If a job you’re applying for requests a cover letter — or gives you the option to include one — you should definitely take the time to write a strong one. A reported 83% of hiring managers say a cover letter is important when determining if they want to hire a candidate. But, what makes a strong cover letter? And how do you write a convincing cover letter if you have limited (or no) work experience?
Start by Connecting With Someone at the Company
Before even writing a cover letter, make an effort to make a personal connection with someone who works at the company, said Rob Barnett, headhunter and author of “Next Job, Best Job: A Headhunter’s 11 Strategies To Getting Hired Now.”
“LinkedIn, Google and the company website are the obvious first places to start putting on your detective gear and finding out who’s making the first-level decision in the places where you want to apply,” he said. “Wait to write your cover letter until after you’ve successfully had at least one or more contacts with another employee at the company who knows the boss, or any mutual connections you can find. A warm, connected cover letter will beat a cold first approach every time for two reasons: The hiring manager will be much more open to connecting with someone who has been referred by a person they respect, and you’ll be able to speak with knowledge about what’s most important to them. You’ll replace all the typical ‘blah blah’ speak with proof that you know what’s going on in that business.”
Your first sentence should not be “Hi I’m ‘X’ and I work at ‘X’.” They already know all of that, or can easily find it out. Start with something that will make the hiring manager want to keep reading. Talk about your accomplishments and how those will help you succeed in the role. Something like “As ‘X’ for my company, I’ve surpassed sales goals every month, and I want to bring my expertise to your company to grow exponentially.”
Tailor Your Cover Letter to the Position You’re Applying For
“Use a different cover letter for each position you apply for instead of a one-size-fits-all template,” said Tyler Martin, founder and certified business coach at ThinkTyler. “By linking your cover letter to the aspects of the position that fit your unique skills and expertise, you’ll create a cover letter that employers won’t be able to ignore. What exactly are they looking for that you excel at? When drafting a cover letter, these are the points to emphasize.”
Also, be sure to make any personal connections to the company that you can.
“If your personal values align with their company values, mention that to show you’d fit in well with the culture,” said Anne Matsushita, career coach at Randstad RiseSmart. “If you read something interesting about the company in the news recently, like they are expanding to another territory, tell them why that resonates with you — maybe it’s your hometown.”
Making this personal connection is especially important when you are applying to entry-level positions.
“When it comes to entry-level roles, companies look for culture fit and enthusiasm as much or more than they look for experience,” said Erica McCurdy, an executive coach.
If you can, find out exactly who the hiring manager is so you can greet them specifically at the top of your letter. It shows dedication and feels more personal than “To whom it may concern.” You can usually find this on LinkedIn by searching or reaching out to your connections at the company directly.
Clearly Explain What Value You Can Bring to the Company
“In your cover letter, devote as much — if not more — content to proving you know the business, their needs and where you can bring value,” Barnett said. “You don’t need to rehash your resume or tell your life story. It’s about how you can help them with the skills you have now.”
This is your opportunity to explain what distinguishes you from other applicants.
“I encourage my career coaching clients to showcase three assets that set them apart from other job seekers,” said Kyle Elliott, career coach and founder of CaffeinatedKyle.com. “For each asset, share a relevant accomplishment or example from your career. Recognize that your experience does not have to be formal or paid to be included in your cover letter. If you are earlier in your career, consider focusing additional attention on any relevant accomplishments from your education, extracurricular activities or a side hustle.”
Don’t Elaborate on the Qualifications You Are Lacking
Especially if you are applying to a first job or if you are early on in your career, you may not have every skill the job description lists. However, you should not point this out in your cover letter.
“Too often, I see junior candidates saying, ‘I’ve never done this before’ or ‘I know you want someone with experience with fill-in-the-blank and I don’t have it,’ or even ‘Please give me a chance, I’ll work for free,'” Matsushita said. “While honesty is the best policy, these candidates are essentially giving the company a reason not to hire them. Instead, highlight the skills and experience you do have — no need to mention what’s missing.”
Apply the Three C’s
The keys to a convincing cover letter are confidence, clarity and commitment, Barnett said.
“Most cover letters are too shy and lack enough confidence,” he said. “Be confident that you’re right for the job. Reread, revise, improve and perfect [your cover letter] for total clarity. Communicate that you’re ready, willing and able to make a full commitment.”
Emphasize Your Soft Skills
Soft skills are often just as important — and sometimes more important — than hard skills, so be sure to emphasize the soft skills you have and demonstrate how you have put them to use in past experiences.
“Are you detail-oriented, able to strike up a conversation with anyone with ease or an almost obsessive problem-solver? Now’s the time to point this out,” Matsushita said. “A company can teach you hard skills, like a computer program or a process. It’s much harder to teach people traits you are usually either born with or not. I have seen entry-level candidates without much experience get hired based on their curiosity and openness to learning.”
Leadership skills are especially in demand, so if you have led a team as part of a volunteer or academic project or were president of a college club, be sure to note this.
“Organizations today need workers who can take charge more than blind followers who take orders and deliver,” said Anjela Mangrum, president of Mangrum Career Solutions. “If you’ve proven somehow that you have that kind of potential, mention that in your cover letter.”
Keep It Concise
“When writing a cover letter, it shouldn’t be too long,” said Joe Flanagan, senior career advisor at VelvetJobs. “Try to keep it to one page. HR will probably have a ton of cover letters to go through, therefore keep yours short and memorable. Don’t let the reader toss it aside midway through reading.”
Experts recommend keeping your cover letter somewhere between 250 and 400 words.
End With a Call to Action
When concluding your cover letter, choose something strong that compels the hiring manager to continue the conversation. Summarize your best attributes in one sentence, then say something like “I’d love to discuss more about how we can grow the company together.” This shows your serious about the role and what you can bring to it.
Submit a Cover Letter That Is Error-Free
Be sure your cover letter is free of grammatical errors and typos, or you’ll end up making a poor first impression. “Always double-check your grammar and sentence coherence,” said Noelle Martin, career and workplace editor at Mantelligence. “The one thing any hiring staff would notice that can put an end to your application process is poor grammar. You can use Grammarly or other grammar-checkers for this crucial step.”
More From GOBankingRates
Sam DiSalvo contributed to the reporting for this article.