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People aren’t taking cover letters seriously.

I coach people every day on career changes and job applications. I’ve answered every job search and resume question under the sun, but rarely do I get serious inquiries about how to write a killer cover letter.

This is a huge mistake.

FACT #1: Most companies and job application platforms require cover letters.

FACT #2: Most people hate writing cover letters.

FACT #3: Most cover letters suck.

My guess is at some point you’ve googled “cover letter template,” made a few tweaks, and used what I call the “spray and pray” method (sent it off to as many decent companies as you could find in the shortest amount of time).

Writing a legit, personalized cover letter takes more time and effort than personalizing a resume (where you might change a bullet point here and there). So a lot of people just “check the box” and mail it in. Trust me, hiring managers can tell… you’re not fooling anyone.

Cover letters are your opportunity to stand out

I’ve read a LOT of cover letters and let me tell you… the bar is low. So let’s use that to our advantage, shall we?

You’ll notice I didn’t create a cover letter template for you. This is intentional – I want you to write each cover letter from scratch using my guidelines below. I promise you you’ll get more interviews by writing five well-prepared cover letters than a hundred generic ones.

Make a strong first impression

Your job application (resume + cover letter) is your potential dream employer’s first impression of you. Your resume is your opportunity to showcase your professional experience and accomplishments. Your cover letter is your opportunity to advertise your unique personality, story, and passion.

Oh and by the way, you’re not the only one who’s sooo busy. Be respectful of the hiring manager’s time and write a concise letter that packs a ton of punch.

I trust you to use your discretion on cover letter length, but people always ask me for rules. So here you go: your cover letter should be 3 paragraphs.

The recipe for a killer cover letter

Formatting & Logistics

This is the boring stuff but it’s important so let’s just get it out in bullet form:

  1. No spelling or grammar mistakes allowed. Period. Proofread. Have someone you trust proofread too. I use the Grammarly Chrome Extension to check my work.
  2. No weird fonts. Everything needs to be easily legible. Keep this in mind if you use colors or images/logos as well. Get a second opinion to make sure they’re not distracting.
  3. Be consistent. Use the same font, format, colors, and (optional) letterhead for your resume and cover letter.
  4. Email or PDF attachment. If you’re applying via email, include your cover letter in the body of the email (even if you also attach a pdf along with your resume). This way if it gets forwarded around, your cover letter never gets lost. Oh, and ALWAYS use PDFs (and in general, NEVER use Microsoft Word… I beg you).
  5. Use hyperlinks. The beauty of email and PDFs is that you can include links! (to your website, Linkedin, portfolio, interview, writing, video, etc.)

Voice, Style, & Tone

Your cover letter is your chance to show your personality, so I love a personable, informal tone. That said, take a cue from the job description. If the writing style is formal, chances are so is the company culture – so use a professional tone in your letter. Otherwise, be yourself. Talk like you’re talking to a friend. After I write the first draft of a letter, I like to read it out loud and make changes so it reads like I speak. Feel free to use contractions and personal anecdotes.

Humor (and self-depreciation) is a great tool if you’re actually funny. If you’re not sure, get a second opinion.

Make sure every word counts. Remove fillers, excess adverbs, and jargon like “I’m the perfect fit.” Don’t use passive language.

The Subject Line

If you’re inquiring via email, you don’t have to write a basic subject line. Subject lines like “Job Application” make me want to take a nap. Your subject line is an opportunity to make an eye-catching mini-pitch. How about “Top Sales Performer Seeking Account Management Position?”

The Salutation

Never kick your letter off with “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madame” – it’s awkward and outdated. Take five minutes to research who the hiring manager or recruiter is on Linkedin, and address them by name. You’ll be one of the only ones who does, and she’ll take note (people love to hear/read their name)! That said, you don’t want to use the wrong name, so if you’re not sure, just say “Dear [Company Name] Team” or “Dear Hiring Manager.”

Paragraph #1: WHO ARE YOU

Orient your reader. Quickly. (This paragraph is your elevator pitch. Grab her attention.) Extra snaps if you pull her in with a unique and memorable story or tell a (funny) joke. This paragraph should be short (2-3 sentences). If you have a common connection, here’s your chance to drop her name (but make sure you trust and respect her and she said it was ok. If she can warm intro you first – that’s even better!)

Paragraph #2: WHY THIS COMPANY & JOB

The first step here is to DO YOUR RESEARCH. You should know this company inside and out (Who are the founders? What’s the mission? How do they make money? Have they been in the news lately?) How did you first learn about this company (the news? a friend? a podcast?). Mention an article or interview you read, and why it resonated with you. If it’s possible for you to use their product or service, try it out! Then talk about your experience.

As for the role itself, what’s intriguing about it to you? (Hint: The answer is NOT “it popped up on Linkedin” or “I’m looking for something new.”) Why are you seeking out this opportunity in particular? What about this role excites and motivates you?

Paragraph #3: WHY YOU

Here we go – this is your chance to SELL yourself. And NOT by regurgitating your resume. Create a narrative that contextualizes your experience. SHOW (rather than TELL) who you are with a compelling story.

Remember to focus on how YOU can bring value to their company – not how THEY can bring value to you. Demonstrate your passion, but stay humble.

The Closing

Close the deal. Make the ask for a phone conversation or interview at their convenience (make it EASY for them to say YES!) Include a simple signoff like “Regards” or “Best,” and end with your name and contact information.

Your Cover letter is your story, in your voice

Your cover letter is like a mini ad campaign for yourself. It should SHOW (not tell) who you are. If you copy and paste the same cover letter over and over, you’re going to fall flat. So tell a unique story so the hiring team can’t WAIT to meet you.

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Want more job application resources? Check out my resume template & guide, read my article on common job application mistakes, or schedule a coaching call with me.

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201 Killer Cover Letters Third Edition3.89 · Rating details ·  9 Ratings  ·  3 Reviews

THE BESTSELLING GUIDE TO WRITING COVER LETTERS THAT MAKE YOU STAND OUT FROM THE COMPETITION With hundreds of ready-to-download letters--updated with strategies for networking online, social media, and responding to Internet job postings.

""Wow, wow, and wow! Letters like these are what I want to see; they help me get to know the person immediately and create a very positiveTHE BESTSELLING GUIDE TO WRITING COVER LETTERS THAT MAKE YOU STAND OUT FROM THE COMPETITION With hundreds of ready-to-download letters--updated with strategies for networking online, social media, and responding to Internet job postings.

""Wow, wow, and wow! Letters like these are what I want to see; they help me get to know the person immediately and create a very positive impression."" -- Melissa Burke, co-owner, Blue Plate Minds Creative Staffing Agency

""I recommend this book to all the job seekers I work with; it saves them time and expedites the search."" -- Julie Hipp, Principal, Impact Partners Executive Search Firm

""This book guides job seekers at every level in using social media and technology to compete with more tech-savvy candidates."" -- Mary Gable, career and outplacement counselor

""Podesta and Paxton's strategies are brilliant! The letters will impress hiring managers, and the advice on using the Internet is spot on!"" -- Dave McGurgan, social media manager

""These letters go right to the core of what is needed to get one step ahead of the rest."" -- Jay Jamison, International Managed Service Leader, British Telecom

""Letters like these bring both resume and applicant to life, so I can make the right decisions about whom to interview and ultimately hire."" -- Loretta Kuhland, former Deputy Executive Director, Center for Disability Services, New York Capital Region...more

Paperback, 304 pages

Published March 12th 2014 by McGraw-Hill