The. Dreaded. Cover. Letter.
We all hope to find ways to stand out during our job search, and how best to convey “I’m perfect for this job!” to prospective employers. We also know that taking the time to write something meaningful can result in hours of procrastination and getting lost down internet rabbit holes.
So how can you make the best use of your precious time? A little preparation and intention can go a long way. Here are ten tips for how to write a cover letter that will get you noticed.
Before you start writing
Our first steps will help you organize your thoughts before you put them on paper.
1. Read the job description thoroughly
What is the purpose of the position? What are the main responsibilities of the role and key experiences they’re looking for? Be sure to note words that appear multiple times.
2. Summarize the responsibilities
Pretend you’re chatting with a good friend and telling them about the job you just saw on Idealist. Write down three bullet points or sentences that would sum up the job responsibilities if you were describing them to your friend. Try to communicate the job description as plainly as you can.
3. Summarize the experiences and skills
Write down the top three skills or past experiences you think would be important to be successful in this job. What skills, experiences, or talents are they looking for based on what’s written in the description? Which stand out as the most important?
4. Connect it to your career history
Reflect on your answers to the above questions. Think about the examples from your career that tie most directly to those responsibilities, skills, and experiences. Can you list three to five examples of times that you’ve performed those duties or responsibilities in your career?
Now that you have completed the first four steps in the process, you should have:
- Clarity on the most important elements of the job so that you can tailor your letter more effectively.
- Collateral for highlighting your most important skills and experiences in your cover letter.
Armed with your responses to these questions, you’re now ready to start writing.
Drafting your cover letter
5. Set up your simple formatting
Think about which member of the team this position would report to, and address it to them. Not sure who the hiring manager might be? Check out the organization's website to see if you can figure out the organizational structure. If that’s not available, try using LinkedIn. Even if the person you address your materials to isn’t the person reading it, they’ll know you took the time to familiarize yourself with the team.
If you still can’t find the right person, you can always address it “To the Programs Team” or “Dear [ORGANIZATION NAME] Team.”
As for formatting, the top of your cover letter should look like this:
[NAME OF STAFF PERSON TO WHOM THIS LETTER IS ADDRESSED]
[TITLE OF ABOVE STAFF PERSON]
[ORGANIZATION ADDRESS CONTINUED]
6. The first paragraph
The opening of your cover letter is where you want to whet their appetite.
State the job you’re applying for and convey that you have top-level experience that translates to the position and organization. You also want to communicate your excitement about the organization:
I'm writing to express interest in the [JOB TITLE] position with [ORGANIZATION]. Given my previous experience in/with [EXAMPLES: managing operations for nonprofits, analyzing complex data and systems for improvement, or communicating vision and purpose for educational institutions], I believe I would be a great addition to your team. [A SENTENCE ABOUT WHY YOU CARE ABOUT WHAT THE ORGANIZATION DOES].
7. The second paragraph
And now for the main course!
Go back to Step 4 above. This is where you want to showcase the examples from your career that directly tie to the responsibilities, experiences, and skills they are looking for. This will likely take four to six short sentences. The goal is to hit the top three things they’re looking for so they want to read your resume and learn more about you. You don’t want to tell them everything. There’s no exact prescription for this part of the cover letter, and there are many ways to convey you’d be a good fit.
Your sentences might start like this:
From reading the job description, it seems you are looking for someone who can [NAME THE THREE KEY RESPONSIBILITIES]. I have previous experience in all of these areas.
Currently, I serve as the [YOUR CURRENT JOB TITLE] for [CURRENT ORGANIZATION NAME] where I … I also have experience doing [EXPERIENCE] at [ORGANIZATION]. Additionally, from my time at [ORGANIZATION] I was able to …
8. The third paragraph
The sweet dessert!
This is the section of your cover letter to really show you’re going to care about this work day after day. It should answer the following questions:
- Why do you want this job?
- What do you think you can uniquely bring?
- What about the organization inspires you?
Just saying “the mission so clearly matches my own” isn’t especially compelling. Tell them why it's a good fit! You might have one sentence about why this role is truly exciting to you, why this role makes sense for you now, or why you care about their mission. This is particularly critical if you’re applying for an organization that is fairly different from the one that you're currently working for.
I am really excited about the opportunity to utilize my [X and Y] skills to contribute to [ORGANIZATION OR TEAM’S SPECIFIC WORK.] [ONE TO TWO SENTENCES ON WHY YOU ARE EXCITED ABOUT THIS ROLE AND THE WORK.] Thank you for your consideration.
This is a critical step you must make sure not to skip!
- Take a few hours away from your computer, and then come back with a fresh set of eyes.
- Read it out loud so you can make sure it’s easy to read by someone other than you.
- Ask a friend to look it over for typos you might have missed.
- Keep an eye out for common grammar and punctuation mistakes.
- Also look out for cover letter cliches.
10. Sending your application
You’re almost done!
Remember, the goal is to make it as easy as possible for the people receiving your application to open your materials and read them. Because there are so many versions of Word, it could mean that sending your materials in Word files could result in some less-than-ideal formatting. By making your document a PDF, you ensure that what you are seeing on your screen is exactly what a hiring manager will see when they open it.
Copy the text of your letter into the body of the email you’re sending and attach your PDF (along with your resume) so that the reader is able to see your beautifully formatted cover letter without even having to open the PDF.
Looking for more cover letter advice? Hoping to spruce up your resume? Need help assessing your current skills, or planning actionable next steps to move forward in your job search? Try Designing Your Dream Career, Idealist's free professional development course dedicated to helping you set yourself up for success.
Emily Lamia is the Founder of Pivot Journeys, which offers career coaching, group programs, and organizational consulting to teams that want to build strengths-based cultures that increase engagement, collaboration, and productivity.