Cover Letter 101
You crafted a stellar resume, maybe even with the help of one of our dedicated professional resume writers. You posted the resume in your next employer’s online application portal….only to discover…
Oh, no… *heart sinking into heels*
They require a cover letter.
Maybe the last time you wrote a cover letter was 12 years ago when you landed a role at your current company or maybe the last time was in a first-year business writing workshop that you can barely remember.
Either way, there’s no need to panic. It’s just time to brush up on Cover Letter 101.
Cover Letter 101: Best Practices in Cover Letter Writing for the Modern Job Search
According to Forbes Magazine, the primary purpose of the cover letter is to describe your accomplishments, soft skills, and professional strengths in a way that provides context for your resume. The cover letter demonstrates your fitness for the specific role you are seeking by illustrating your skills.
Fundamentally, the cover letter answers the questions on every Human Resources Manager’s mind: Why you? Why this position? Why this company?
We’ll start our Cover Letter 101 at the beginning of the letter and approach the responses to these questions sentence by sentence.
First Sentence: The Hook/Orientation
A catchy or clever hook can draw an HR manager into your letter. However, a tired HR manager inching down a stack of 300 resumes may simply desire a quick statement indicating what position you are seeking. If they have 30 open positions, a snappy introduction can orient them within their rolodex of roles to fill. Here’s how a “just the basics” first liner might read:
- In response to your job posting on [_______], I am submitting an application for the position of [________] at [_________].
If you want to take this sentence a bit further, you can add some content about why you are applying to the role at this company. To demonstrate your mission alignment, you could write something like:
- I am writing to apply for the position of [_______] because I share [Company Name’s] mission of extending critical healthcare to at-risk populations in lowcountry South Carolina.
A statement like the one above provides a brief but effective response to those underlying HR questions: Why this position? Why you? Why this company? Aligning yourself to the goals of an organization is particularly important for roles in the nonprofit industry in which mission-alignment is a key asset.
If you feel comfortable going bolder, you can use a catchy first line to hook the reader and demonstrate your awareness of the industry, organization, and role you are pitching, as in:
- The recent financial collapse at Silicon Valley Bank highlighted the critical role that risk management plays in ensuring the sustainability of banking operations.
A hook like this one reflects your understanding of the problems in the industry that you, in this role, will deftly solve.
Whether you choose a basic, mission-aligned, or hooky first-line, the first sentence will immediately connect your cover letter to the role you are seeking.
Second Sentence: Your Value Proposition
The first sentence concerns the position at the company, but the second sentence describes what makes you a great fit for the position through your “personal value proposition.” Your value proposition is the unique set of facts about you, like your fingerprint, that encapsulates the qualifications you bring to the position. In other words, a value proposition summarizes the reason why an employer should hire you.
The facts you might mention in this statement are your education, years of experience, leadership training, and soft skills that make you an ideal fit for the role. A value proposition statement could read like this:
- An award-winning Development Director with a CFRE certification, I have 15 years of experience developing and executing visionary fundraising strategies that drive nonprofit growth.
In this sentence, the writer weaves their current role, relevant education, and years of experience into an overarching statement about their record of success as a professional.
Third Sentence: Tie You to Them
The third sentence weaves your value proposition to the role you are seeking. Instead of assuming that the company will understand the connection, make this link explicit:
- As the VP of Development, I will activate my full-scale immersion in nonprofit fundraising to facilitate StarShine’s growth from infancy to adolescence.
When you make a pact like this with the company, try to focus on how you will increase profits, save time, or improve the reputation of the organization. Those activities will answer the implicit question any employer has about a candidate: Will this person cost me more than they will generate?
Then, tie this sentence to the job description to ensure that your value proposition aligns with the outcomes they are seeking.
That’s it for the first paragraph. Three sentences is all it took to tie your value to the needs of the organization and indicate that you will be a greater asset than you cost.
The Second Paragraph: Your Current Role
The next paragraph glues the resume to the cover letter by providing a description of how your current role qualifies you for the new position. Here’s how that might look:
- As you can see on the attached resume, I am currently operating as a Risk Management Specialist at GM Mason. The two-pronged role involves identifying and mitigating external threats to the business through regulatory analysis and compliance advisory services.
The content that follows will describe the specific tasks that you perform on the job in relation to the job description for the role you are seeking. For instance, if the role describes managerial responsibilities, be sure to discuss your position as a supervisor, including how many people you manage, your leadership style, and what sorts of specific tasks are involved.
After you have provided some background information about the position, it’s time to go a bit deeper to illustrate how your soft and technical skills combine to enable you to resolve the critical problems in your industry. As with all good writing, this section is about showing not telling.
To do this, think about which one of your accomplishments relates most directly to the new role. Then, place this accomplishment in context by telling a brief story about the achievement. Telling a story can take this format:
- Problem: While serving as a sales team leader, I noticed that clients who called with complaints were hanging up without ever receiving a sales pitch.
- Solution: In response, I took the initiative to write a customized sales pitch for customer service clients, which I shared with the five other sales representatives on my team.
- Result: As a result, my team increased our phone sales by 35% during the six months following this roll-out.
A quick three-sentence narrative like this demonstrates your soft skills and accomplishments in an interesting way by placing them in a narrative framework.
To tie the paragraph together, you can broaden out from the example to highlight the soft skills this story demonstrates:
- This is one of many examples in which I proactively developed sales strategies to turn missed opportunities into team success.
Coming right after the story, this declaration rings as a credible summary of your professional accomplishments rather than as generic recitation of soft skills.
The Third Paragraph: A Prior Role
The third paragraph of your cover letter can be a great place to cover past experiences if they relate to the role you are seeking. In this paragraph, you can provide a quick summary of any prior experiences that feed directly into the next position. Here’s how that might look:
- My formative experience working as a financial analyst at Bezeor informed my capacity to activate forecasting, budgeting, and financial analysis to engineer program sustainability.
In this paragraph, you can again provide concrete examples of how this past role prepared you for this new position.
The Fourth Paragraph: Explain Any Gaps or Red Flags
This wouldn’t be a true Cover Letter 101 if we neglected to address the elephants on your resume: employment gaps, such as parenting, traveling, or volunteering. According to one experiment at Vanderbilt Law School, female participants who explained a parenting gap on their cover letter were 30–40% more likely to enter the next phase of a hypothetical hiring process.
You can leverage this section to your advantage by sharing the relevant key skills you gained during this nontraditional period.
For instance, let’s say you “took off” five years to raise children before seeking employment as a therapist. In that case, you could write something like:
- My role as a mother of three children deepened my capacity for empathy, resilience, and service to others, which made me a sturdier therapist for my patients going forward.
A quick explanation of the skills you gained can create an argument for the relevance of this so-called work gap.
The Fifth Paragraph: A Call to Action
The final paragraph provides a summary of your value proposition and a quick curtsey before the signature line. Here’s an example of one summary sentence:
- In all, my 10-year record of cost-focused administration coupled with my Building Engineers license and collaborative leadership style would enable me to increase efficiency at Gemini in the role of Operations Director.
This summary sentence ties together relevant experiences, education, and soft skills into an overarching statement about the value you bring to the role.
Before exiting the letter, be sure to thank your reader and provide a call to action, namely your wish to schedule an interview for the role.
Thank you so much for reviewing my application. Please feel free to call or email me with any questions or to schedule an interview for this role.
While this Cover Letter 101 offers very specific advice about what to write in each sentence of your cover letter, you can, of course, make the letter your own. There is no one way to write a letter. The strategy of each document will depend on your experience, gaps, and the role you are seeking.
If customized cover letter writing still seems too complicated or time consuming, leave the work to us! Through the Cover Letter Writing service at Red Pen Wench, a professional writer will consult with you to craft a personal letter that will make your experiences and skills shine.
-Dena Marks, PhD, CPRW, Resume Writer at Red Pen Wench