"Is this necessary?" And Other Burning Cover Letter Questions

As a job seeker, you’ve probably spent at least a little time updating and editing your resume (if not, we can help!). You’ve found a job that seems like a good fit, completed the online application, and uploaded your resume. Now you just need to click “submit” and anxiously await a call about an interview, right?

Maybe not.

You might notice that you are required to upload a cover letter along with your resume. But why? Isn’t a cover letter just a reiteration of your resume? If not, what should you say in your cover letter? To whom are you writing? Should you include one even if it is not required? You may be tempted to hammer out a quick missive to fulfill the requirement, if a cover letter is required, or to skip the cover letter altogether if one is not mentioned. Both options might cost you the job, so we have answered the most anxiety-inducing questions about cover letters to help you write one that compliments your resume and improves your chances of being called for an interview.

Why do I need to include a cover letter? Doesn’t my resume speak for itself?

Your resume absolutely should be a convincing document, but it can’t do anything for you until someone sees it. That’s where the cover letter comes in. Hiring managers receive can receive hundreds of resumes for each job opening, and cover letters help them determine which ones to view. This means that, instead of summarizing your resume, you should use your cover letter to capture the hiring manager’s attention. You can also explain situations not addressed by your resume (more on that below). If you know the hiring manager or have been referred to the company by someone the hiring manager knows, the cover letter is also an opportunity to establish a connection. At the very least, writing a good cover letter shows a potential employer that you are serious about the job.

In short, the purpose of a cover letter is to convince a hiring manager to look at your resume. Unless you are specifically instructed not to include one along with your resume, think of your cover letter as an extra opportunity to get a foot in the door.

What do I include in my cover letter?

Cover letters can vary wildly, but they should all contain an introduction, an explanation, and a confident conclusion.

Introduction

While you should indicate that you are interested in a specific position, do not begin your letter with “I am writing to you to express my interest in your open __________ position.” Hiring managers will read countless cover letters that begin similarly, and this is tiresome. You want your cover letter to stand out while remaining professional in tone. To avoid losing the interest of the reader immediately, begin with sentence about yourself that somehow relates to the job or to your work experience. Your introduction can also be a good place to explain a career change or a gap in employment. Examples:

  • “Although the majority of my professional experience has been in the area of marketing, my first love was the world of finance.” (This introduces an explanation of a career change, which you would explain further and then connect to the open position).

  • “I spent ten years teaching children in public schools before my career was interrupted by a cancer diagnosis.” (This introduces an explanation of a gap in employment, which you would explain further and then connect to the open position).

  • “As one of seven children, I have lived my entire life as a member of a team.” (This is a way to demonstrate experience with a skill or trait desired in the ideal candidate, such as ability to work on a team, which you would explain further and then connect to the open position).

Notice the emphasis on explaining further and then connecting to the open position. For example, you would follow up an introductory sentence about a career sabbatical with a statement declaring that you are now ready and excited to return to work, and that is why you are interested in the open position.

The introduction should not be long, but it should pique the reader’s interest while explaining why you are writing the cover letter. This reason should point to what you can add to the company and not what the company can provide for you.

Explanation

This is the body of the letter, and it will probably be the longest section. Here is where you will explain what you can offer the company. Support your claims with statistics, such as sales figures or awards earned. If you are having difficulty identifying which of your talents to emphasize, look at the job posting. A word cloud generator (like this one) can help you identify the key words in a job posting. Once you have determined the key requirements or characteristics of the ideal candidate, match them with the strengths and experiences you possess that demonstrate your suitability for the role.

If you have not already addressed a gap in employment or change in career, do it in this section. Be sure to portray it in as positive a manner as possible, perhaps listing the skills or traits you acquired in this situation that will benefit the company. For example, if you have taken a career sabbatical to raise children, you could describe the management and organizational skills you have developed as a parent. Do not draw too much attention to this topic, but make sure you explain it while you are making your case as a desirable candidate for the position.

Some job postings will specify a topic to address in the cover letter, such as “Explain why you want to work for Company A.” Read the positing carefully to check for such a requirement, and do not forget to address it in the body of your letter. While you should demonstrate that you know something about the company and/or the position, remember that the letter should be about you and not the company and maintain your focus accordingly. Also remember that hiring managers are more interested in fulfilling the company’s needs than in fulfilling yours, so your explanation should somehow express that you want to work for the company because you have skills and experiences to offer that could be of benefit. In other words, do not indicate that you want a position because of the salary, hours, location, or anything that relates only to your desires in a job or workplace.

Conclusion

This can be very short. Reiterate your skills and experiences that could benefit the company (focusing on the ones emphasized in the job posting, if possible), and state your confidence that you are an ideal candidate for the position. Express your interest in an interview, but do not ask for one. Mention that you look forward to speaking to the hiring manager in person, as if an interview were certain. You might even mention that you will follow up within a certain time frame (and if you pledge to do so in your letter, make sure you follow through). If your contact information is not already listed somewhere on your cover letter, provide it here, perhaps even stating your availability. Most importantly, thank the reader for his or her time and consideration.

To whom do I address my cover letter?

It might seem acceptable to address it “To Whom It May Concern,” but avoid addressing your letter to no one specific. Your letter is more likely to catch someone’s eye if his or her name is on it. Many job postings will list the name of the person who will receive your application. If not, make every effort to find the name of a hiring manager or person who will be involved in the hiring process. Search the company’s website or call the company and ask. If all else fails, and you are unable to obtain the name of an actual living person, address the letter to “Hiring Manager.”

Should I have a “generic” cover letter that I can use for every job application?

While this can suffice, it is not ideal. Like your resume, you want your cover letter to be tailored to the job for which you are applying. You are more likely to be called for an interview if you can convince the hiring manager that you have done at least a little research into the company and/or the open position and that you are a good fit. If you do write a “generic” cover letter, make sure you at least change the specifics (date, name of hiring manager, name of company and/or position) to reflect the job for which you are applying. In this case, the skills and experiences you discuss in the body of your cover letter should be skills that are beneficial to any company or position, such as excellent communication.

Do you have any other questions about cover letters? If so, let us know in the comments!