Everyone has a resume, but not everyone can write a cover letter. It’s the difference between mediocre candidates who can “do a job” and the right candidate who can rise to a challenge. Simply put, writing kick-ass cover letters are part and parcel of how to get a job.
Underneath the process are the three basic elements of persuasive writing:
- Ethos: why you want the role and believe in the company.
- Pathos: why you love the technical aspects of the job.
- Logos: how your past experience makes this a logical fit.
It makes more sense when you know that. Follow these 5 steps and you’ll have a cover letter that makes you seem like a natural choice for the role you want.
Step 1: Kick-ass cover letters start with impeccable formatting
Formatting is the boring part of writing cover letters but it’s quick and simple stuff. When all the small stuff looks perfect, the hiring manager can focus on your message—not small mistakes.
Here’s the basic info you’ll need to format:
- Today’s date
- Your first and last name
- Your address and postal code
- Your phone number
- Your email address
- The hiring manager’s name
- The hiring manager’s position
- The company name
- The company address
- The hiring manager’s phone number
- The hiring manager’s email address
This is simple stuff. It’s also the barrier to entry for successful applications. You’d be astounded at how many people don’t include cover letters at all, nevermind format them professionally. Following a clean format will put you ahead of 30% of most applicants.
Step 2: Write a killer hook
The introduction of a kick-ass cover letter isn’t really about telling someone your name. It’s about capturing enough interest to keep people reading further. One of the easiest ways to do that is to name-drop a mutual acquaintance as a referral. That’s my go-to approach because:
- It catches the hiring manager’s attention immediately.
- It adds credibility to your application.
- It adds an informal reference working in your interest.
Without a reference, however, you’ll need to get a little more precise with your writing. You don’t need to get over-the-top by leading with an achievement—that runs the serious risk of sounding arrogant at best and goofy at worst.
That’s why it pays to identify the hiring manager’s business pain and speak to it plainly right away. Managers have a lot of concerns to juggle—they don’t want to spend time picking out a diamond in the rough when they could zero-in on the obviously qualified candidates.
Research is your friend here. Cross-reference what you find from the job posting, the company website, and anything you can find from the hiring manager’s LinkedIn profile to identify the business pain. We’ll use that to revisit an old formula: Problem-Action-Result (PAR for short). You want to adapt this to your introduction like so:
- Problem: Call out the hiring manager’s problem, challenge, or goal.
- Result: Identify what the solution to that problem looks like
- Action: How hiring you will make that result a reality (or how you’ve accomplished something similar).
“Action” and “result” aren’t in the wrong order here, but swapped intentionally. We’re doing that to highlight the gap between the problem and the solution so that the “action” (hiring you) can be served up emphatically as the solution to close that gap.
Example cover letter introductions
Here’s the cover letter intro that I wrote years ago for the job that pulled me out of unemployment:
“Your agency needs a copywriter who will not only grow with your team as it builds a carefully selected clientele, but who will also strive to develop each client’s brand image. As a natural storyteller with nearly two years of digital content experience and the drive to create a freelance content writing business, I can create emotional bonds between your clients and their audiences.”
It’s a little wordy, but it’s a real-world example that worked. With more experience under my belt I’d revise it to something like this:
“I don’t need to tell you how hectic agency life gets. You need to juggle deliverables and relationships with every project while still making time for your own marketing. That becomes easier with a skilled content writer on your team, and I’m confident my experience is just what your team needs to grow.”
The difference is a stronger emphasis on the agency owner’s business pain, but it flows better too. There’s less bragging as well, which speaks to greater confidence and competence than naming achievements right off the bat.
Step 3: Kick-ass cover letters always demonstrate why you’re a perfect fit
After planting your stake in the ground you need to demonstrate why you’re a good fit for the role—even the best fit for the role.
Some quick tips on what not to do:
- Do not simply list tasks you’ve performed.
- Do not rehash your various positions without direction.
- Do not try to fill an arbitrary word count.
- Do not humble brag.
- Do not try to compensate for a lack of experience with big words or flowery language.
Instead, use your experiences so far to convey these things:
- Why you’re driven internally to work for this company.
- Why you actually enjoy the tasks central to the role.
- How your skills and experiences make you a solid fit for the role.
You don’t need to write the body section of the letter in that order, but it’s a good structure to follow if you’re not sure where to start. Your kick-ass cover letter is almost done!
Reference your past achievements to prove that fit
It is important to cite examples of your work experience, but most people miss the point here. Like a miniature essay, these examples support the larger thesis of you being the best choice for the job. Achievements are the means, not the end.
Don’t just recite tasks you’ve done or jobs you’ve worked to fill a word count. Plenty of people do that and plenty of people never make it to the first interview. There’s no perfect formula, but if you’re not sure exactly how to incorporate your experiences then cite 1 experience for each step of the PAR process.
The key is to use those experiences as evidence of your internal drive, your fit, and your qualification. Don’t lose sight of those three things.
Step 4: End with a prompt to chat in person
Last but not least: create the call to action. Don’t just thank the hiring manager for reading. Suggest a meeting to review ideas and talk shop. It’s a natural next step and it sets the tone with self-confidence.
Address hiring managers with mutual respect instead of prostrating yourself. Don’t give into the temptation to suck up! It’s possible that the hiring manager won’t like seeing backbone, but a far greater number will prefer it (speaking from experience).
Example: “I’d love to work through some ideas together. Please let me know if you’re free to meet in the next week.”
It’s deceptively low-key. Speaking casually on an equal’s footing shifts the conversation from a one-way sales-y pitch to a two-way consultation that establishes confidence, hints at experience, and sets an expectation to tackle real business challenges. It makes solving the hiring manager’s problem the focus of the conversation. That’s where the real value lies.
That’s all there is to writing a kick-ass cover letter. Don’t forget to give yourself time to review and edit that cover letter before you send off that application. Even better: let someone else read it for an external perspective.