Writing a convincing cover letter is a key part of landing more interviews. Even with weak experience, a well-written letter can help you get your foot in the door. Follow our guide to get yours right.
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Table of Contents
- How to Write a Cover Letter – 5 Rules and 7 Sections
- Formatting Guidelines – (Margins, Fonts, Alignment)
- Defeating Applicant Tracking Systems
How to Write a Cover Letter: 5 Rules & 7 Sections
If you follow the 5 rules and include the 7 sections outlined below, you’ll write a masterful letter that will land you more interviews.
If you need inspiration, browse our huge database of cover letter examples by industry.
The 5 Golden Rules
1. All cover letters should follow the same 7 section template outlined below – While yours will probably only be four paragraphs, we’ve separated it into 7 must-have “sections” that need explanation.
2. All cover letters should be one page or less – You won’t land a job by writing a novel. Some hiring managers even say that you shouldn’t write more than 250 words — though that is up for debate. However, make sure it isn’t too short either.
3. Make sure it’s error free – It goes without saying, but we’ll say it again. Check your cover letter for spelling mistakes and grammar errors. It can happen to the best of us. Don’t be arrogant, just double check.
4. Write like a human being, and not like an awkward robot – Here’s an example of what some people think of is “good” writing. “I am thoroughly delighted by the prospect of joining your illustrious organization, and believe I would make a potent addition were you to acquire my requisite skills and abilities.” That’s a terrible sentence. If you sound like a robot that has memorized a thesaurus, you’re doing it wrong.
Here’s what that sentence really says: “I’m thrilled to be applying for your company, because I have proven skills that will make a strong addition to your team.” Just say it that way — like a human being.
Cover letters are not the place to be overly creative. If you’re thinking of writing something wacky, goofy, interesting, different, or unique — don’t.
5. Don’t be a bombastic weirdo – Cover letters are not the place to be overly creative. If you’re thinking of writing something wacky, goofy, interesting, different, or unique — don’t. Doing so will be a dead end for your job prospects.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be a robot, or write with a dry tone. You’ll have the opportunity to show your creativity in a smart way — the key is to understand what’s acceptable, and what’s out of bounds.
So what is acceptable? Read on to learn everything you need to make that 7 section template do good work, and land you more interviews.
7 Must-Have Sections
Section 1: Contact Details (Yours and the Hiring Manger’s)
Include the following information at the top of your cover letter.
First, your contact details
- Your Name
- Your Address
- Phone Number
- Linkedin URL (Optional)
Next, the date and hiring manager’s contact details
- Today’s Date
- Company Address
- Company Phone Number
- Hiring Manager’s Email Address
Here’s what that would look like:
Section 2: The Greeting
Believe it or not, the way you say ‘hello’ to someone you’ve never met makes an impression. If your greeting is clunky and sounds bad, it will spoil the rest of your cover letter, even if it’s awesome. Imagine sitting for a four course meal — if your appetizer is a rotten egg, how are you going to feel about the roast chicken?
The clunkiest greeting phrase in English is the following: “To whom it may concern”. Don’t serve up that rotten egg to the hiring manager. Here’s another bad one, “Dear Sir or Madam”. Only people wearing top hats can say that.
Here’s what you should do instead: do your best to research who the hiring manager is at the company. We’re aware that sometimes it’s not possible to find out who the hiring manager is. So what can you do in that case?
1. Find out the name of the Department Manager –It’s likely this person will be involved with hiring you. Even if they are not the direct hiring manager, addressing the letter at them will show that you put in some effort. But what if you can’t find this person’s name?
2. Find out the name of the Human Resources director – You can address your cover letter to him or her, and it will still show that you’ve put in some effort to connect with a real human being. For bonus points, you could ask the HR who is responsible for hiring, and then address the correct person. But what if you can’t find the HR director’s name?
3. Find out the name of the CEO or Vice President – If you can’t find the department manager or HR director, you’re likely dealing with a very small or new startup. In this case, the CEO, Vice President, or someone else that sounds important may be responsible for hiring.
Warning: You also may be dealing with a scam company. Companies that are short on details may be hiding something.
If you can’t find *their* names either? Simply write:
“Dear Hiring Manager,”
It is the best you can do. And it’s way better than the rotten egg, “To whom it may concern”.
Section 3: Introduce Yourself
The first sentence
Don’t start with: “My name is _____”. Your name is already in the contact details at the top of the cover letter!
Do start with: Getting straight to the point. Tell the hiring manager that you’re excited to be applying for the job.
You may have read elsewhere on the web that you should “grab attention” with a passionate introduction that is “humorous.” Don’t do that, unless you want to look like a goofball. Hiring managers are not children that you need to entertain — they are serious professionals. Grabbing their attention will require sophistication — not clownish haw-haw jokes.
Examples of Introductory Statements
- I’m thrilled to be applying for the open ____ position at [Target Company].
- I’m writing to apply for the new and exciting role at [Target Company].
- I’m glad to have the opportunity to apply for the [job title] job at [Target Company].
The next sentences
It’s easy — tell the hiring manager why you’re excited to be applying for the job. There could be a number of reasons:
1. You like the company – We all have companies that we admire and would like to work for. If you have the lucky opportunity to apply for a company that you like, mention it! Most importantly, tell the hiring manager why you like the company. After all, if you tell someone you love the company and can’t explain why, it’s going to look like a lie.
2. You think the the opportunity is interesting – Even if you don’t know the company, the job role itself may pique your interest, or line up with your passions. If that’s the case, tell the hiring manager why it’s interesting to you, and how it fits with your passions.
3. You have the perfect (or related) skill set to perform the job well – Maybe you don’t like the company, or think the opportunity is interesting. But you need the job, so you’d like to land it anyway — that’s perfectly normal. The hiring manager likely knows it’s not a dream job, so lying about your passion for the role would backfire. In this case, just emphasize that you’re perfect for the job because you have the required skill set.
Ideally, you’d use all three of these reasons to explain your excitement for applying for the job. While #1 and #2 are optional, #3 — emphasizing that you have the right skills — is essential. If you can’t use any of those reasons, you should think twice about applying for that job.
Section 4: Pitch and Prove Yourself
This is the part the hiring manager cares about the most — he or she needs to see hard evidence that you can actually do the job.
In the meat of your cover letter, you’ll prove that you have the right skills for the job. This is the part the hiring manager cares about the most — he or she needs to see hard evidence that you can actually handle the work. Choose two to three of your biggest achievements related to the job role, and include them in your writing.
In the following do’s/dont’s section, we’ve written the same cover letter twice to show the difference between what’s bad and what’s good.
Don’t write: Generic, boring, and cliche’d sentences.
‘Don’t write’ example: “I’m a quick starter with bundles of enthusiasm and real team player. I’m also really hard working, have excellent interpersonal skills, and am also highly motivated. In my past job, I sold electronics to customers and was considered highly successful. Overall, management was proud of my work and would frequently commend me.
- Blue – cliches
- Pink – generic
- Orange – boring
Do write: Precise & detailed information that is quantified.
‘Do write’ example: “During my first year at Electronic Appliances LLC, I increased my department’s revenue by over 30%. My passion for the electronic retail industry reveals itself in my approach to my customers; I recently won a regional award for maintaining a 95% customer satisfaction rate, and an award for exceeding an 8%month-on-month sales target over one year.
- Blue – precise & detailed
- Pink – quantified
As you can see, the second cover letter gives you much clearer idea of this salesperson’s skill. You should aspire to reach this level of clarity, because it will make you stand out from your competition.
Section 5: Conclusion
Your conclusion should accomplish the following goals:
To make your cover letter convincing, you should emphasize that your proven skills will help the company achieve its goals.
1. Re-iterating that you’re excited for the job, and that you’re the best choice to help the company – To make your cover letter convincing, you should emphasize that your proven skills will help the company achieve its goals. It will require doing some research on your part, but the end result will be an application that makes the hiring manager say, “Wow, this person gets it.”
2. Letting them know you’re available for an interview anytime – If you’re in the same city, emphasize that you’d love to have a face-to-face interview. Don’t be picky about timing in your cover letter, even if you’re busy. Let them contact you first, and then hammer out an appropriate meeting time.
3. Thanking them for taking the time to read your cover letter – A quick “thank you” goes a long way to show that you’re a respectful and empathetic person. Reading job applications is a chore. By now, you’ve done your best to jazz your letter up and make it a quick, easy, and worthwhile read — but the hiring manager has probably read several. Thank them for reading yours until the end.
Section 6: Signing off
We recommend you stick to the following sign offs:
- Best regards,
- Warm regards,
- Kind regards,
- All the best,
(Optional) Section 7: The Hook – P.S.
P.S. Do you want to add a little flavor to your cover letter? Adding a postscript (P.S.) is the perfect way add a little hook that will distinguish you even more from other candidates.
Let’s say you found the hiring manager’s Linkedin page, and you noticed that you share an interest, or worked at the same company, or attended the same University, etc.
While it’s not really appropriate to put this information into the body of your writing, the P.S. is a great place to be a little more informal. It’s your opportunity to wink at the hiring manager and show some personality in a smart way.
Something like this: “P.S. I noticed that we’re both alumni of Clemson University with degrees in Marketing. Did you know Professor Jones? Scariest professor ever, but one of the most influential.”
Cover Letter Formatting Guidelines (Fonts, Margins, Alignment)
Are you having trouble making your letter look like it’s one page, or interested in creating your own design? Make sure you follow some basic margin, font, and styling guidelines.
- Left and Right – Should always be equal. Never below 0.7″, and never above 1.15″
- Top – Never below 0.5″, and never above 0.65″
- Bottom – Never above 1.0″, never below 0.6″
Here are two examples using those margin guidelines above.
In the first, we use the maximum margin settings for top, bottom, left and right margins. This allows you to make your cover letter look like a full page, if you don’t have enough content.
That’s why this one is called the “Space User”.
In the second example, we use the minimum margin settings for top, bottom, left and right margins. This allows the most possible text to be put on the page.
That’s why this one is called the “Space Saver”.
- Style – Typically, font choice is a matter of preference. We suggest you stick with Georgia, Arial, or Times New Roman.
- Size – Don’t go below an 11-point font. Really, you should stick with 12, and play with the margins if you need to fit the content onto one page.
- Left aligned – Anything else looks strange.
Defeating Applicant Tracking Systems
Some Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) will read your cover letter to assess if you’re a good fit for the job, (and they’ll also look at your resume.) Basically, the software will read your cover letter, and determine if you’ve included enough job-relevant keywords. If you did include enough keywords — congratulations, your application will be looked at by a real human being. If you didn’t include enough keywords, the ATS will assume that you’re not a relevant candidate, and reject you.
What does it mean to “include keywords”?
A good way to figure out which keywords you should use is to look at the hiring manager’s job description for the role you’re applying for.
Ever job title and industry has different tasks, duties, and tools associated with it. For instance, if you’re an accountant, you’re going to manage accounts and balance budgets, use Excel or SQL Databases, and generate financial reports. All of the text in pink are keywords that an ATS would read if it was judging and accounting resume or cover letter.
The takeaway: If you forget to include keywords (or you simply can’t), you’re going to get rejected.
How many keywords, and which ones, should you include?
A good way to figure out which keywords you should use is to look at the hiring manager’s job description for the role you’re applying for. The job description will have most of the keywords you should include — do your best to sprinkle them where you can. As far as how many keywords you should include — just be natural. Don’t stuff your cover letter with keywords (or your resume for that matter).
Resume tips for older workers with skills to spare
Your age is no match for your experience. This is how to put your relevancy front and center when writing your resume.
Your resume should tout your skills, not your age.
If you’re among the generation of older workers approaching 50 or older, you have so much value to bring to prospective employers—experience, hard skills, a been-there-done-that track record of industry know-how. So it’s a bit ironic that all your expertise could wind up working against you when you’re looking for a job.
By structuring your resume strategically, you can combat ageism in your job search and showcase the qualifications that are most relevant to the job you’re seeking, says Kim Isaacs, executive resume writer and resume expert.
For instance, think twice before leading with “decades of experience” on your resume. That’s a career red flag that might signal to employers that you’re outdated or overqualified, when, in fact, you’re exactly who they’re looking to hire.
“Older workers tend to have a boatload of experience—often in many different functional areas,” Isaacs says, “so the challenge is to whittle the resume content down to what employers would find most valuable.”
Ready to put together a resume that’s anything but old-school? Follow these pro tips:
Spend time on the summary
“The career summary section is where an older worker can shine—your accomplishments are usually strong and there’s a level of expertise that younger workers haven’t reached yet,” says Isaacs. (Notice it’s called a summary and not an objective—that’s so 1980s!)
Keep in mind that you don’t want to sound out of touch. Ditch industry jargon that might not be obvious to recruiters who may very well be younger than you. Also, it’s OK to say “experienced,” but don’t say “over 25 years of experience.”
Don’t fudge the format
Though you may hear people suggest that a functional resume style is ideal for older workers, don’t fall for it. “I never recommend using a functional resume,” says Isaacs. “This type of format is typically used by job seekers trying to hide something, and employers know that so they start looking for potential issues as soon as they start reading.”
Also worth noting: Functional resumes do not perform well in applicant tracking systems.
Isaacs suggests sticking with the traditional reverse chronological format. As long as yours is visually distinctive, concise, and to the point, there’s no need to mess with what works.
Tweak as you go
Take the time to tailor your resume each time you apply for a job, says Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resilience at AARP. “It’s time-consuming but worth it,” she says. “For example, make sure you include keywords from the job description in your resume.” This will help you stand out to recruiters and hiring managers who are looking for a very specific skill set, not to mention that it will make your resume more discoverable by search engines and software.
Go back, but not too far back
The question most people have is how far back should they go? Employers are most interested in what you’ve done recently, says Isaacs, but there’s nothing wrong with sharing older career milestones.
“Focus on accomplishments from the last 15 years or so, but still provide brief highlights of earlier positions,” she recommends. Tip: Group older positions together in a brief Early Career section, and omit the dates.
Focus on growth and success
No matter what your age, the best way to market yourself is to showcase your best attributes and accomplishments—especially the ones that align with the job you’re vying for.
Your aim should be to keep the resume focused on the job target and downplay irrelevant information, says Isaacs. This can be especially tricky if you’ve gone through a career change (or two) over the course of your work life. So even if you went from the nursing profession to the hospitality industry, Isaacs says to try and highlight skills developed in one career that are transferable to another career.
Also important is to show how you’ve developed and improved throughout your career by including accomplishments that reflect professional growth. “If you’ve been promoted, include previous job titles as well as higher ones so the history of advancement is clear,” says Isaacs.
Hide your age (sort of)
Although you should never lie on your resume, you don’t have to make it glaringly obvious that you went to college during the Reagan administration. The way around that is to just list your schools and degrees.
“Remove graduation or school dates, since some employment algorithms will screen out employees over a certain age—and they can do that by looking at graduation dates,” says Weinstock.
Address the tech elephant in the room
Just because you’re over 50 doesn’t mean you lack technology skills, but that stereotype does exist, and you have to overcome it—especially for positions that require some digital savvy. “In your resume and cover letter, talk about the technology you use and know well that is relevant to your field,” says Weinstock.
Isaacs adds that including recent training completed, conferences attended, and involvement in professional organizations can be strong indicators that you’ve continued to learn and develop new skills. Even better? “See if your tech skills can be woven into an accomplishment to show how the technology was used to achieve a desirable result,” says Isaacs.
Also, go ahead and list your technology prowess in the skills section of your resume, but steer clear of mentioning anything that’s outdated. Say “Word 2016,” not “Word 2002,” for instance.
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