If you’re applying to a new job and need a crisp, professional cover letter, modifying an online template is easier than building one from scratch. All the same, a cover letter’s opening should always be personal – addressing the employer directly, showing what you know about the job, and expressing your professional values.
Clearly written, these personalized statements help your cover letter stand out during your job application and give you a huge leg up on the competition.
The key principles of writing cover letter openings are as follows:
Choose the right cover letter template (or make your own)
List essential contact info in the heading
Address employers by name
State background and intent in the opening lines
Link your past experience to the job you’re applying for
Explain what you, and you alone, can offer the company
Express genuine enthusiasm for the job
Modify the rest of the cover letter to fit your opening
Trim your cover letter’s word count
How to choose or make the right cover letter template
There are lots of cover letter templates available online, most of them sharing the same basic single-page structure – a header, opening statement, body, closing statement, signature. The biggest differences between cover letter templates tend to be aesthetic in nature; some have icons and logos near the top, some have colored borders or lots of bullet points, etc.
Ultimately, you should choose or create cover letter templates based on how well they synergize with the text you type. If the paragraphs of your cover letter are short and few, pick a template with lots of visual features so you can fill in the white space on the paper. If your cover letter paragraphs are long and rich in detail, pick a minimalist cover letter template so you can fit all the information you want to share onto a single page.
According to this Finances Online article, 45% of job applicants don’t include a cover letter with their resume, while 53% of employers prefer candidates who submit cover letters with their job application. Additionally, 70% of the interviewed recruiters stated they preferred cover letters of no more than 250 or 300 words in length.
Fill your heading with relevant contact information
Your heading section should be left-aligned on your cover letter document. Below your full name, your heading section should also contain contact information such as phone numbers, emails, or mailing addresses. Most of the time, that’s all your heading needs to contain.
If you feel you need to beef up your heading with more details, you can always add extra details such as your work address/work phone, your LinkedIn profile link, video chat account names, the date you completed your cover letter, and so on. Don’t make your heading too long to the point that it crowds out your cover letter’s opening and body.
Who your cover letter should be addressed to
If you’re submitting your cover letter to a specific hiring manager or recruiter, address them by name with a classic “Dear ______” phrase. If you don’t know who’s going to receive your cover letter, you can always try to check the company’s website or job board page for information about their current employee roster. If you can’t find any information about the HR staff of the company you’re applying to, you can address your cover letter to the company itself or to the generic title of “Hiring Manager.” If you want to be more specific, address your cover letter to the specific company department you’re hoping to work in.
Hooking hiring managers with your cover letter’s opening lines
The first two sentences of your cover letter’s opening paragraph may well be the most important part of it. In this finite collection of words, you need to tell your prospective employees who you are, what job you want to apply to, and touch on why you’re the right candidate for this job.
After reading these sentences, hiring managers will ideally be intrigued by your candidacy and interested enough to read your cover letter to the end.
Collectively, these two sentences should:
Name the job opening you’re applying to
Express your interest in taking on the job’s responsibilities
List past work experiences you can draw on to thrive in this new career
Use a few keywords from the job description you read
Useful opening phrases for the first sentences of your cover letter:
“I am/was excited to…”
“I recently became aware of…”
“I am writing to inquire about…”
“As an aspiring [career title here]…”
“In my search for…”
“With…and…, I am confident in my ability to…”
“With expertise in…and a passion for…”
Grammar-wise, these two opening lines should be direct and to the point. Don’t be rigidly formal, but don’t be slangy or casual in tone. Try to give hiring managers a strong impression of both discipline and passion – i.e, that you’re excited about this job’s opportunities and take the job’s challenges seriously.
Linking your past experiences to the job you’re applying for
After reading the first two sentences at the start of your cover letter, hiring managers who choose to read on will want to learn more about the work you did in the past and why it qualifies you for this position.
Don’t list every past job of yours by name (that’s what your resume and its list of hard skills is for). Instead, describe individual responsibilities and tasks that you performed over the course of your career as a whole and highlight the skills you came to excel at.
There are a few “generic” work experiences you can mention in any cover letter. Managers of companies will always be looking for aptitudes such as communication skills, personal diligence, problem solving, time management, or other soft skills. By mentioning more niche skills such as “leadership” or “working with minimal oversight,” you can also hint at your desire for future promotions, an interest in pursuing management positions, etc.
When describing your past experiences, it’s important to use adjectives and adverbs that make your accomplishments sound impressive but not to the point of sounding exaggerated.
When talking about the quality of your accomplishments, avoid words such as “perfect” or “flawless.” Even the most talented employees aren’t perfect! Instead, use adjectives such as “excellent,” “optimized,” “professional,” “successful,” or “useful.”
When talking about how good you are at certain tasks, use adverbial phrases like “consistently,” “reliably,” “excel at…,” or “seamlessly.” When hiring managers read phrases like these, they’ll get the sense that you’re diligent – an employee who takes every assignment seriously and gives it their all with every task.
Your cover letter’s opening should explain what you can offer
We apply to jobs because we want what those jobs offer – good pay, medical benefits, professional notoriety, and/or work that’s personally satisfying. When you’re writing a cover letter, however, your goal is to show hiring managers why you’re desirable and what you can offer them. It’s not enough to say that you’ll tackle the job’s responsibilities competently; tell employers exactly why you stand out from the crowd of other applicants.
When you write in your cover letter about the special perks you can offer a company, avoid language that comes across as too self-centered. Minimize your use of pronouns such as “I” or “me.” Talk about how you helped specific colleagues or clients in past careers. If it makes sense, borrow statistics from your professional resume to show the hiring managers just how much your efforts in previous workplaces paid off.
Write about how your strengths and skills helped a previous company flourish.
Talk about your current job and why you want to quit it.
Cite past accomplishments of yours that went above and beyond the call of duty.
Discuss what you want to earn from the job you’re seeking.
Include specific keywords scanned and taken from the job opening’s description page.
Make statements that overtly criticize the company’s current path.
Mention recent company developments you’re interested in.
Copy-paste sentences from the job opening’s description page.
Cover letter openings should express real enthusiasm for the job
Every part of your cover letter, particularly the opening at the start, should communicate your passionate interest in the job you’re applying to. A company’s HR department won’t want to hire someone who doesn’t seem to care about the job they’re seeking. This does raise a question: How can you express your enthusiasm for a new career in your cover letter without sounding disingenuous?
To write a cover letter with a genuine tone of excitement, the first thing you should do is actually BE excited about the job you're seeking. If the role you’re applying for is a dream job of yours, mustering this enthusiasm shouldn’t be too hard.
If you’re applying to a job just for the money and experience, think about the specific responsibilities you’ll enjoy while working there (answering customer questions, helping colleagues solve problems, and so on). By actively discussing job tasks you’re actually excited about, your expressions of enthusiasm will feel real to the hiring manager reading your cover letter.
When a cover letter’s opening sounds false or hollow, that’s usually because its sentences are too elaborate or not elaborate enough. A sentence like this…
“I’m really excited about this job.”
…is just plain unhelpful. Hiring managers reading this sentence won’t learn anything about why you’re excited for the job you’re seeking. A cover letter sentence like this, on the other hand…
“Oh, how I relish the thought of collating your company’s sales statistics into spreadsheets. I’m certain I’ll never get tired of drawing on my data analytics experience to identify useful trends in customer purchases!”
…feels like something an actor reading lines for a play audition (and not a good play, either).
The language of your cover letter should be formal, but not to the point of being flowery or hysterical. Keep your explanation of your enthusiasm for the job clear and direct, with no unnecessary phrases, exclamation points, or adjectives more elaborate than “excited,” “interested,” or “look forward to…”
Modifying cover letter templates to fit your opening statement
The language of your cover letter’s opening lines can vary depending on the kind of position you’re applying to. If you’re seeking a technical or management position in an office environment, err on the side of extra formality with detailed sentences and fewer contractions.
If you’re applying to a sales position in a small-scale business or “mom-and-pop” store, more casual language and shorter sentences might actually be a better choice, since you want to show that you can be friendly and affable with customers.
If you’ve written a completely new opening paragraph for the start of a pre-written cover letter template, it’s vital you revise this “boilerplate” text to keep your language and tone consistent from start to end.
If your opening is informal and concise, strip out excess verbiage and unnecessary details from the other cover letter paragraphs. If your opening is formal in tone and full of detail, expand the rest of your cover letter with extra details about your qualifications and your knowledge of the job you’re applying to.
Discuss your core professional values somewhere in the cover letter
After expressing interest in the job you seek and explaining your qualifications, you can choose to give your cover letter a sentence or section that describes a professional value close to your heart.
This value or “belief” can be a personal guideline on how to be a good employee, build rapport with a customer, lead a team of employees, etc. Alternately, you can describe core ethical principles related to your work–for instance, the importance of being honest, treating others with respect, or learning from every setback.
Ideally, the values you describe in your cover letter should overlap with values listed in the job description for the position you applied to. If the job description doesn’t list any desirable values, describe a principle of yours that’s closely related to the job’s biggest responsibilities, i.e. personal integrity for a position where you handle someone’s private information.
This personal value description can go right after your cover letter’s opening statement, before your cover letter’s closing line, or somewhere in the middle. Under certain circumstances, this description of values can even become the opening of your cover letter. If you choose this format, talk about your professional values in your first sentence, then explain how the job you seek lets you put those values into action.
How to streamline your cover letter
The principles for trimming your cover letter’s word count are pretty much the same as the principles for editing a book or a letter of recommendation. Read through your cover letter front to back (or back to front) and correct any misspellings or bad grammar you can catch.
Break apart any sentences or paragraphs that run on for too long, and replace elaborate sentence patterns with simpler ones whenever it makes sense. Finally, trim out any sentences that repeat information already mentioned earlier in the cover letter.
The more text you have in your cover letter, the simpler its format should be.
Your heading should contain all your essential contact info – email, phone number, mailing address, etc.
Your cover letter should address your hiring manager by name…or use the company’s name at the very least.
The start of your cover letter should grab your hiring manager’s attention, express your interest in a specific job opening, and talk about experiences that qualify you for it.
Your cover letter’s opening shouldn’t just demonstrate your qualifications; it should also show hiring managers how you can enrich their company and its efforts.
To express genuine-sounding enthusiasm for the job you seek, discuss actual parts of the job you would enjoy using clear, direct phrases.
Make sure the tone and formality of your opening matches the rest of the cover letter’s text.
Sometime after your cover letter’s opening statement, talk about your own professional values and why they would mesh well with the company’s values.
As with any document, proofread your cover letter to catch vocabulary/grammar mistakes and strip out any repetitive statements.