Anatomy of the Perfect Cover Letter

John Krautzel
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A cover letter isn't a career summary; it's a sales pitch. Hiring managers expect you to have relevant skills and experience, but they do not know what benefits you bring to the job until you provide real-world evidence. A well-written cover letter sells an image of how you positively influence your work environment. Employers should feel motivated to act and learn more about what makes you an asset.

Use a Standard Business Letter Format

While every company isn't conservative, you can please the majority of hiring managers by sticking to a universally acceptable format. Put your contact details in a heading at the top of the page where recruiters can easily see it, and list the date, the recipient and the recipient's address below it. Make sure your font is readable and each section is adequately spaced to prevent the document from appearing cluttered. Avoid inconsistencies that take away from the document's professional appearance, such as misaligned paragraphs.

Address the Right Person

A generic greeting is one way to make yourself stand out as a lazy candidate. Make the effort to track down the name of the hiring manager or another recruiter on the hiring team. Check the job posting for a contact person, or review the job description for the title of the person to whom the position reports. Use that information to search online profiles for a manager in the target position. You can also try calling the company for information or locating the department head on the company's website.

Open With a Statement of Interest

Hiring managers are drawn to candidates who are attracted to their specific companies and are not simply settling for any job. Avoid stale and obvious statements that do not hold attention, such as "I am writing to apply for the Dialect Coach position." Instead, provide a concise statement of the reasons why your skills and passion fit the company goals. Consider the following example.

"I never imagined that studying abroad in college would lead me to become a world traveler and teach English as a second language in five countries. Learning the unique sounds and dialects of different languages is like cracking a complex code, which is why I was impressed by how quickly your coaches trained Justin Renner to speak with an accurate Scottish brogue. I asked so many questions about your methods that Renner recommended I contact you about your opening for a Dialect Coach."

This sample opening generates interest by sharing a personal experience and relating it to the company's recent accomplishment. The information conveys the applicant's passion for linguistics and compelling work history. The introduction should also include the position title and where you learned about the open position, especially if you were recommended by an employee or client.

Demonstrate Your Skills

Use one to two body paragraphs to establish clear connections between the job duties and your skills. Keep your paragraphs concise, but include job-related keywords where possible. Tailor your pitch to each employer's needs, and highlight accomplishments that show what you can do for the company.

For example: "I have a Bachelor's degree in linguistics from Smarts University, and my ability to morph into diverse characters with unique speech patterns allowed me to perform in 37 productions while working as a voice-over actor for a dubbing company."

Close With a Call to Action

Reinforce your interest in the position and gratitude for being considered. At the same time, present a clear course of action for yourself and the hiring manager without sounding overly aggressive. Express your desire for an interview, and restate your phone number to encourage the hiring manager to contact you. Include the time when you plan to follow up, such as two weeks.

All recruiters have individual priorities and pet peeves, so you can't always achieve the perfect balance in your cover letter. However, you can increase your chances of success by making it easy for a hiring manager to picture you in the role. Avoid restating everything in your resume, and focus on how the most significant features of your work history provide corresponding benefits to target employers.

Photo Courtesy of Jeanis Minsky at


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Keith it's better to use Dear Hiring Manager or Dear Recruiter than to use to whom it may concern. If you have done your research and can't find out who might be doing the hiring - you could always try to call the company and find out. But if all else fails, Dear Hiring Manager works the best.

  • Keith Enste
    Keith Enste

    I often have difficulty identifying the precise person to whom such correspondence should be addressed: I've been told that using: "To whom it may concern" as an opening salutation is the best to use when unable to to identify an actual individual. Is this the most productive way to address such correspondence given the circumstances?

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Jay - Duncan is right. Spending a little bit more on quality paper and envelops might be a good idea. I love the paper with the watermark as it looks nice, is a bit thicker and gives the overall impression that you really want the job. Don't go overboard but you could be creative here. The paper doesn't have to be white. Let it show your personality while still being professional.

  • Duncan  Maranga
    Duncan Maranga

    Thank you for the comments. @Jay I believe the whole process of applying for this job is something that your career life actually depends on, so spending some extra money to present your cover letter in an impressive housing is a good idea as it shows your determination. Nevertheless, your cover letter should be appealing as well to increase your prospects of clinching the chance for an interview.

  • Jay Bowyer
    Jay Bowyer

    These are great tips. I do have a question, though: if I need to write a letter and actually mail it into a company, what type of paper should I use? In the past, I've gone for heavyweight linen paper with a watermark because I thought that would make a good impression. Does paper type actually make a difference or am I just spending extra money for nothing?

  • Andrew  S.
    Andrew S.

    The idea of using a call to action as the closing of your cover letter sounds great on paper, and there are many sources out there that recommend this approach. However, to be honest, if I were the interviewer, I would not be very happy about being called by candidates prematurely. I would like to be the one in charge. Moreover, a candidate most likely doesn't know how long it is going to take the hiring manager to review all of the applications, so stating something like, "I'm going to follow up on my application on Tuesday" may feel pushy and make the employer uncomfortable.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Jacob consistency in your correspondence is vital. That's where personal branding comes into play. Create your brand and then use it across the board. @Erin they probably don't like it and you have to wonder how many people indicate that they will contact them next week and then never follow through. If you are going to use a call-to-action on your cover letter, make sure that you follow through. Great ideas @William. Have you used them? If so, what was the outcome?

  • Jacob T.
    Jacob T.

    It is touch on in the article and I think it is a great point - to consistent in your writing and formatting. Nothing detracts from a fantastic narrative like poor grammar, syntax or formatting errors. Taking the time to ensure your cover letter reads with the some polish that you would deliver it is great advice.

  • Erin Jean
    Erin Jean

    Do recruiters really appreciate being given a call to action? I'm never very sure if they'll find it offensive to be called and bugged about the position. I've personally had mixed results attempting it; some of them seem to sound baffled at being called.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    I don't know if using a standard business format is a good way for people to notice your cover letter. Try putting contact information at the end instead of the beginning. A hiring manager wants to know your contact information after he reads that you're a good fit for the company. Put the meat of your cover letter first and the contact details last.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Katharine most of our job seekers find it hard to write even a short cover letter. I am guessing that there aren't many that have the issue of cutting it shorter! Take a look at what you have written and remember the reason for a cover letter which is to show the hiring company how they will benefit by hiring you. Just a few short sentences should do it. My motto is to leave them wanting for more. @Catherine it is true that most job seekers forget about the call to action in the close. Now, if you say that you will contact them next week, you need to follow through and contact them. When job searching, I keep a spreadsheet of every job I applied to along with any contact information I find during my due diligence of the company. This way I know when to follow up and can update my spreadsheet accordingly. Hope this helps.


    Thank you for simplifying the process of writing a cover letter because it can be quite daunting. I appreciate the last section of the article about closing with a call for action- this is the part I can sometimes forget. I've never thought of letting employers that you plan on following up. This shows them that can follow through on your promises and are committed to finding a job.

  • Katharine M.
    Katharine M.

    Have any other readers struggled to keep the letter short, while hitting all the points you want to hit? What are some tips for keeping it brief enough?

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Lydia thanks for your comment. No real guidelines on how to open with an engaging statement. Cover letters are just as personal as resumes. Just remember to keep the cover letter about them - how they will benefit should they hire you. Check out some sample cover letters on the Internet to get the mind working and you might be amazed at what king of engaging cover letter you can craft.

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    I know cover letters are supposed to be engaging, but I've never been sure how to open them. I love the sample statement of interest in this article, but I wonder how this works for most job seekers who haven't traveled much and don't speak multiple languages. Are there guidelines on how to open with an engaging statement of interest that makes a recruiter or hiring manager want to know more without going off into irrelevant tangents?

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    I completely agree with the idea of using a standard format. I think that many candidates are tempted to use fancy font (script, stencil) to appear to be more creative. Unfortunately, though, adding these types of font or bright colors makes the cover letter difficult to read. Your main purpose should be to highlight the text, not your design skills.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. If you can't find the name of the hiring manager, it is okay to address it to Hiring Manager. Most companies have it set up so that, when you respond to the job posting, your resume and cover letter goes through the ATS and then gets read by an HR Generalist or even just gets sent to the hiring manager. Never address it "To Whom It May Concern". Take a few minutes and do some searching about the company. You might be surprised at what you learn. Also, if there's a phone number, call it and ask for the name of the person who will be conducting the interviews.

  • Kellen P.
    Kellen P.

    I don't think addressing your cover letter to the department head is a good idea (if you can't find the name of the hiring manager). Typically, this puts the hiring manager in an awkward position. Most department heads are not directly involved in the hiring process. If they receive a cover letter and CV directly, they typically review it and send it on to the hiring manager. Not every applicant gets this exposure, but it's not always a good thing. The department head may not want the additional mail, and the hiring manager might not like the department head's input on the hiring process.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    One of the worst parts of the cover letter is the greeting. I never know how to open my letter, and it isn't always possible to find the exact name of the person who will be reading it. A lot of times, there are multiple people who may see it. In the event that you truly do not know a specific name, what is the best way to address the person reading your cover letter? 'To whom it may concern' seems a bit dull and distant. What are some better suggestions?

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