Cover Letter Basics: Writing and Formatting Cover Letters

Cover Letter Basics: Writing and Formatting Cover Letters

Do you need to send a cover letter with your resume? It’s not an absolute requirement unless the employer requests one, but your cover letter may be what makes the difference when it comes to your resume ending up in the “no” pile or the “interview” pile.

Like your resume, a cover letter only gets seconds to make an impression. So, you need to get the employer’s attention fast.

Tip: In order to get your cover letter noticed, you will need to customize it. That means taking the time to inform the employer of how well your credentials match the qualifications listed for the position for which you are applying. 

When you use your cover letter to demonstrate to hiring managers that you have what they’re looking for, you will enhance your chances of getting called for an interview. Your cover letter shouldn’t duplicate what you have on your resume. Instead, use your cover letter to highlight your relevant skills and to let the employer know why you are a strong candidate for employment. 

The Purpose of a Cover Letter

The purpose of writing cover letters is to interpret the facts on your resume, to pitch your experience and skills to a prospective employer, and to add a personal touch to your candidacy for employment. It’s often your first contact with an employer, so it’s critical to make a good impression. 

Keep in mind that you only have a brief amount of time, and space on the page, to make that impression on the employer. That’s why customized cover letters are so important. No employer wants to read more than a page; the hiring manager wants to know right away why you are a strong candidate. 

Why You Need to Customize Your Cover Letters

Sending a generic letter to every employer you can find is a waste of time for a couple of reasons. If the company doesn’t have job openings, your resume will end up being filed away. In fact, some employers only accept applications for advertised openings and don’t even keep resumes on file. 

It’s easier to review resumes and cover letters that come in response to a specific job posting than it is to search resumes and follow up with candidates who applied in the past to see if they are still available. Another reason for not sending form letters is that they are generic. They do not provide the employer with any information about what you can do, why your credentials are important to the company, and why they should consider you for employment. Most employers receive hundreds of applications for every position they post on a major job bank, and they don’t have the time or the energy to spend (or waste) on mediocre cover letters. 

Don’t use a standard template for writing a cover letter either, unless you take the time to edit and personalize it. It’s different when you’re writing a resume. There are only so many ways you can format employment history and education. 

Tip: You will want your cover letters to reflect your personality and your style without being flamboyant or overselling yourself. 

Your cover letters should provide the employer with a glimpse of who you are and how you might fit into the company culture, as well as why you are the right person for the job. 

Types of Cover Letters

There are several types of cover letters that are used depending on why you are contacting the employer.

  • An application letter is used to apply for posted job openings. 
  • A networking letter is sent to ask someone you know or someone you have been referred to for advice, information, and job search assistance. 
  • A prospecting letter is sent when you are inquiring about the possibility of employment but aren’t applying for a specific job opening. 
  • A referral cover letter is used when you are mentioning the name of someone who has referred you for a job. 

Each type of letter can be sent on paper, by email, uploaded to a job site, or sent via a networking site message system. How you send it depends on what the employer asks for and how fast you need to get in touch. 

Formatting Your Cover Letter

Your cover letter should include at least three paragraphs. You will want to cover the following points: 

  • The reason you are writing 
  • Why you are qualified 
  • How you will follow up 

Writing a Cover Letter 

What to Include in Your Cover Letter

A well-written cover letter has several parts. The first part of your cover letter is the contact section. It should include your name, address, phone number(s), and email address. Double-check the information for accuracy. If you have a typo in your phone number or email address, the employer isn’t going to spend any time trying to track you down. Next, list the date you are writing the letter. 

Contact Information

If you know the employer contact information, include it in your cover letter: 

  • Contact name
  • Contact job title 
  • Company 
  • Street address
  • City, state, and zip code 

Include a salutation, but don’t make it too personal. When applying for a job, for example, “Dear Jill” is not appropriate, even if you know the person to whom you are writing. 

Rather, start your letter with “Dear Ms. Smith.” 

Tip: Many employers don’t list a contact person in the job posting on purpose. They don’t want phone calls or emails, so they advertise the job without listing a contact. If you can find a contact person by researching the company on the web, write directly to that person. If not, write, “Dear Hiring Manager.” 

First Paragraph

The first paragraph of your letter should include information on why you are writing. If you have a contact at the company, this is a good place to mention it. Also note the position that you are applying for and where you noticed it. If you found a job posting in your local newspaper, say so. For example, write: “I am interested in the Marketing Assistant position recently advertised in the Times Union.” 

Second and Third Paragraph

Next, describe what you have to offer the employer. Either use bullets to highlight your qualifications or write several short paragraphs that describe your skills and how they match what the company is seeking. This is where you need to sell the employer on why the hiring manager should interview you. Don’t repeat your resume. Instead, highlight the appropriate experience and abilities from your resume to impress upon the employer that you are a strong candidate. 

If you are applying for different positions at the same employer, send separate cover letters and resumes for each position. They will probably be screened separately, and it will save the hiring manager from making copies of your correspondence to pass along to different departments.

Closing Paragraph 

Finish your cover letter with a final paragraph thanking the employer for considering you for the position. Ask if there is any other information you can provide, and reiterate that you are available for an interview at the employer’s convenience. 

Tip: If you’re editing and rewriting an existing cover letter, be very sure that you have changed the contact information, the job title, and the qualifications to match the position for which you are applying. An employer isn’t going to readily forgive getting a cover letter addressed to a different company or one that mentions a position the company doesn’t have available.


End your letter with a formal closing and your signature:

Best regards,

Samantha Cleary

How to Match Your Letter to a Job

Here’s an example of a cover letter that includes a list of the job requirements mentioned in the help-wanted ad, followed by the candidate’s experience: 

Key Holder Requirements: 

  • Assist the management team in all aspects of store operations, including sales, customer service, payroll, inventory, receiving, and visual merchandising. 
  • Assist managers by opening and closing store and by scheduling store staff. 
  • Encourage exceptional customer service. 

My Skills and Experience: 

  • Assist with store operations, including sales, payroll, scheduling, reports, and inventory management. 
  • Place orders to restock merchandise and handle receiving of products. 
  • Extensive work with visual standards and with the merchandising of high ticket items. 
  • Provide excellent customer service to all clientele, including scheduling private shopping appointments with high-end customers. 

As you can see, the candidate itemized the job requirements, and then constructed their resume to match their skills to those requirements. 

Writing a Custom Cover Letter

Review this sample job posting, then take a look at how the job seeker customized her cover letter to show how her qualifications matched what the employer was seeking: 

 Editor: Responsible for writing, editing, and proofreading print and online copy. Develop editorial standards for print and online publication. Hire and oversee freelance writers, reporters, design team, and editorial staff, working on daily online news web site and weekly newsletter. Assign and edit freelance copy and manage freelancers. Must enjoy working on multiple projects.

Basic Cover Letter Example

The following letter example reflects the qualifications listed in the job posting: 

Dear Hiring Manager, 

I am writing to express my interest in the Editor position advertised on My unique combination of creative talent, technical expertise, and experience managing both people and projects makes me the right person to help your team thrive. 

I have a great deal of experience managing creative people and motivating them to create copy. I am also responsible for hiring, training, and supervising editorial and administrative staff, as well as freelance writers. I have developed editorial standards for style and quality that are used by the editorial and writing teams. In addition, I have not only managed editors and writers but have written numerous newsletters, headlines, and other copy under tight deadlines.

I would be thrilled to use my diverse talents to help your team. My resume is enclosed. If I can provide you with any further information on my background and qualifications, please let me know. I look forward to hearing from you. 


Your Name 

As you can see, the job seeker took the time to carefully review the job posting. They then showed the employer why they were qualified for the job—and why they should get an interview. The employer can quickly and clearly see why the candidate appears to have the qualifications for the job. 

Cover Letter Writing Tips

Don’t Apply if You’re Not a Fit

If you aren’t qualified for the job, don’t spend time writing a cover letter that sounds like you are. Instead, spend the time applying for jobs that do fit your qualifications, or work on improving your skills so that you will be qualified in the future. 

Don’t Oversell Yourself

Some candidates embellish their cover letters in order to get an interview. The problem with overselling yourself is that the employer is going to find out as soon as you sit down for an interview that you don’t have the right skills. You’ll be out of contention for the position anyway, regardless of how wonderful your cover letter sounded. 

Be Consistent

It is important to be consistent when describing your background. When writing about your current position, use the present tense. When writing about positions you previously held, use past tense. That way, the employer is clear as to what you are doing and what you have done. Inconsistencies and omissions are a red flag to prospective employers.

Avoid Easy-to-Make Mistakes

One human resources manager told me that the cover letter mistakes that knock candidates out of consideration include:

  • Candidates who tell her that they want to work at ABC Company (which is not her company). 
  • Candidates who say they are “perfect” for the job without including any reasons why.
  • Cover letters that only say, “The enclosed resume is submitted to apply for XYZ position advertised on ABC website.” Why bother? 

Explain an Employment Gap

In addition to pitching your candidacy for employment, you can also use your cover letter to explain gaps in your resume.

For example, if you took some time off from work to raise a family or to return to school, mentioning it in your cover letter is a good way to alert the employer as to why there is an interruption in your work history. You can also let the employer know that you are returning to the workforce and are willing and able to commit to employment. 

What Not to Include in a Cover Letter

There are some things that you should not include in your cover letter:

  • Don’t include personal information like your marital status or date of birth. 
  • References should not be included in your cover letter.
  • Don’t send a photo unless you are applying for a modeling or acting position, for example, and the employer requests it. 

The employer has no need to know personal and confidential information. In fact, employers would rather not know it. They want to judge all candidates on an equal playing field without considering personal characteristics.

Ready to Get Started? How to Write a Cover Letter That Will Get Read | 100+ Cover Letter Examples and Writing Tips

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  • February 11, 2023