How to Write an Entry Level Cover Letter like a Pro

What you need to have on your first cover letter out of college.

David Lutherby David LutherGet The Job - 1 year ago

If you’re an entry-level jobseeker, your cover letter is your best friend. It’s the Chewbacca to your Han, the Hermione to your Harry.

Your cover letter is an opportunity to stand out as an entry-level candidate – because sadly, your resume probably won’t. Most people applying for the position will have fairly similar resumes, trying to make the best out of their limited experience.

And like their similarly limited work experience and resumes, many of those other entry-level candidates make a lot of the same mistakes in their cover letters.

But a cover letter that’s tailored to the specific position you’re looking for will open doors for you – even when your resume alone won’t.

Never fear, I’m here for you. We’ll get you that Sam-style cover letter, Frodo.

The Cover Letter Primer

The average amount of time hiring managers spend reading cover letters is six seconds. That means that they’ll spend as much time reading your cover letter as you spent reading this two-sentence introduction.

I’m even giving you the benefit of the doubt here on your reading speed.

You want to get their attention quickly and spend 250 words – but no more than 500 – showing the hiring manager:

  • What position you’re applying for
  • How you will fulfill the responsibilities
  • A bit of your personality

At the end of the day, you can call your cover letter successful if it simply gets read. Many of the jobs you’re applying for will be through job search websites that flood hiring managers with candidates.

And as much as I appreciate a little creativity, there are certain conventions that you’ve got to follow in your formatting:

  1. Contact information
  2. Salutation
  3. Body
  4. Closing and signature

The Contact Information

There’s not too much to say here, except don’t get it wrong. You wouldn’t be the first person to accidentally leave old company information and dates on a reworked cover letter.

Your contact information goes near the top left margin, put a space between theirs, space then the date, and then a space and the salutation.

  • Address
  • City, State, Zip Code
  • Phone Number
  • Email

Break it up with a space, then:

  • Name
  • Title
  • Company
  • Address
  • City, State, Zip Code
[Date] [Salutation]

A big caveat here is that if you’re sending an email cover letter, you put your personal contact info in the email signature. Also, remove the contact information for the person you’re contacting.

You should make your subject line informative and brief, something like “Bilingual Creative Writer seeks content creation position.” Only put that in your subject line if you’re actually bilingual.

Salutations

Keep in mind that they’ll be skimming, so anything that screams “this is from a template” gets the boot pretty quickly.

  • No “Dear Sir or Madam:” and no “To Whom It May Concern:” – this just shows that you didn’t figure out who you’ll be addressing the letter to.
  • You may have forgotten, but “Mrs.” Indicates marriage, so play it safe on the title – “Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name]”
  • If you can’t figure out someone’s gender based off of their name, don’t guess. “Dear [Full Name]” is the safest road

You can use either a comma to colon – I prefer commas.

Do what you can to figure out who will be reading your letter. If it’s not in the posting, try searching the company website and LinkedIn. I’ve had success calling and asking the human resources department.

But if you’ve truly exhausted your search options, don’t fret. Some companies keep it on the low to keep people like you from spamming their inboxes with follow-up emails – “Dear Hiring Manager” will do. If that grates on you, then just leave it out entirely.

The Opening Sentence(s)

Want to know how many cover letters hiring managers read?

The answer is a lot.

Want to know how many cover letters they read for people who don’t want positions with their companies?

The answer is not a lot.

So don’t open with “My name is [name] and I am applying for the [position] at [company] because [I need money].” You’ve given them your contact info and you’re applying for a job – they already know all of that.

Remember that you’re fighting to get noticed at this stage, so anything that they’ve already read from you – and other applications – makes their eyes glaze over.

Breaking Down Some Examples

A solid opening statement can accomplish the three goals from earlier in one move:

  • Tell them what you want
  • How you’ll do it
  • Show them personality

“I’ve wanted to work in broadcast journalism since a reporter interviewed me for winning my third grade spelling bee. The realization that I’m responsible for thousands of people’s “truths” resonated with me then, even if the truths were just how to spell prestidigitation.”

What it says:So here the writer has announced that she wants a job as a broadcast reporter, she was an academic achiever (sort of), and that she has an appreciation for the solemnity of the profession. And it’s kinda cute.

Cute’s good, just don’t be too cute.

‌“My approach to management was drilled into me during my military training: be the kind of leader you want to follow.”

What it says:This example identifies the job, obliquely mentions military experience, and also tells the reader that the writer knows what bad bosses are like.

Remember, you want your leader to be interested and to like you – and no one likes a turd for a boss.

“It didn’t land me on the cover of Forbes, but my college laundry delivery startup did teach me this: in sales, if you don’t measure it with reliable data, you can’t manage it reliably. Also, raise your prices before student loan checks arrive.”

What it says: And here we know the writer is applying for a sales position, appreciates the value of metrics, is entrepreneurial, and that he has a sense of humor.

Be care with the jokes though. You don’t have any idea what your hiring manager’s sense of humor is going to be like. If your joke doesn’t land, you’ll waste precious space and seem nonsensical – or worse, you’ll be deemed unfunny.

These examples have two important things in common: you don’t need experience to write them and they don’t explicitly state the job title. Describing the job in the first sentence is a convention that can be done without — odds are that the reader will know what position you’re applying for, and if they don’t then you can more or less tell them in the introduction.

The Body

The biggest offense entry-level candidates make is handing over another version of your resume minus the bullets. Think of your resume as the “who-what-where-when” and the resume as the “how and why.”

The goal in the body of your cover letter isn’t just to tell them that you’re qualified, it’s to tell them that you’re the most qualified. And like the introductory statement, implication is a key element to the rest of the body. You’ll presumably have done research on the company and the job description – resist the urge to list them off in paragraph form.

The goal is to connect the dots for the reader without writing a sentence that sounds like this: “I’m a recent graduate of [your university] with [skill from posting #1], [skill from posting #2] and [skill from posting #3] skills.”

If the listing needs someone who is a multi-tasker that meets deadlines, mention your time writing for your school paper while balancing a part-time job and schoolwork. If they want someone who’s detail-oriented and a team player, bring up that fundraiser you organized for your fraternity. If they want someone who takes the initiative, tell them you unplug the thing and plug it back in before you call IT.

You get it.

Volunteer experiences, internships, related classes, projects, leadership experience, extracurricular activities, and your skills that pertain to the position you’re applying for all can be mentioned in your cover letter. Just make sure to relate them to the job.

The Closing

Don’t beg and don’t be overly effusive in your thanks. Even if it’s your dream job, you still want to make it seem like they’re offering you a business deal, not charity.

I’m a fan of a standard closing:

I’d love to discuss the role with you further, and I appreciate the opportunity to tell you how my skills and ideas can benefit [company].

Thanks again for your consideration and I hope to hear from you soon.

Many thanks,

[Sign here if it’s a hard copy] [Name]

If it’s an email, just close with your email signature that includes contact information.

The Don’ts

And after all of that stuff that you should do, here’s a big list of things you shouldn’t do – because I hate to break it to you, but hiring managers normally have so many applicants that they look for reasons not to advance past cover letters.

1. Don’t give them a simple reason to move you into the reject pile. It’s not your fault that you don’t have much experience, but it is if you don’t look like you’re even trying.

2. Don’t forget about the reader. It might be your cover letter, but it’s their job to fill. Make it about how you’ll do the job well.

3. Don’t use a syllabus for every other word. Give them something that they can read naturally and easily.

4. Don’t be too modest – this isn’t the time to sell yourself short.

Just remember, keep it short, honest, and ­– of course – real.

The TL;DR for you

Like reading even less than hiring managers do? Hooked on listicles? We’ve got 30 cover letter tips for you.

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