Picture this. You’ve just found an excellent job opening that meets all of your requirements— competitive salary, great benefits, and the ability to work on exciting projects. This has been your dream, and you know you have the qualifications. But, after reading further, you are asked to submit a resume and a cover letter.
Many people skip over the idea of writing a cover letter because they can be difficult to write, especially if you’re applying for your first job. This is a mistake! In fact, your cover letter is one of the most important parts of the hiring process and should be written to the best of your ability.
In this guide, we’re going to explore how you can write an effective cover letter which you can use to apply for any position in tech.
Why Are Cover Letters Important?
Your cover letter is one of the first impressions you will make on a company. Even if you already have a recommendation from a current employee, there will be people in the company who will read your resume and cover letter before you proceed to the next stage of the hiring process. And to those people, these documents will be their first impression. You know what people say, “first impressions stick.”
When you reach out to a company, you want to tell them a story about yourself and how you’re going to help them meet their goals. Your resume will outline your skills and past experience, sure, but your cover letter will back up what you’ve said in your resume and give you the opportunity to explore your interest in a certain position with more depth.
Most importantly, your cover letter, which can take many formats, can be highly personalized for each company. This is a chance for you to tell them your story.
What Is the Purpose of a Cover Letter?
The cover letter is still an expected attachment to a resume and serves as the first impression a candidate will make on a potential employer. Your cover letter gives you the opportunity to talk about why you’re interested in the position and how you would uniquely contribute to the organization. Everyone may use the same format for their resume—listing their skills, qualifications, and more—but in the cover letter, you can get more creative. You can talk about why you’re excited about the company and craft a convincing pitch that will make them want to talk with you again.
Over the last few years, there has been a perception that cover letters are no longer relevant. If you have a Twitter profile and a presence on LinkedIn or AngelList, why should you have a cover letter? Well, the truth is that employers still value a cover letter. If you don’t include a cover letter, a potential employer may pass on you before they get the chance to read about your skills in greater depth.
Your cover letter tells employers that you’re applying for a certain position. You may be able to get away with using the same resume for multiple jobs, but the cover letter should be unique to each position and company. You want to convince the company why you are the best person for their team. And you want to tell them why you want to work with their company more than any other. The more detailed you are, the better the impression you can leave on hiring managers and recruiters.
How to Format a Cover Letter
Before we get started on the contents of a cover letter, it’s important to understand how you should format the document. Here are a few tips on how to format your cover letter:
- Use single line spacing for all text
- Use double-space between each section
- Include a one-inch margin on all sides
- Align everything to the left side
- Choose an easy-to-read font
How Long Should a Cover Letter Be?
Your cover letter—like a resume—should only be a single page long. The best cover letters are short, concise, and ideally under 300 words. You’ll only have the attention of a recruiter for a minute or two at best, and you want to impress them as soon as possible.
What to Say in a Cover Letter
Your cover letter should be all about the position you’re applying to and the company itself. Before you get started writing a cover letter, you should make sure you are aware of the needs of the company and their expectations for a candidate in the position.
By doing some research in advance, you’ll find it easier to adapt your cover letter to the specific position you’re applying to. Recruiters will always value a personalized cover letter over one which includes generic text about why a candidate is “good.”
When doing research for your cover letter, consider the following questions:
- Why is the company hiring someone new?
Does the company have an always-open application so they can hire the best talent? Do they need more people to help them scale? When it comes time to writing your cover letter, make sure you keep these things in mind. If the company is scaling quickly, you may want to talk about how you have experience in fast-paced work environments, for example.
- What skills do they expect a new candidate to have?
What are they looking for in a new candidate? Do they need someone with skills in a particular technology? Do they need someone ambitious who can help them bring their ideas into reality? Answers to these questions are difficult to ascertain before actually talking with someone in the company, but you can’t write a cover letter without knowing what they expect.
Spend some time reading through the job description and take notes on what skills they expect applicants to have. Also, read over any materials on the company’s website such as their “about” page and their vision statement so you can learn more about their expectations and long-term goals. Doing this research will show companies you know what they’re all about, thereby indicating you’re passionate about a particular position.
How to Write a Cover Letter
Cover letters can be difficult to write because you need to write a new one for each position you’re applying to. However, there are a few tips you should keep in mind which will help optimize your cover letter writing process.
Expand on Your Resume
In your cover letter, you should go beyond your resume. It can be tempting to simply reiterate what you have said in your resume in more depth. But you shouldn’t repeat yourself in your cover letter. Instead, you should use your cover letter as an opportunity to discuss your experience in more depth. Write a sentence or two about how a past position helped you refine a specific skill that the employer is looking for. Customize the letter to show you have the requisite skills for the position. If you’re not sure where to start, you may want to ask yourself these questions:
- How did you tackle one of the responsibilities you had in a past position?
- How did you accomplish a specific milestone you mentioned on your resume?
Main Components of a Successful Cover Letter
Now, let’s get to the cover letter itself. There are three main parts in a cover letter:
- The Introduction
- The Body
- The Close
Let’s break these down and explore each component in more depth.
- Cover Letter Introduction
The first few sentences in your cover letter are key. If you include some generic and bold assertions about your skills, the recruiter may get bored and move on to the next candidate. But if you make your introduction impressive, they will want to read on further.
Your introduction should start with “Dear, [hiring manager name].” Make sure you include the name of the hiring manager or recruiter who is hiring for the position. If the company has a relaxed office culture, you only need to use their first name; if the employer is more traditional, use their first and last name.
The first paragraph should tell the company why you want to work with them. There are two things you could say in this paragraph—you believe in the company’s mission, and you want to work on the problems they are solving or, you want to work with their team. You should mention one of these facts and give a specific reason why. You’re interested in helping the company solve problems? Now you need to tell them why.
Giving a specific reason shows the company you’ve tailored your cover letter to them and done some research about their company. Saying that you have applied because a friend told you about the company or because you saw a job opening sounds like you haven’t thought about the company in any depth—you just applied. When a company feels you are passionate about their vision or their team, they are more likely to reach out to you. They are always going to hire the person who wants to work for the company more than the person who would accept any job. Even subtle personal touches will go a long way in a cover letter.
- Cover Letter Body
You’ve written a great introduction, and you now have the attention of the recruiter. What’s next? You have to tell them your story. The main body will be what a recruiter uses to help them decide whether to schedule an interview or file your application away.
The main body should be around three sentences—even if you are applying for junior or senior positions in tech. The goal of telling this story is to convince the company you meet all of their specifications. Tell the company about your knowledge of the technologies they are using or your past experience with a certain process they mentioned in the job listing. Whatever it is, make sure you tell them how you can help solve their problems better than everyone else. And always provide specific examples.
Let’s say the company is looking for a front end web developer who can help them speed up their app. You could say, “In my one-year tenure as an intern at Google, I used React.js to improve the speed of an internal landing page by 50ms.”
Specific, concise, and easy to understand.
In this section, you should be sure to make links between your qualifications and the specific requirements for a position. Mention how your skills meet the requirements of a company. You should also be sure to keep your paragraphs short. If you are writing three sentences, you may split those up into two paragraphs. This will make it easier for the recruiter to read your cover letter and understand the most important information. The more personalized your cover letter is, the more an employer will feel that you’re passionate about the company and its vision.
If you’re struggling to figure out how to talk about your past experience, there are a few questions you should keep in mind. These questions will ensure you know how to articulate your past experience and present it as effectively as possible to a future employer. Ask yourself:
- What projects did I work on?
- How many users did my project have?
- What big milestones did I achieve?
- What use cases did I have to take into account?
- What tools (i.e. GitHub, Confluence, CircleCI) and methodologies (i.e. Agile) did I use to work on this project?
You should end up with something like, “I was a core team member building X and leveraged tools such as CircleCI to create a new continuous integration process, which helped cut down our deployment time by 30%.”
- Cover Letter Close
The hiring manager is reading your cover letter. They are getting more interested in reaching out to you for an interview. Now, you need to close your cover letter effectively.
The first thing you should mention in your closing lines is a call to action: a specific statement that tells employers how they can reach out to you. You may decide to say, “If you are interested in talking with me further about how I can help Microsoft boost the efficiency of their Azure platform, reach out to me at [email address].” Again, this is specific, concise, and actionable.
Then you want to close with “sincerely” or “kind regards” and sign the letter with your full name. Optionally, you can include a phone number or another contact information below your name. After you’ve done that, your cover letter will be complete. You do not need to make your close complicated—it should be simple and tell hiring managers how to reach out to you in only a few words.
Example of a Cover Letter
Here is an example of a cover letter that uses the above format. The letter states why a candidate wants to work for the company and gives them a specific example of how this candidate can help them achieve their goals. The letter is simple, concise, and actionable.
30 October 2019
Stephanie M. Anager
San Francisco, CA 94107
I used Career Karma to help choose a coding bootcamp when I was learning to code, and I recently learned about your new bootcamp directory. It got me thinking that I want to help others find the right educational opportunities for them, just like you did for me. I would like to apply for the position of junior full stack engineer at your company.
If you would like to talk with me further about how I can help you improve your web application, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Candidate N. Ame
What Not to Include in a Cover Letter
The purpose of a cover letter is to tell your story to a prospective employer. You can tell them about yourself, your history, your knowledge, and more. Your cover letter gives you an opportunity to show an employer why you are a good candidate for a position and why they should hire you.
But many people feel compelled to include more information than they need to. Your cover letter should be short, to-the-point, and focused on how you can help a company achieve its goals. You don’t need to include every detail about your employment history. Keeping your cover letters short will make it easy if you apply for multiple positions and need to write many different letters.
Your cover letter should be formatted correctly and should be free of any spelling or grammar errors, as it will also implicitly showcase your writing and communication skills. If your cover letter includes obvious grammatical errors, an employer may question how much attention you pay to detail—a critical component of most jobs in tech.
Here are a few things you should avoid doing in a cover letter:
- Making assertions which are not true.
Employers will check the facts of a cover letter if they proceed with the interview process. Make sure your cover letter is truthful and accurately represents your skills. There are many people who have exaggerated their skills in a cover letter but were unable to meet the requirements when it came time for the interview.
- Information not related to the job.
Don’t include anything which is not directly related to the position for which you are applying. You only have a few hundred words to use when writing your cover letter—use them all effectively.
- What you want.
Don’t mention what you want to get out of the company. You should be pitching how you can help the company, not how they can help you.
- Expressing too much interest in the job.
Companies want to know you are interested in them. But talking too much about how you like the company may cause you to lose leverage when it comes time to negotiate a salary. You are pitching yourself and your abilities, not how much you like a company. Tell the company why you’re applying, but don’t go into too much depth about how you like X, Y, and Z about them.
- Discussing the skills you don’t have.
If a company posts a position looking for writing experience, don’t say something like, “Although I have a short track record of writing experience… [insert other unrelated claims]…” Keep your cover letter focused on what you can do. You are not expected to meet every requirement listed in a job description.
Tips for Writing a Great Cover Letter
Here are a few tips on how you can write a wonderful cover letter:
1. Personalize, Personalize, Personalize.
The main thing you should remember about this guide is that your cover letter should be personalized. It should be tailored to one specific company and one position. It’s easy to tell if a cover letter has been reused multiple times—they include generic statements, and the author doesn’t talk about why they want to work for a specific company.
If you want to save time, you should consider making a template cover letter. You can then make a few changes for each company before you send the cover letter out. For example, you can keep your close and some of your main body the same; the main thing you would change is why you want to work for each company. This saves time while still allowing you to maintain a professional tone.
2. Include Some Statistics
Hiring managers like to see stats. Numbers show that you’ve had a quantifiable impact on an organization you’ve worked for in the past. For example, if you’re a front end developer, you could talk about how you improved the render speed of pages. Similarly, if you’re a DevOps developer, you could talk about how many servers you maintained in a cluster. Statistics are not necessary, but they do help illustrate how much of an impact you have made in the past.
3. Show Personality
Your cover letter should be yours. The resume you wrote will include lists of facts about you and your history. But your cover letter should be more free-flowing and showcase your human side to hiring managers.
Spend time researching the company’s culture, and try to adopt a similar tone in your cover letter. And, before you send it, read your cover letter aloud and remove anything which doesn’t sound like how you would speak.
4. Keep It Short and Simple
Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. But your cover letter should be as short as possible. In one survey, more than two-thirds of employers said they prefer a cover letter that is half a page or, “the shorter the better”. The more wordy your writing is, the more difficult it will be for the hiring manager to take away the key points.
5. Review and Edit
As we mentioned earlier, you should run a spell check of your cover letter before you submit it. But don’t mistake a spell check for editing. Spend some time after you’ve written your cover letter to read it over and evaluate whether any changes need to be made. After a few reviews, you’ll most likely notice a few things you want to change or improve.
You can also reach out to a friend or family member and ask them to review your cover letter and make any suggestions for how you can improve the letter. Consider asking them, “Does this letter accurately showcase my skills?” and “Does this letter get you excited about me?” to make sure you have covered all your bases.
If you need some additional assistance, you can use tools such as Hemingway to help improve the tone of your work. Hemingway will highlight sentences that are too wordy and difficult to read, use passive voice, or use complex vocabulary when a simpler term would suffice.
6. Highlight Your Technical Skills
If you’re applying for a software development position, you should make sure you highlight your technical skills explicitly. Prospective employers will look at a cover letter for only a few seconds, or they may even have it parsed through an Automated Tracking System. Thus, you should spend time talking about the specific technical skills you’ve acquired so a recruiter can easily find out whether you have the skills you need to be a good fit for the job.
Mention any specific technologies you know and one major goal you met using that technology. For example, you could say, “At my previous job, I used Ruby on Rails and GraphQL to move from a REST-based architecture to GraphQL, which we found to be more efficient based on our business needs.”
In this example, the candidate has spoken about how they know Ruby on Rails (a programming language), GraphQL (a data architecture tool), and how they have a good knowledge of REST (an API structure). If an employer is hiring someone who has these skills, this statement will really make the candidate stand out ahead of everyone else.
7. Use Action Words
When you’re writing a cover letter, you should avoid using “buzzwords” or talking about specific skills that are not fully relevant to the job. Instead, you should use action words that showcase your involvement with particular projects. If you are a software developer, you may feel tempted to use words like “coded” or “developed” a few times in your cover letter because you have created a lot of applications. But you should try to introduce some variety into your cover letter.
Here are a few examples of action words you can use in your cover letter:
- “I was a key collaborator on a tight-knit team…”
- “Helped our team meet the project goal…”
- “Created a new system to…”
- “I managed a team of…”
- “I helped create a new process…”
You should also try to include results-oriented words in your cover letter. These words help show that you have experience in yielding good outputs from your work and will show the extent of your responsibilities in your past experience.
A few words you may want to consider using include: redesigned, updated, implemented, produced, increased, streamlined, reduced.
Hopefully you now understand that writing a good cover letter is not too difficult and that cover letters are a great way for you to showcase your skills to employers. If you follow these guidelines on how to write a cover letter, you’ll be more likely to land a technical interview for your dream job.
In brief, here are our main rules on how to write a good cover letter:
- Research the company, their culture, and read the job description thoroughly
- Introduce yourself by talking about why you want to work for the company
- Show the company how your past experience will help you be an effective contributor
- End with a call to action and a professional close
- Review your cover letter to make sure you do not include anything unnecessary
- Do a final review of your cover letter and send it to some friends to get feedback