11 ways to improve your cover letter and get a great job
the do’s and don’ts of cover letters
Cover letters are tricky business. Common advice says if you really want to get noticed by an employer or hiring manager, writing a great cover letter will help you stand out. While that may be true, it takes a lot of effort to write a great cover letter and many job seekers wonder how to make it worth the time. In this post we’ll share 11 ways to improve your cover letter, without spending too much time on it, and increase the odds that you’ll get noticed and get a great job.
1. decide which kind of cover letter you’re sending
You could spend hours and hours personalizing cover letters for every single job you apply for and still not hear back from employers. Instead of doing this, use the 80/20 rule. Start with a standard cover letter you’ll use for 80% of the jobs you apply to, with a few personalized touches you can edit for each job. We’ll show you how to do it. For the other 20% of jobs, the jobs you really care about and really want to hear back from, spend the extra time to create a very personalized cover letter for the hiring manager or recruiter you’re working with.
2. pick a cover letter template that looks good
As a general rule, it’s a nice touch when your cover letter template matches the template of your resume. There are many great Google Docs templates you can use. Some are free and some cost just a few dollars for a very polished look. Also, with Google Docs you can download your final version as a .docx file or .pdf file. Stick to templates that have a clean header and little else in the way of design. Here are a few of our favorites:
3. create a three paragraph cover letter to start
Very simply, a good cover letter has three paragraphs which are:
This paragraph accomplishes two things - it shows your excitement about the job and it provides a brief introduction to you, stating your most relevant experience and 1-3 of your job skills that apply to this exact job.
This paragraph showcases your job story, or your work experiences and accomplishments that demonstrate why you are a great fit for this particular job. It’s also good to show off your personality a little bit by sharing a few of your personal characteristics and people skills that are relevant and make you a desirable hire.
- Paragraph #3
This paragraph is the closer - it’s a summary that briefly restates your skills and excitement to get started.
Of course it’s possible to write a longer cover letter and tweak this template. Don’t write or ramble for too long though. Cover letters should be no more than a page as a general rule unless you are writing something that is worthy of keeping the reader’s attention for longer.
4. create a template and modify slightly for 80% of jobs
Set up a system so you know which parts of your cover letter you are going to personalize. Typically, you’ll keep the intro and closing paragraphs pretty much the same, except for changing the specific job name. Focus most of your edits on the second paragraph. What you want to do in this paragraph is to make sure you are highlighting the job skills and work experience you have that is directly relevant to the job you are applying for. Do this by referring to the job description, finding the three skills and experiences you know they are looking for that you also have and are good at. Focus on those. For example, if a job requires great listening skills and you know you are a great listener and you have a job story to back it up, include that.
5. hyper-personalize your cover letter for your top jobs
For the few jobs you really care about, take the extra time to personalize more. Personalized touches could include things like referencing an article the CEO wrote. With a few simple searches on Google and the company website, you can find relevant content to reference in your cover letter. For example, if you were applying to a job at InVision, an all remote design company, you might look for recent news and check out the About page on their website. I found InVision’s About page and there’s a mission statement in the beginning I might use in my cover letter like this:
- “Working alongside your team to help develop and support outstanding design experiences would be a great privilege. I too believe that the screen is the most important place in the world.”
Just showing you’ve done your homework on the company and you align with their mission goes a long way in providing an extra personal touch in your cover letter.
6. include 3 job skills and 3 people skills in your cover letter
What most hiring managers and recruiters are scanning for in a cover letter is relevant job skills and work experiences. Be sure to highlight three job skills and support them with work experiences you’ve had that expand upon and showcase your skills. This is also an opportunity to mention your soft skills or people skills. These are becoming increasingly important in many types of jobs and just mentioning one or two will show you have awareness of their importance.
7. don’t use the same words over and over again
It’s common to have favorite words. For action verbs, you might like the word “organize” for example. But if you organize this and then you organize that and then you organize this again, you are just organizing way too much for anyone! So try to use a variety of verbs and a variety of adjectives without repeating yourself. Here’s a great list of nearly 400 words to consider for variety when writing so you can improve your cover letter.
8. keep your cover letter to 350 words or less
Short and sweet works. If you write too much, you run the risk that the reader will start to skim after the first paragraph. If you keep your cover letter concise, you increase the odds that the reader will read the whole thing. Having impact with the skills and experience you choose is more important than having a lot of words. Google Docs and Microsoft Word both have word count functions you can use to make sure your cover letter is short and impactful rather than long and boring.
9. don’t get too personal
The person you’re writing to doesn’t want to know if you’re a dog lover or a cat lover, unless you’re applying for a job at Petco. Seriously, they can figure out what you like and don’t like from your social profiles on Instagram or Facebook later on in the job search process when you get to an interview. The person taking time to read your cover letter mostly wants to know if you have the skills for the job and if you can communicate that. If you’re not confident in your writing skills, that’s ok. We have a tip for that too.
10. check your writing with an online writing tool
If you’re not confident in your writing skills, you may be procrastinating writing a cover letter. Many people struggle with this and luckily there are tools to help. A great option is using a free, online writing tool like Hemingway. I used Hemingway on this blog post and took a picture of the feedback it gave me so you can see how it helps. I love this tool because it’s reliable and tells me exactly what I need to fix. Another option is to get help from someone who is good at writing. This could be a friend, family member or anyone you know that you would consider a good writer. Ask them to read and edit your cover letter. A second pair of eyes on anything you write is always a good idea.
11. stop working on your cover letter and meet someone at your target company instead!
Ok, this tip really isn’t about your cover letter, but it might be the best one in the whole list. The time you spend messing with your cover letter is better spent meeting helpful people, period. You are a person, not just a piece of paper. Trying to find people that can help you in your job search is more productive than spending hours on a cover letter that may or may not reach the hands of the hiring manager. If you don’t already know someone, start to make a plan for how you’re going to meet someone at that company. Take time to ask people you know who they know. Do they know someone who works for the company you’re most interested in? Do they know someone who has the job you want to get into next?
ox guides can help you improve your cover letter
At any time in your job search, whether you’re working on your resume and cover letter or just trying to get an idea of the jobs that need your skills, an Ox Guide can help. To get an Ox Guide, start a chat from our homepage at ox.work. We’ll ask you to share a little bit about yourself, like the type of job you have now and the type of job you’re looking for in the future, so that we can connect you with an Ox Guide that will be a good match.