It used to be that your cover letter was all about you. But things have changed.
The modern cover letter should focus first and foremost on the company it’s directed to, career experts say. Gone are the days where you could spend a few paragraphs detailing your own accomplishments. Today, you also need to demonstrate a genuine interest in the company and prove you know how to help it.
“People need to focus their cover letters on the company they’re applying to, not on themselves,” says Dan Schawbel, author of best-selling book “Promote Yourself” and managing partner of consultancy Millennial Branding. “Show how you can make a difference for that company.”
That’s easier said than done, especially when you’re trying to distinguish yourself among dozens or hundreds of other applicants. Below, career experts weigh in on the new essential guidelines to writing a successful cover letter.
1. Keep your letter short enough for someone to read in 10 seconds.
Three paragraphs is the ideal length, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert and author of “Big Career in the Big City.” Use the first paragraph as an intro, the second for the meat, and the third to wrap up. The hiring manager giving a first read to your letter is probably going to spend 10 seconds or less on it, Salemi adds. They want to read something succinct.
2. Hook your reader’s interest in the first sentence.
“It is with great interest that I write to apply for the position of…” is a great first line if you want to lose your reader’s interest. It’s dreadfully boring. Assuming you applied to the job online, the hiring manager already knows what the position is and that you’re writing to apply. Instead, try a professional but bold statement that catches the reader’s eye. Salemi suggests opening with a pitch, such as: “Looking for a dynamic marketing guru? Look no further. Here I am.”
3. Pick two or three skills from the job description and show you have them.
Read the job description carefully and identify the top two or three qualities the company wants in a candidate, Salemi says. Then use your cover letter to demonstrate you have those skills, giving examples of when and how you’ve used them in the past. Show that you’re equipped to make a difference from day one.
4. Use numbers and statistics to back up your claims.
It’s good to say you’re experienced with social media. But it’s much, much better to say you led a successful social media campaign that generated 3.2 million followers and increased revenue by 3%. The goal, Schawbel says, is to present yourself as a proven results-getter and show that you can replicate your past successes at a new company.
4. Don’t just rehash your résumé in paragraph form.
The cover letter is designed to showcase your interest in the company and your best attributes for the position. That doesn’t mean it needs an itemized list of your every job and achievement. To be sure, if you won an exceptional award or executed a stunning project, then make sure to highlight it in the letter. You should also discuss previous work that relates specifically to skills and experiences the hiring manager is looking for. But as a general rule of thumb, if it doesn’t jump off the page, leave it out.
5. Address your cover letter directly to the hiring manager or recruiter.
Nothing says “I don’t care about your company” like an opening of “To Whom It May Concern.” That may have been OK before the advent of modern technology, but today it generally takes as little as a Google search or a phone call to figure out the name of the hiring manager. Addressing your letter to the correct person (and spelling their name correctly!) will automatically ingratiate you to the reader and show that you’ve spent some time researching the company and position.
6. Customize your tone for the company culture.
You might be applying to a Fortune 500 company, a startup, or something in the middle. No two companies are alike, not just in mission but also in culture. An important part of tailoring your cover letter to the company is striking the right tone, Schawbel says. If you know the place you’re applying to has a casual vibe, then your letter can reflect that with pithy sentences and fun anecdotes that show an easygoing side of your personality. On the other hand, if the company seems to have a formal culture, it’s probably best to use traditional phrases like “Dear Mr./Ms.” and straightforward prose.
7. Proofread carefully, and consider getting a second pair of eyes.
How you absolutely don’t want to be remembered is as the person that submitted the sloppy cover letter. So proof, proof, and proof again, or enlist a friend to look at your document with a fresh set of eyes. A typo, grammar mistake, misspelling, or other error can “leap off the page in a bad way,” Salemi says, and is the easiest way to let a hiring manager knock your application straight from their desk to the trash bin. Don’t give them the chance.