business grow.” This small difference in wording can make a big difference in interviews you get during your job search.

#7 Good Spelling and Grammar

Write in a tone that matches the company’s culture. For instance, you’d probably use a very formal tone while applying for a job at an accounting firm, but might be able to be a bit more casual when applying for a web design firm. However, you should always be professional and use good spelling and grammar. Your cover letter is likely to be the company’s first glimpse at who you are and a glaring mistake could cause them to pass you over. Read your cover letter out loud slowly and carefully. This often helps you find awkward phrases. Watch out for words that people commonly mix up, such as their/there/they’re. Don’t rely on the use of a spelling and grammar checker; human eyes can catch mistakes software programs don’t see.

#8 Keywords

Often, hiring managers quickly scan a pile of cover letters and resumes rather than reading each one thoroughly. To overcome this, it’s smart to pepper your letter with a few keywords that fit naturally in the narrative. Keywords are specific little words that the employer might be looking for as they read. You’ll often find them in the job description, job requirements, or preferred qualification sections of an application. Match cover letter key words to the language the employer uses to make your cover letter stand out. For instance, if the employer is looking for someone with Microsoft Excel experience, you should mention your specific experience using Excel rather than saying you’re familiar with Microsoft Office products, in general. As the manager scans through your letter, “Excel” will catch her eye and she’ll give your application a closer look.

#9 New Information

Some people use the cover letter to summarize a resume, but this isn’t best practice. Instead, the cover letter should build on your resume with specific examples of how your experience will benefit the company. Think of the cover letter as a movie preview. You want to provide enough information to make the reader read your resume, but if you give too many spoilers, the resume itself will seem disappointing.

The job search can be brutal, but you can get more interviews with a good cover letter. Take some time to really think about how to craft the letter in a way that will appeal to the company. Don’t use a standard letter that you merely tweak for each potential job – that’s obvious to hiring managers. You’ll stand out when you craft a letter that’s personalized and focuses on how your experience relates to the job you want. When you start to do this, you’ll get more interviews.

Photo credit: Pixel Fantasy via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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