The comprehensive guide to writing a knockout cover letter every time.
Yes, you still have to write a cover letter.
By Lauren Gill, Director of Talent at Venture for America
They say that the resume and cover letter are going the way of the dinosaur, and that digital portfolios are the way of the future. I agree! Once millennials advance in their careers to occupy the ranks of hiring managers, an applicant’s personal website, LinkedIn profile, and overall internet presence (including social media channels…but you already knew to keep your spring break Instas to yourself — right?) along with the tailored questionnaire that many ATS’s* offer will likely constitute the whole of most job applications.
For now though, it’s important to have your resume and cover letter game on lock. Plenty of great resume templates exist around the web, so let’s talk the bane of every job seeker’s existence: cover letters.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. You CANNOT use the exact same cover letter to apply for every job. The good news (!!) is that you can create a template that’s easy to replicate and creates the illusion of a super-tailored piece of writing every time. Plus, it can be fun!
Step 1: Figure out to whom you’re writing.
When I ask you to figure out your audience, I’m suggesting that you not only take your best guess at the individual who might actually read your cover letter (by browsing the company website and/or LinkedIn for the head of recruitment or a potential hiring manager) but also that you get a sense of who your audience is more broadly. You’ll want to adjust your tone to mirror the job description; it can be just as jarring to receive a stuffy, formal letter at a laidback startup as it can to receive a conversational note at a place where etiquette demands a sober tone.
Step 2: Write an opening sentence.
So you’ve addressed a specific person and decided how you’re going to communicate. Now, you’ll state the position to which you’re applying and mention how you heard about it. Something like, “I’m writing with enthusiasm regarding the Marketing Associate position at Compass. I found the posting on AngelList and was immediately intrigued,” will do the trick. If you’ve decided to adopt a casual tone, a version like, “I’m reaching out to express my excitement about the Marketing Associate position at Compass. I’d like to think it was fate that brought this opportunity to my attention, but I found the posting on AngelList.”
Step 3: Mention some specifics to show you understand what this company is all about.
The next step is to show that you have the work ethic, savvy, and enthusiasm it takes to write a truly tailored cover letter. This will entail some background research; if you do it right, browsing the website (the About, Team, and Press sections can be particularly useful) for a few minutes is sufficient to sound impressively knowledgeable. You just mentioned in your opening sentence that you’re pumped about the opportunity, so tell the reader why this company is where you want to be.
Here’s an example of how to do so in a brief yet effective few sentences:
First, I admire Compass. An innovative and values-driven startup dedicated to helping the small business owner craft a compelling digital presence, Compass represents an exciting next step for me. Your focus on transparency, simplicity, and efficiency speak to exactly the kind of customer-first mentality and operational excellence that I’m looking for, and I know it’s exactly the kind of environment in which I could contribute and learn a great deal.
Step 4: Explain why you’re qualified for the role in a few punchy bullets.
One way to avoid the potential for your cover letter to become a dry block of text (other than to make it personal and specific) is to break up the formatting. The bulk of the content will be your explanation of your qualifications, so why not keep it clear and powerful by pulling out 3 core competencies of yours that most closely relate to the demands of the role. To continue with the example we’ve been working on — a letter for a Marketing Associate role at Compass — you could whip up something akin to the below:
Second, I’d be a fantastic Marketing Associate because:
1. Writing is my strong suit. I’ve maintained blogs for two student organizations and the company I’ve interned for, producing 3 posts per week on average. My senior thesis is set to be published in a journal next fall, and I won a creative writing prize my sophomore year, so content creation is something I could practically (or maybe literally, if it’s the end of finals week) do in my sleep.
2. I know my way around Google Analytics and Adwords. From creating custom GA URLs and tracking down referral sites to building effective Adwords campaigns on a budget, the tools that are essential to generating and monitoring site traffic are squarely in my wheelhouse.
3. I’m fearless. I learned Photoshop in three days when a contractor at my last internship went MIA, I went to study abroad to Morocco armed with only a semester of elementary Arabic under my belt, and — true story — I once participated in a county fair pie eating contest; novelty excites me, though I have a strong foundation of skills and experience, I will do what it takes to adapt and deliver at a high level on even the most unfamiliar challenges this role poses.
Step 5: Summarize and plant the seed.
By keeping it personal and to-the-point, you’ve minimized the risk of the hiring manager merely skimming the letter, but it’s powerful to restate the most powerful parts of your “why me” argument nonetheless. Think of a synonym or word that captures the gist of each of your three competency bullet points. Then, figure out how to summarize the goals of the position. From there, simply put ’em together and tell your reader that your shining qualities will help you hit it out of the park as the newest member of their team.
To sum it up, my proclivity for written communication, experience with relevant tools and metrics, and my enthusiasm and comfort with new challenges make me an excellent candidate for your next Marketing Associate. I’m certain I have the skills and mindsets I’d need to help Compass reach more of the right people with your digital outreach, resulting in more customers for you (and more customers for them — what a beautiful thing!).
Again, it would be a privilege to join the Compass team. Thank you for your consideration, and I hope to continue the conversation in person soon.
Now end it with an appropriate closing and your name, and — voila! — you’ve written a pretty badass cover letter.**
Step 6: Templatize that baby for future use!
That wasn’t so hard, was it!? If you have the luxury of being the world’s most marketable recent grad, with skills, accolades, and high-powered friends out the wazoo, or, if you encounter great luck you might get the first job you apply to. But, if you’re at all normal, you’ll likely have to throw a lot of hats in a lot of rings before you nab a job that feels like a great next step. For the sake of efficiency, turn the steps outlined above into a grownup Madlib. Imagine how much more likely you’ll be to fill in the blanks of this template than to write a whole new cover letter! By making a template, when it comes to crafting the (nearly) inevitable next job application, you’ll be saving yourself a ton of time and stress.
I’m reaching out to express my excitement about the [TITLE] position at [COMPANY]. I’d like to think it was fate that brought this opportunity to my attention, but I found the posting on [SOURCE].
First, I admire [COMPANY] . An [ADJECTIVE 1] and [ADJECTIVE 2] company dedicated to [MISSION], [COMPANY] represents an exciting next step for me. Your focus on [THINGS THEY FOCUS ON 1, 2, and 3] speak to exactly the kind of [HALLMARKS OF THEIR CULTURE 1 and 2] that I’m looking for, and I know it’s exactly the kind of environment in which I could contribute and learn a great deal.
Second, I’d be a fantastic [ROLE] because:
1. [RELEVANT COMPETENCY 1]. [EXPLANATION OF RELEVANT COMPETENCY 1]
2. [RELEVANT COMPETENCY 2]. [EXPLANATION OF RELEVANT COMPETENCY 2]
3. [RELEVANT COMPETENCY 3]. [EXPLANATION OF RELEVANT COMPETENCY 3]
To sum it up, my proclivity for [PARAPHRASED COMPETENCY 1], [PARAPHRASED COMPETENCY 2], and [PARAPHRASED COMPETENCY 3] make me an excellent candidate for your next [ROLE]. I’m certain I have the skills and mindsets I’d need to help [COMPANY] [GOAL].
Again, it would be a privilege to join the [COMPANY] team. Thank you for your consideration, and I hope to continue the conversation in person soon.
So there it is. A relatively painless cover letter! So satisfying that you might even miss writing them once you do get that dream job.
*ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System. Some that are popular in the startup space include Greenhouse, iCIMS, Jobvite, and Lever. Any time you’re applying to a job in a way other than emailing your resume and cover letter, you’re likely using an ATS.
**Side note: A Google search will confirm that the word “badass” is not a frequent descriptor of “cover letter.” Maybe that will change once you start cranking out your letters!
Any cover letter tips? Share with us in the comments!