Last Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Not including a cover letter with an application is one of the biggest mistakes students make when trying to get a job. As a soon-to-be graduate with little or no work experience, you can’t rely on your résumé alone. You need to craft a strong accompanying letter to sell yourself, and you need to get all its components right.
While there may be room for more creativity in non-traditional industries, for the most part, recruiters expect cover letters to follow a particular format. If you adhere to the anticipated framework, you’ll make it easier for them to digest your submission.
The best way to get a feel for how to write this important document is to look at lots of cover letter examples. You should also follow the guidelines below for cover letter structure success.
1. The greeting
If you remember only one thing when it comes to your opening address, let it be this: personalization. “To Whom It May Concern” just isn’t going to cut it; you need to use a full name, inserted into a formal salutation (Dear Mr./Ms. [First Name, Last Name]).
If you don’t know who the hiring manager is, do some online digging. If (and only if) that turns up nothing, make use of a specific job title. Something like “Dear Group Human Resources Manager” could work. The point is to demonstrate that you’re willing to go the extra mile and do some research because you’re that interested in the position.
2. The opening paragraph
The opening statement is arguably the most important part of your cover letter structure, and the key to success is disruption—you want to surprise, amuse, and captivate from the first word while still remaining professional. So don’t start with something predictable like “My name is X and I’m writing to apply for the position of Y.”
The most important thing to communicate in your first paragraph is why you’re so interested in this particular job at this particular company. Express your enthusiasm in an authentic, unexpected way by starting with a personal story that sheds light on how you came to love your field of work or how you first discovered the organization. Not only will a short tale be far more interesting than a generic introduction, but it’ll also encourage hiring managers to see you as a human being and not just another applicant.
If you know someone at the organization—or better yet, if someone high up suggested that you apply for the position—you should definitely include that person’s name in your letter’s opening paragraph too.
3. The body paragraph(s)
The body is the meat of your cover letter—the part that’s meant to convince the hiring manager that you were made for this job. If you look at good cover letter examples, you’ll see it’s best to start with a hook that (a) shows you understand what the company needs and (b) emphasizes that you have the competencies, qualifications, and know-how necessary to meet those needs.
If you don’t have a lot of work experience, focus on your transferable skills—those you’ve acquired through college projects and internships, for example—and include concrete examples of how you’ve applied them in the past to achieve results. If possible, evidence should be expressed in numbers and metrics, and skills and academic achievements should be described using language from the job ad (keywords) so your letter is flagged if scanned by an applicant tracking system.
Two things you should never do when writing the body of your cover letter? Repeat your résumé or focus too much on yourself. Instead of the former, select two or three key points from your background and expand on them, making specific links to the position’s requirements. Regarding the latter, keep the emphasis on how you can help the company achieve its goals, and avoid talking too much about what you hope to gain.
4. The final paragraph
Don’t ruin a great cover letter with a tepid ending. Leave a lasting impression and close on a high by reiterating your interest in the position and outlining what you’d aim to achieve in your first few weeks in the position if you’re selected. If there might be cause for concern (for instance, if you’re currently not based in the city but plan to relocate), address this here, but don’t dwell on it.
Remember to thank the hiring manager for considering you—he or she didn’t have to read your whole letter, after all. Also be sure to balance confidence with courtesy; that is, don’t threaten the reader in any way or be overly presumptuous. Simply say that you’d be grateful for the opportunity to discuss your fit for the role further, and encourage the hiring manager to contact you if they’d like to set up an interview or learn more about you.
5. The closing remark
The tone of your sign-off should be consistent with the rest of your cover letter—courteous and professional, but not so formal that it feels contrived. “Yours faithfully” is probably too stuffy, but “Sincerely,” “Warm regards,” “Best wishes,” or even just “Regards,” followed by your full name, are all appropriate. If you’re posting your application materials, include your signature, but this isn’t necessary if you’re submitting your cover letter digitally.
Find more advice for applying to jobs in our Internships and Careers section.