How to Write a Killer Cover Letter in the 21st Century

Attach as a separate document or include it in an e-mail? What file type? Does anyone actually read it? The customs of cover letters have changed since you learned the basics in 9th grade. Learn what to say and how to format your cover letters in the internet age.

It used to be that cover letters were submitted in an envelope along with a resume–both in paper form–with a lag time of three to seven business days in the mail.

However, in today’s modern world, cover letters are as instantaneous as a text message, and sometimes just as vile, failing to represent the best possible version of people to prospective

employers. Because everything has an “e-” in front of it nowadays, there are some different cover letter customs than there were 30 years ago. Do you attach a cover letter? And what do you send in the text of the email if you attach one?

As an editor/hiring coordinator who gets her fill of cover letters, I can tell you that I’ve seen everything from writers applying for “shits and gigs” (their words, not mine) to honest but beautifully brief letters that make me wish I could send an e-hug.

Before I tell you how to write a cover letter, here are some attachment tips:

Personally, I prefer reading a cover letter in the body of an email and the resume being attached.

However, if a prospective employer recommends separate cover letter and resume attachments, in the text of the email, you should provide some sort of brief message mentioning who you are and what you are attaching to the email.

Never send a “blank” email with attachments. Would you open a box on your doorstep, addressed to no one?

Format can be Microsoft Word or PDF. PDFs are generally better because no one can edit them (plus, spell checker won’t pop up, highlighting mistakes you may have missed).

Finally, if attaching said cover letter, make sure it is separate from a resume attachment. It’s much easier for hiring coordinators to find a resume if they don’t have to scroll down through a cover letter to get to it.

Here are some tricks on how to write a killer cover letter:

1. Get the right format.

There are plenty of templates available to you just by a simple Google search. Typically, in the lefthand corner, you want your name/address/phone number/email address, and then a couple of space bars down, you want the name of the person of interest you’re writing to/his or her position/address. Then, a couple of more spaces down, greet the person of interest either as, “Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name]” or (if you don’t know the person’s name) “To Whom It May Concern.”

2. Be brief and to the point.

You don’t want to write Harry Potter fan fiction, here. State your name, maybe where you went to school, and how you came to learn about the position within the company. If you’re not sure whether a position is available, then be honest and write, “I’m inquiring about whether any such positions are available at this present time or in the near future.”

3. But don’t be so brief that the employer learns nothing about you.

“I found this ad on Craigslist and thought, ‘Why not?’ Yours, Megan.” A good rule of thumb is three paragraphs: an introductory one, one that goes into details of your capabilities and how they relate to the position, and then one final one that offers a conclusion of some sort.

cover letter structure

4. Address what you can do for the company/prospective employer.

If you can access a job description, use that when it comes to listing your duties, matching up what you can do with what is required. This attention to detail will be appreciated by the reader, as it shows you did your homework. It can also help make you appear to be the most viable candidate. Your information aligns specifically to what they’re looking for, versus another applicant who includes skills or experience from a more generalized cover letter.

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5. Tailor the letter to a specific company, position, and person (if able).

Think about how you feel when you receive a mass text message that says, “Merry Christmas, everyone!” It feels a little empty. Now imagine what it would be like to receive a cover letter written with the same vagueness: “I’d like to work for your company because I’m interested in whatever it is you guys do.” This could be sent to a million different companies; plus, it shows a lack of interest (see no. 4).

Find examples of previous company work that you like or can align yourself with or juxtapose the companies values with yourself in some way. Employers don’t just want someone who is capable of performing the job, they need someone who will be a good fit at the company.

6. Include Twitter/Facebook/social media information (if appropriate and relevant).

If you tweet about field-related topics, employers might appreciate your tweets and dedication to your career. Including your Twitter handle, Facebook link, and other related information can go right below your name in the signature line.

7. Have someone else take a look at your cover letter.

It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes on something. They might be able to catch errors you’ve glossed over.

When crafting a killer cover letter, think of it as like an “elevator pitch.” You want to get in as much pertinent information as the length of an elevator ride and floor them before you get to the ground level.

Megan McLachlan currently resides in the Pittsburgh area where she freelance writes, drinks coffee, and obsesses over popular culture. She was an English major, but doesn't think she wasted her life. Yet. Her blog is megoblog.com.

33 Comments

  • Reply June 11, 2012

    A.Stev

    I mis-read the title as “How to Write a Killer LOVE Letter in the 21st Century” and got really excited. lol

    All great cover letter advice though.

    I particularly liked the “make it brief” and “address what you can do for the company” advice. Employers don’t really care about your whole life story (they have to read a lot of resumes), they just care about how you can serve them, so taking this approach with your cover letter is the way to go (and FWIW, a close relative of mine who is an HR consultant agrees).

  • Reply June 11, 2012

    ChrisReetz

    To hide those squiggly lines highlighting grammatical and spelling errors when an employer requires you to submit your resume / cover letter as a Word document – go to FILE, OPTIONS, PROOFING, and check the HIDE THE SPELLING (GRAMMAR) ERRORS THIS DOCUMENT ONLY. One of the little things you can do to set yourself apart. Happy job hunting!

  • Reply June 12, 2012

    Humza

    Wow, thats of great help to me. Thanks for the timely info 🙂

  • […] How to Write a Killer Cover Letter in the 21th Century […]

  • […] the article here: How to Write a Killer Cover Letter in the 21th Century | Primer ← Jessica Pierce » Blog Archive » SPECIFIC Tips for the Job Search General Job in […]

  • Reply June 26, 2012

    PeachyGal

    Can I ask why you even need to bother with a header that has your address/phone/email address in an email cover letter? If that’s already on your attached resume, and it’s an email (not snail mail) -why not just neatly tuck that into your email signature?

    That’s what I did with my cover letter and I got my PR account executive job as a result.

    Of course, I was directly corresponding with the hiring manager (my now boss) who has little time for frills. But considering he’s a PR professional, and lord knows how strict we are, I think that speaks volumes about what is preferred for email formatted cover letters.

  • Reply June 26, 2012

    Megan

    PeachyGal,

    I think tucking your contact info into an email signature works just as well! Good call!

  • Reply June 27, 2012

    Todd

    This is a great breakdown–I just wish there was a google doc template to download!
    Best,
    Todd

  • Reply July 2, 2012

    omar

    Instead of sending two attachments (cover letter + resume) is it ok
    to include the cover letter as the email?

  • Reply July 2, 2012

    Megan

    Hi Omar,
    Yes, I think it’s OK to include the cover letter as the email, unless the employer requests a separate cover letter. Hope that helps!

  • Reply March 28, 2013

    Bea

    This is an “old” article but I just wanted to thank you for making such a simple, followable ans easy guide to cover letters. It is not customary in my country of origin so i’d never even seen one! Thank you!

  • […] How to Write a Killer Cover Letter in the 21st Century […]

  • Reply September 4, 2015

    Hana L. H. Hng

    I am wonder about the details provided by both of u, Megan & Andrew! It is the one that really help in my job hunting process. Thank you so much. Cheers!

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