How to Write a Cover Letter - 4 Writing Techniques

2017 November 20
5 min read

Creating a stand-out cover letter: Four writing techniques for getting noticed 

Look at just about any job posting, and you will probably find that the organization wants a “strong communicator” or someone with “excellent written communication skills.

Seeing this listed under the job requirements seems superfluous. After all, there are few jobs out there that don’t demand at least an occasional email exchange. 

Still, when applying for a job, the onus is on you to demonstrate your ability to effectively correspond with others. And the most tangible proof that you know how to write is your cover letter.

The cover letter is often the first thing that a recruiter will read. Keeping in mind that many recruiters receive hundreds of applications, it’s easy to see why the cover letter can make or break your chances of having the rest of your application reviewed. 

Recruiters are looking for a few essential elements in your cover letter. But after they disregard all the applications missing these “must-haves,” they are still left with dozens to consider. Therefore, you need to make sure that your cover letter stands out. This comes down to your writing skills.

Your goal is to make the person reading your cover letter want to learn more about you – by reviewing the rest of your application and inviting you for an interview. So, you not only need to pique your reader’s interest, but also persuade him or her that you have precisely the skills and experience required. By practicing these four principles of effective writing, you can accomplish both. 

1) Open With A Bang

After a proper salutation, you need to start your letter with a bold, attention-grabbing sentence. Any professional writer (journalist, marketer, author, etc.) will tell you that the first line of any text is vital in convincing the reader to keep reading. 

Many people feel the urge to open the letter with something very formal stating the position they are applying for and how they heard about the opportunity. Yes, this is important, but it shouldn’t go in your first line.

Instead, make your first line a powerful statement that exemplifies why you are an exceptional candidate. This is not about providing some vague statement about how you would be a “great asset” or bring “a wealth of experience” to the role. It needs to be more concrete.

Of course, it depends a lot on the position and company that you are applying with, but here are some examples of great opening statements:

While working for company X, my quarterly revenue tripled over the course of three years. 

Over the span of my ten years in (industry), I’ve managed teams from two to 50 people.

Last year was a highlight in my professional development: I taught myself two new programming languages outside of work.

With all these examples, the cover letter starts with a qualified example that the reader cannot ignore.

2) Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience is the key to persuasion. You need to know who your reader is and what types of statements will resonate with him or her. Speaking the right “language” is how you build a connection.

Organizational culture should guide the type of language you use in your letter. This culture isn’t abstract; you can get a sense of it by browsing a company’s website, reviewing interviews with key personnel, or speaking with people who have worked there. Based on your research, you may find that certain firms communicate in a more casual or formal way. 

You can also build a personal connection with the individual reading your letter by employing the word “you.” This is a powerful word because it conveys direct engagement with your reader. A person being addressed “you” will feel as if you were talking to them, making them inclined to listen.

Once you set up this “conversation,” you need to provide your reader with compelling material that others applying for the position are unlikely to mention. If you can show in-depth knowledge of the organization by referencing a specific project, initiative, news event, etc., and connecting that to your skills and experience, it will leave a strong impression that you understand the company on more than a superficial level.

3) Use Active Language

Another principle of good writing is the use of active language (or voice) versus passive. What do I mean? That last sentence could be rewritten to read Using active language, not passive, is a sign of good writing.

When you are writing a cover letter, you probably want to sound as smart as possible. Unfortunately, this often results in long, passive sentences that are either difficult to follow or soften the point you are trying to make.

Keep your goal of persuasion in mind. Using active language reads much stronger and assertive. Here’s one more example that illustrates this point:

Passive: Organizing five events per week with upwards of 200 attendees was a routine requirement in my previous job.

Active: I organized five events per week for up to 200 people in my previous job.

4) Close With A Call to Action

All written marketing material closes with a call to action of some form: “Call us at…,” “Buy now,” “Learn more.” These are all queues for the reader to take the next step. What is a cover letter other than a document meant to market yourself?

Your cover letter should end with a push for the reader to contact you. However, most people close with a statement that doesn’t really motivate the reader. Writing “Please contact me regarding my application” does not instill any sense of urgency.

Instead, try finishing your letter by asking a question that also suggests why it is worthwhile for the reader to respond. For example, Can we arrange a time for us to discuss how I can help increase your company’s acquisition rates?

It may not work every time, but the logic behind it makes sense: when you ask someone a question, they feel pressure to respond. You can then finish off your written masterpiece with a short pleasantry such as “Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to your reply.