How to write cover letters (video)

Viewing time: 6 min. 18 sec.

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #69, with advice on how to write cover letters. The post first ran on Oct. 12/18.


Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic is how to write cover letters.

I have a question from Amanda Harriet, a student who lives in Boston. Here’s what she’s asked.

“My name is Amanda Harriet and I’m calling from Boston, Mass. I was scanning your website — and I love the update by the way — for an article on cover letters but I couldn’t find anything. Have you written about them? I’d be really interested in your perspective. Thank you! ”

Thanks for your question, Amanda. Writing a good cover letter is one of the secrets to getting a job, so you’re wise to pay attention to this requirement — even though it might feel like a nuisance and a pain in the butt.

Think of a cover letter as a type of audition. It’s your chance to make a good first impression and to persuade the person who’s reading that your resume is worth even more attention.

There are many Dos and Don’ts associated with cover letters, so let me start with some of the Dos.

Number 1: A cover letter must ALWAYS fit on one page. If it doesn’t it’s too long. Even a 55-year old applying to become a CEO, who has a wealth of job experience, must stick with a one-pager.

Number 2: A cover letter must ALWAYS be personalized. Don’t ever send out a generic letter. You can have a basic letter that you tweak, but tweak it you must.

Number 3: The cover letter must ALWAYS be addressed to a specific person. Don’t use dear sir or dear ma’am, and certainly never “To whom it may concern.” If you need to make phone calls or emails to get a specific name then be sure to do that work.

Number 4: You need some background information about the company, so while you’re collecting the name of the person you’re applying to, also find out some interesting details about the job and the company.

Number 5: Be sure you have a professional email address. Don’t use something like: or . No one will take you seriously if you do that. Get yourself a g-mail address and set it up with your own real name.

At the top of the letter, put your own name and contact info. Also use the name and contact information of the person you’re applying to.

Include the specific name of the job you’re applying for. You can do this in one of two ways, either across the top, like this:

RE: copy editing position

Or you can simply mention it in your opening paragraph. I’ve included a link below to a website with some more description of layout details.

Ok, now let’s get into the juicy details. The ideal cover letter is only four paragraphs:

In the 1st graf, you describe who you are, where you found the posting, your overall experience, and why you want to apply.

In the 2nd graf, you summarize how your experiences, skills and abilities will allow you to meet the company’s needs. Don’t just cut and paste thin info from your resume. Instead, try to rephrase the information, using some of the exact SAME words and phrases from the job description or advertisement. Include bullets and use numbers with those bullets. For example, if you increased sales 25% in your current job, be sure to mention that number. Also, if there’s a tool or software skill the job requires, be sure to list it here, too.

In the 3rd graf, display the research you’ve done on the company and explain how your experience can fit in with their plans and objectives.

In the 4th graf, say you’re available for an interview and repeat your contact information. Tell them that you’ll be in contact with them in a week if you don’t hear back. Thank them for their attention.

I know that four paragraphs doesn’t sound like very much but it’s meant to be an introduction to you, not a full-meal deal. Consider it an appetizer or even an amuse-bouche — something that people eat to make them want to eat more.

Now, occasionally, you may be asked to send your cover letter in the body of an email rather than an attachment. If your sending anything by email, put your name and job title in the email subject line.

But, avoid formatting the body of the email like a letter. This means you leave out the contact details and go straight to the “Dear XX” part. Again, be sure to use a real person’s name. NOT “to whom it may concern,” or “dear sir/madam”.

Then, give the four paragraphs I just outlined.

End the email with a professional signature. (You can do this by scanning your signature and then saving it as a j-peg and inserting it into any Word document, using the Insert pull-down menu).

Now, let me give you three final DON’Ts for ALL cover letters.

  • Don’t use the word “I” too much. It will make you look narcissistic and self-involved. Once you’ve finished the letter, rephrase or delete as many of the “I” statements as you can.
  • Don’t mention any other jobs that you might be seeking. Even though everyone will likely assume you’re going after more than one job, it’s better for you if you act as though you’re not.
  • Don’t ever send out a resume and cover letter without proofreading them carefully first. Better yet, ask a friend or colleague to proof it for you or hire a professional proofreader. If your letter or resume has a single typo, you won’t get the job.

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the late American professional tennis player Arthur Ashe:

“One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”

Thanks for the question, Amanda. Writing a good cover letter is a type of preparation that can not only help your self-confidence but also dramatically increase your chances of getting a good job.


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