Business Writing 13 min2023-07-18 00:00

How to Write a Cover Letter

how to write a cover letter

For many of us, writing a cover letter is one of the most challenging parts of a job application. It’s hard to figure out what to say. On an even more basic level, it’s just plain difficult for most of us to talk about ourselves.

Despite how difficult it is to write a cover letter, there is a lot of value in investing serious time and energy into writing a great one.

A great cover letter can get you a job, but beyond that, the process of writing one can help you learn to tell a coherent and powerful story about yourself. If you can do this, you can take that story and leverage it across multiple areas—your LinkedIn profile, a networking email, responses to interviews, and more.

In this article, we’ll break down the cover letter writing process and help you see your cover letter as a story you can start writing right away.

How to Write a Cover Letter for a Job

When you write a cover letter to apply for a job, it’s important to know what your cover letter is supposed to accomplish.

Your goal for your cover letter is to have the company read it and respond in three ways.

The first thing you want the company to say is, "They get us."

Employers want to know you understand who they are at a fundamental level—you understand what they value, what they get excited about, who they want to be, and what their big problems are.

The second thing you want the company to say is, “They are one of us.”

You need to show them you get who they are and that you are in some way already acting, thinking, and working in the ways they do.

Lastly, you want the company to say, "They will make us better."

You need to demonstrate how you will help solve the company’s problems, which is a lot harder than trying to prove you’re qualified for the position.

elements of a great cover letter

Achieving all three of these cover letter goals is an incredibly difficult task, but if you use them as targets and attempt to create these responses, you will produce a great cover letter.

How to Make a Cover Letter in 5 Steps

Now that we’ve discussed the goals of your cover letter, it’s time to break down the steps to writing a great one.

Here are the five steps for writing a cover letter:

  • Read and analyze the job description

  • Research the company

  • Write a professional heading

  • Tell a compelling story

  • Conclude by tying it all together

steps to write a cover letter

Step 1: Read and Analyze the Job Description

The central approach in dissecting a job description is to look for one big theme. You can find that by looking for any repeated words or terms in the job description.

Of course, you won't be able to address every single thing stated in the job posting in your cover letter; instead, you want to address one big idea or value that really matters to the company.

So, if you are reading a job description and you find the terms problem-solve, leadership, or innovate over and over, you can infer that these are the core qualities the company is looking for in this specific job.

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Step 2: Research the Company

In order to tell a story that gets the company to say, “they get us,” “they are one of us,” and “they will help us,” you will need to do significant research on the company.

In analyzing the company, you really want to try to understand who the company is through three big questions:

  • What do they care about?

  • Who do they want to be?

  • What kinds of problems do they want to solve?

3 elements of a job description

After you answer those three questions, distill your findings into one to two key themes.

Where should you look for answers? Everywhere! But more specifically, you want to conduct an exhaustive search in all of these areas:

  • Company website

  • Company mission statement

  • Blogs

  • Facebook

  • Twitter

  • Instagram

  • Employee bios

  • LinkedIn profiles

  • Podcasts

  • Press releases about the company

places you can research a company

You are looking, as you did in the job description, for repeated words and terms that paint a rich picture of that company.

Once you have all this information, it's time to write your cover letter.

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Step 3: How to Head a Cover Letter

A professional cover letter should follow a specific heading format. The purpose of the heading is to provide all your contact information in a clear, easy-to-read way.

You should include the following elements:

  • Your full name

  • Your address

  • Your phone number

  • Your email address

After those four lines, skip a line and include the current date.

Then, skip another line and address your letter to the hiring manager. Using the hiring manager's name will make your letter feel more personalized and well researched.

Step 4: Tell a Compelling Story

A cover letter is a compelling story that connects the dots of who we are, what we care about, and what we’ve done.

Most of us spend a significant amount of time and energy obtaining degrees, knowledge, and experience, but we don’t spend much time figuring how all of this knowledge and expertise fit together in a coherent story. The cover letter is an opportunity to take the time to figure out this story.

But why a story? Because humans crave stories.

For thousands of years, stories have enabled humans to transmit culture and knowledge across generations. Brain science proves that storytelling creates oxytocin, which is a neurochemical that helps create trust between people. And other research has shown that people are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it is part of a story.

A story is far more interesting and engaging to read than a haphazardly considered set of unrelated ideas, which is what many cover letters are.

cover letter writing tip

In a good cover letter, you want to capture your reader’s attention with a compelling story using one of the themes you identified earlier when you analyzed the job description and researched the company.

So, in the cover letter body, start by talking about yourself and the company in terms of your shared values and goals.

Then, tell a story that shows how you've worked toward those goals and values in the past.

You can use a story from one of your previous jobs, from your experiences in a club or volunteer organization, or from your classroom experiences if you're still a student. Choose a story that proves you’d be a valuable asset to this company's mission.

Remember, you want the reader to think, “This person gets us,” “This person is one of us,” and “This person will make us better.”

Step 5: Conclude by Tying It All Together

The last paragraph should attempt to prove to the company that you’re aware of the importance of the job and also circle back to the themes you introduced in previous paragraphs.

Most people’s memory is poor, so repeating this large theme is helpful in making sure your reader remembers you.

Example of How a Cover Letter Should Look

Let’s look at an example of a cover letter for a hypothetical company, written by A.J. Ogilvie.

Dear Hiring Manager,

I was 17 when my English teacher, Mrs. Stevens, wrote on one of my essays: "Words matter." At the time, I sort of got what she meant, but I didn't understand the full force of that phrase until I began to teach writing 15 years later to first-generation college students at a small college in east Lost Angeles. Words, and the ability to make them work, meant everything for my students' futures. It is this lifelong passion for words, and helping people use them in powerful ways, that I believe would make me an excellent product manager at Textual.

While there are many reasons I believe I'd contribute in dynamic ways as product manager at Textual, I think my experience with writing instruction is particularly critical. Working with colleagues to solve writers' problems is a key aspect of the position, and that is precisely what I did as the assistant director of the writing center. One of the most difficult challenges was developing a strategy for identifying the big challenges our 2,000 student writers faced; together with my colleagues, we conducted focus groups, distributed surveys, analyzed the data, and ultimately identified ten writing challenges all incoming students faced. We then educated our writing tutors on these challenges and saw a significant increase in student satisfaction in the writing center.

Clearly, though, Textual isn't interested in merely solving writers' problems—an additional, critical goal is to empower writers by helping them grow and learn about writing. My own teaching philosophy shares this same belief in empowering writers. One specific way I tried to cultivate this empowerment was by building into the course small situations where students could see their progress. I'd use surveys and their own texts to point out how their thinking about writing had changed and how their texts revealed more sophistication. I'd try to have a light touch in these situations and hope that students saw their growth for themselves.

Textual has a clear vision for how AI and machine learning can enhance what we can do and who we can become as writers. And yet, regardless of how advanced our technology becomes, I believe a key, human-centric principle that should inform this work is what Mrs. Stevens knew long ago: "words matter." The product manager role will be critical in making Textual’s vision for words and writers come to life, and I think my acute understanding of writers and their challenges would make me uniquely valuable in the role. I appreciate your consideration and hope to meet with you soon.

Let’s break down what each part of the cover letter accomplishes.

For the hypothetical example, what I found in the mission statement was that the company really valued writing and language.

Additionally, I found that the company seemed to care about empowering users; they talked about it on their homepage, in their mission statement, and frequently on social media.

So, in this story, I need to prove to Textual that I have already done what the job will require of me and that I’ve done it in my own unique and effective way.

In the opening paragraph, I show that I share Textual’s values for words and communication.

In the second and third paragraphs, I tell a story about how I, like Textual, believe that empowering people is important. I use a story from my job at the writing center to show I've achieved that goal in the past.

In my final paragraph, I offer my own interpretation of what the job’s larger meaning is for Textual and then come back to my anecdote from the first paragraph. Linking ideas between the last paragraph and the first paragraph is a way of creating a coherent reading experience for the organization and reminding them you share their values.

5 Common Misbeliefs About Writing a Cover Letter

Let's look at five unhelpful beliefs about cover letter writing.

Mistaken Belief 1: "The Cover Letter Should Be About Me."

You should talk about yourself in the cover letter. But you want to talk about yourself in relation to the company.

Remember that you want to show your future employer you “get” them, you are one of them, and you will make them better. So you will talk about yourself, but mostly, you will talk about you and the company and how you two are aligned in meaningful ways.

Mistaken Belief 2: "I Can Use the Same Cover Letter for Any Company I Apply To."

Looking for a job can be exhausting, frustrating, and anxiety-ridden. Many people get overwhelmed and do a sort of “spray and pray.” They send out the same generic cover letter to 10, 15, or 20 organizations.

People who do this don’t hear back from many of those organizations because companies want to read your cover letter and feel special. You should pick two to three companies, do serious research, and speak to their specific needs and unique qualities in your cover letter.

Mistaken Belief 3: "The Cover Letter Should Have a Professional Tone."

When we write a cover letter, we often assume we need to sound “professional.” This often means that the tone and style of the cover letter feel impersonal and cold.

It’s much better to write as you speak and try to make the reader feel like they’re having a conversation with you.

The less they have to work to understand your writing, the more likely they are to remember what you say in the cover letter.

You need to remember a real human will be reading your cover letter, and that human (like any of us) would prefer for your writing to be personal, engaging, conversational, and professional.

Mistaken Belief 4: “More Is More.”

Many people feel they need to write a long and comprehensive cover letter, but the truth is you are likely to be far more effective if you keep it shorter and more direct.

Hiring managers are busy, and it’s likely they don’t have time to read long cover letters. More importantly, writing a direct and concise cover letter means you have refined your ideas and will therefore come across as a better thinker and communicator.

Aim to keep your cover letter around 300 words long. When it comes to telling your story, less is more.

Mistaken Belief 5: “I Need to Exaggerate My Qualities.”

It's likely that the job you are going for is competitive, and the company will receive a significant number of resumes and cover letters.

But that doesn't mean you should lie or exaggerate. Instead, it's key to be yourself and present yourself with integrity.

To do this, write like you speak, tell authentic stories of what you have done, and be honest about your quirks and uniqueness.

Imagine the cover letter is a substitute for getting to meet you in person. Ask yourself: What kind of impression can I create, and how can I stand out?

How ProWritingAid Can Help You Write a Cover Letter

Writing clearly is harder than it looks. If you feel you need a little help, why not try ProWritingAid's editing tool?

It will give you a readability score, suggest synonyms for overly complex words, and will help you make changes to make your writing style clearer. It’ll also make sure you’ve not left any glaring grammatical errors in your cover letter that will get it put straight in the “no” pile.

With ProWritingAid’s help, you can work out how to tell a story about yourself in a way that demonstrates why you would be a good fit for the company you're applying to. You can identify what the company really wants from you and what parts of your experience will really make you shine.

Good luck, and happy writing!

[Co-writer: A.J. Ogilvie]

ProWritingAid makes great writing easy

Easily improve your emails, reports, content, cover letters, and more.