The basic format of a good cover letter is:
-- A three-sentence paragraph up top that summarizes your skills and experience that are explicitly related to the job in question.
-- Bulleted list of achievements that are directly related to the job.
-- Summary paragraph that says you really think you'd add to the company's bottom line (say that in a specifically relevant way) and that you'd like to set up a meeting to talk.
Here's a sample cover letter to give you a sense of what you're aiming for.
The cover letter should be pretty straightforward. The problem is that most people think they are an exception to the rules of cover letter writing. Most people, in fact, are not exceptions to any rule. Just statistically speaking. And your career will go much more smoothly if you stop thinking like you're a special case.
For cover letters, I find people are more willing to follow general formatting guidelines if the understand the reasoning behind it.
1. Don't stand out
You do not want to stand out for the format of your cover letter. You want to stand out for your skills and experience. Good resumes follow the rules of good resumes because hiring managers want to compare apples to apples. You should follow a generally accepted format so that if you do have things that are great about you, those things stand out. If you use a totally new, creative, innovative, however-you-describe-it, format, the hiring manager cannot see what makes you different beyond that you don't understand how to make life easy for hiring managers.
2. Use bullets
When people read cover letters, they are in a hiring mindset. That is, they are expecting to scan a page to get a general idea of someone. This is what the resume format is great for - leading the eye to the most information quickly. A good cover letter should be that way, too. This means you need to have a bulleted list. The cover letter is short, so include just one list. Three or five bullets (the brain handles odd numbered lists best). Once the bullets are on the page, you can bet that someone reading will read those first. Make them so strong that they get you the interview before the interviewer gets to the resume.
3. Write from the recruiter's point of view
Address the person by name if possible. They immediately like you better. And use the name of their company. People like reading that, too. Write, in the opening paragraph, what skills and experience you have that will allow you to do a great job in the position you'd like to interview for. So often people want to tell the hiring manger ALL their experience. But the hiring manager only cares about the perfectly relevant experience. Also, lift words from the job description and use them in the cover letter.
4. Show you understand the rules of the workforce
Of course, all hotshots break rules. But you can't break rules if you don't know what they are. Breaking implies knowing. Otherwise it's not rule-breaking; it's just acting out of ignorance. A cover letter is a way to show a hiring manager you have learned the rules. Here are some tips for getting good at thinking outside the box. And, hint: None of the tips involve cover letters.
5. Don't ask too much of a cover letter
Look, a good cover letter does not save your life. It's just sort of the icing on the cake. For example, a great cover letter for a job you'll hate is no good. So before you spend a lot of time on that cover letter, do the most important work of any job hunt: seek out resources for how to find a job you'll love
A client asked me when she should use bullet points in a cover letter. Or more precisely IF she should use them at all. She knew that I have a post about how to write a cover letter where I mention using bullet points.
Yet she was advised by someone at a university career office that she should never use them. Others say always use them. So what’s the answer?
Pros and cons of using bullet points in a cover letter
In this time of multitudinous job applicants for each job, coupled with shorter reader attention spans, I usually recommend bullet points for a cover letter. It does a nice job of getting them to notice the points you want them to notice.
But of course there are also times, such as when you’re a applying for a job requiring strong writing skills or higher-level communication abilities or in the case of an academic career, where you might be better off without them. So let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons to help you decide whether they make sense for you:
What bullet points can accomplish for you
- They help grab a reader’s attention
- They quickly focus the reader’s attention on key elements you want them to remember
- They show the reader you respect their time by making it easy for them
- They help keep your cover letter short and to the point
- They help point the reader to your resume’s strongest “selling” points
When you might be better off without them
There are some jobs, like copywriter, for instance, where the hiring manager may want you to show off your best wordsmith skills – and not just resort to some quick shortcuts. So you probably don’t want to use bullet points in a cover letter for this kind of job. Unless you cleverly make them work for you – while still letting the rest of the copy show just how good a writer you are.
But since I don’t work in that industry, I wasn’t absolutely positive how bullet points might be viewed in today’s job market. So I decided to ask a friend of mine who is a Creative Director and has hired many copywriters, having been one himself for many years. Here was his reply:
“A copywriter’s cover letter has to romance the reader, at least in the creative industry, and show one’s writing chops to their best advantage. If you can’t sell yourself well through words, how can I expect you to sell anything for me? Bullet points would seem the work of a hack in this regard. The kind of person who would think “Spring into savings” is a good headline.”
Now that doesn’t mean every single Creative Director would agree with my friend’s Point of view. But if you are applying for a copywriting job – or anything where your writing skills are the focus – my guess is that it might be smart to err on the side of my friend’s take on things.
So when should you use bullet points?
I still think that the vast majority of job applications would do well to include a cover letter with a few bullet points, especially if you want to emphasize some transferable skillsor if you are using your cover letter to help you change careers.
As for whether you fall into one of the exceptions, you’ll have to use your judgment. But for most jobs, they are a great way to get your points across quickly and clearly – and help make a strong case for the resume screener to give your resume more than the average 8 seconds or so most resumes get.
One last important point
My friend went on to make one more point I want to share:
“…even a non-bulleted cover letter should not waste the reader’s time. Every sentence has to work as hard as possible, conveying information that is relevant to the reader’s needs as concisely as possible.”
When it comes to effective business writing, no truer words were ever spoken – and that includes resume cover letters!
Need more help?
♦ 12 Reasons Your Cover Letter Isn’t Working for You
♦ Helpful Tips for Resumes & Cover Letters