Writing a Winning Cover Letter

In the job application process, the cover letter often represents the first opportunity you have to communicate directly with a hiring organization.  Smart jobseekers take advantage of this opportunity to engage the hiring organization and establish themselves as strong candidates, both through the content and the style of the letter.  The content of the letter will communicate the functional aspects of your interest and fit with the position; the style will demonstrate your writing skills and passion.  Neither content nor style can stand alone in an effective cover letter.

This article explores five easy-to-follow strategies for writing a winning cover letter.

Tip #1: Get In, Get Noticed, Get Out

The goal of a cover letter is to give a hiring manager enough information to consider you a qualified and appropriate candidate.  A common pitfall of cover letters is giving too much or irrelevant information.  A good cover letter is economical at three paragraphs and includes the following:

  • First Paragraph - Introduction and connection to mission
  • Second Paragraph - Summary of your skills/background as they pertain to the position
  • Third Paragraph - Thank you, contact instructions, and closing

Sticking to this format ensures that you are providing all of the key information sought by the hiring manager, while keeping it to a length that is accessible and easy to read.

Tip #2: Personalize Your Opening

The golden rule of cover letters is simple: create a personal and unique cover letter for every job application.  A one-size-fits-all approach to a cover letter is sure to land your application at the bottom of a hiring manager’s pile.

Personalizing your letter begins with the greeting.  If a specific contact name is not provided in the job description, do not open your cover letter with “To Whom It May Concern” or, even worse, “Dear Sir.”  Do research on the organization’s website to find the right contact.  You may find the name of the director of the department in which the your desired job is located or you may find someone in human resources.  As a last resort, address your application to the Executive Director of the organization. This shows that you took the time to research the organization and will always be viewed more favorably than an impersonal greeting.

From there, explain why you are passionate about the mission of the organization.  Communicate the substance behind your passion; instead of stating, “I always wanted to help people,” try “Because I was raised with amazing educational opportunities, it’s personally very important to me to make sure that other people have access to those opportunities as well.”  The more personal and compelling your connection to the organization’s mission is, the more likely your cover letter will be read in its entirety.

Tip #3: Connect the Dots

In the second paragraph, create a connection between your skills and background and the job requirements.  Remember that your cover letter accompanies your resume, so do not simply re-state all of the information already listed on the resume; use your critical thinking skills to really analyze the job description.  Beyond the specific qualifications listed, what can you determine about what this organization is really looking for in this role?  Use your cover letter to demonstrate how your skills and experience match with what they are looking for, both the specific qualifications listed as well as the more holistic vision.  Avoid general statements like, “I know I am the best person for the job.”  It is more effective to let your skills and experience demonstrate the strength of your qualifications.

Remember to also address any cultural or personality attributes sought by the hiring organization.  Include examples that illustrate personal traits such as leadership, teamwork, flexibility, or other qualities valued by the organization. As many hiring organizations value diversity, freely identify yourself as a person of color, having multicultural experience, and/or possessing language skills if you feel comfortable doing so.  In many cases, illustrating your fit with an organization’s culture is just as important as your skills and experience.

Tip #4: Close with Style

The third paragraph is all about wrapping up your cover letter neatly and elegantly. Use this opportunity to thank the organization for considering your application and to reiterate your enthusiasm for the position, organization, and mission. This is also where you can provide instructions on how and when to contact you.

Remember that something you might not even think about could send the wrong impression.  For example, you must ensure that you have a professional email account.  A creative or expressive email handle may be fun in your personal life, but more than one otherwise-qualified candidate has not been interviewed simply because the use of an unprofessional email account demonstrated poor judgment.  If you do not have a professional email account to include, create a free account at Yahoo, Hotmail, or Gmail.  Generally, your first and last name or initials (or some combination of both) are acceptable.  This is the contact email address you should include in both your cover letter and resume.

Tip #5: Do a Test Run

Before you send your cover letter to a potential employer, check the job description for any specific instructions.  At the bottom of every job requisition, there are generally instructions for how the organization would like to receive applications.  For example, does the organization want to receive cover letters as attachments or in the body of the email?  Does the organization want you to include a list of references with your application?  Or does the organization want you to answer a specific question in your cover letter?  Be sure to follow the specific instructions for how to submit your application and what to include in your cover letter; this demonstrates your attention to detail, another very important characteristic for most hiring organizations.

Now comes the time to employ your “editor”—ask the best writer you know to proofread your cover letter for typos, grammatical errors, and any inappropriate wording such as humor, slang, or emoticons (happy faces have no place in a cover letter or any other professional communication!).  Also check for adequate variation in sentence structure; do not begin every sentence with “I have…”  Remember, this is a real-life example of your writing ability, a skill that is highly valued by almost every nonprofit position.

Finally, test sending the cover letter in the format desired by the organization to your own email account.  This will allow you to make any adjustments in formatting before sending your application to the actual organization.  As a general rule, keep formatting to a minimum so that it will be preserved across different email or word processing programs.

Final Thoughts

A thoughtful and well-written cover letter is a very important piece of your application and is taken seriously by organizations.  A good cover letter can strengthen your application and help you get to the next stage of the process; a poor cover letter can result in the instant disqualification of your candidacy.  Take advantage of this opportunity to make a great impression!


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org