How to Write a Unique Cover Letter That Will Land You a Job Interview

While a polished resume is necessary to landing a first-round interview, it’s a well-done cover letter that helps you stand out in a sea of applicants.

A job hunt is one of the most daunting endeavors you can go through as a working professional. It’s not just about finding your dream career listing and making sure you’re the right fit for the role — it’s also about standing out in a sea of applicants.

While you may have all the credentials to do the job well, it’s all too easy to get overlooked by recruiters and hiring managers. Sometimes, you don’t even have the opportunity to land an interview to prove you’re the best candidate for the job.

So, how do you make sure you at least get to the first round? A polished resume is necessary, but it’s a well-done cover letter that can help you stick out in a crowd.

But how exactly do you craft a unique, job-landing cover letter? To understand what goes into writing the perfect introduction, USC Online spoke with Lori Shreve Blake from the USC Career Center.

What Is the Purpose of a Cover Letter?

Every job posting will request a resume, but the other document most employers will also ask for is the cover letter. Its purpose is to convey your interest in the role, highlight your skills and qualifications, and give a sense of your personality so the hiring manager can better understand who they may be hiring.

While your resume will also convey these things, a cover letter is an opportunity to go more in-depth. A cover letter also acts as a writing sample, Shreve Blake noted.

“Communication is one of the key skills that employers seek.  Candidates showcase their communication skills verbally in an interview, but effective writing is also an essential communication component of most jobs, so the cover letter lets you show that. We want to make sure that the cover letter is well written, that it is a persuasive document,” she said.

Shreve Blake emphasized expressing your interest, enthusiasm, experience, skills and motivation in the cover letter, showing how your values align with the organization you’re applying to. Use the cover letter to secure that first-round interview and show how passionate you are about the employer and position.

What You Need to Include in a Cover Letter

While you have a lot of freedom with what you can write in a cover letter, there are multiple things you need to make sure you include.

The Heading and Introduction

The specific contact name. If you can, find the right contact’s name to address the letter. If the job description doesn’t have the exact contact’s name, try to find it on the employer’s website. Employers will be impressed you made that extra effort, Shreve Blake noted. If it’s not possible, address it to the “Hiring Manager.” Avoid using gender-specific titles.

Your contact information. Always be sure to include your contact information. While you have your name, email, phone number and possibly your LinkedIn URL in the header of your resume, you can also copy and paste that into your cover letter. “It looks like your personalized letterhead. The hiring team needs to know who the letter is from right away,” Shreve Blake said.

Your introduction. Write an opening paragraph that explains who you are and what you’re applying for. Get the basics covered and give an overview of what led you to apply for this specific position or who referred you to the opportunity. The date you wrote the letter should also be included. “It’s absolutely essential,” Shreve Blake said.

The Body

Your strengths and skill sets. The middle paragraph should highlight the skills and qualities that make you the right fit for the role. Go over the job listing in detail so you can demonstrate you have the attributes the position requires. Give an example of how you’re creative or a self-starter, if that’s what they’re looking for, or describe a job where you had social media experience, if they mention that as a must. This is your time to sell yourself and explain why you are an outstanding fit for the position.

The Conclusion

Your passion for the role. During the conclusion, reaffirm your interest in the job. The closing is an opportunity to again express why you’re passionate about the position and company, share your contact information and offer to provide references. If you can, add an electronic signature for a nice touch. It’s not a necessity, but including an electronic signature can only make your cover letter look more official.

What to Add to Your Cover Letter to Make it Stand Out

Of course, while you want to hit all the cover letter essentials, there are things you can do to make it stand out from a sea of similar documents. One way to do that is by making sure you include concrete information and highlight your accomplishments in your past jobs and education.

“One thing that people really don’t do is quantify. So, you could say, ‘I write articles for The L.A. Times, and my beat is sustainability, or you could quantify and say I write 15 sustainability articles monthly and source those articles with more than 50 expert sources. Numbers like that give you more credibility and make your accomplishments more real,” Shreve Blake said.

Another way to make your cover letter more unique actually comes down to formatting. Of course, you will always have your opening, middle and closing paragraphs, but you can play around with what you include in them.

“In the middle paragraph, you could use bullet points, to sum up, your key skills and qualifications to show how it matches what the employer is looking for. We know that employers take 30 to 60 seconds with a resume when they’re reviewing it, and they might take a little less time with a cover letter. So, bullets are a great way to format because then you can feel more confident, they’re seeing the most important points,” she explained.

How Long Should Your Cover Letter Be? Other Formatting Dos and Don’ts

Length is crucial with a cover letter: It definitely should not be more than one page. You want to keep it brief, concise, readable and double-spaced. You should have plenty of white space, too, Shreve Blake said. That means you’re not attempting to squeeze in more words on the page with formatting tricks or font sizing. You say what you need to in 300 to 400 words or less. Remember, this “preview” of your writing skills needs to show that your writing is concise, factual and persuasive.

“Applying white space is really important because it makes it digestible. We need to make this user-friendly. You can write the most beautiful cover letter — your writing could be in the stratosphere — but if people don’t digest what you’re trying to say, you won’t get the interview,” she explained.

What Should You Not Add to Your Cover Letter?

You should always strike a positive tone in your cover letter. That means you don’t speak unfavorably about a previous employer, supervisor or position you’ve held, even if it’s an organization you’re wanting to leave. You also don’t want to bemoan your current situation — if you’ve been unemployed and you really need the job, the cover letter is not the place to stress any personal hardships you’re experiencing.

“You want to be upbeat and focused,” Shreve Blake said. “Anything negative isn’t going to push your candidacy forward.

How to Write a Cover Letter With No Experience

Sometimes, a job opens up that seems like the perfect next step in your career, but the problem is, you don’t have the exact experience the role requires. That’s OK — a cover letter is a right way to throw your name in the ring and emphasize your related skills that may not pop up on your resume.

“You want to keep it positive, so I wouldn’t directly name any deficits or skills you don’t have. It may be tempting to write, ‘Oh, I don’t know Python, but I know other coding languages and I’m a quick study.’ Instead, read a book, watch an educational video and do some self-studying so you can actually say you have knowledge of Python before moving on to the skills you do have and the coding language you do know,” Shreve Blake gave as an example.

Reading a book, taking a class or seminar and doing online research are all great ways to gain the knowledge you may need for a certain job — that way, you can honestly say you have the knowledge in the cover letter, even if you don’t have the experience.

Another possibility people forget is that you can highlight any volunteering experience in your cover letter. It’s a great way of showing you’re involved in that field, and the skills you learn while volunteering count.

Above all else, make sure your interest in the job and the industry is clearly stated. That level of interest will stand out to hiring managers, and enthusiasm means just as much as knowledge when it comes to being a valuable employee.

Always Make Sure to Proofread

A cover letter is a chance to signal both your excitement and your qualifications for a job. Just make sure to keep it short and sweet while you do so.

When you’re done, proofread it or even have a friend give it a once-over before you submit it. A cover letter acts as your writing sample: Grammar or spelling mistakes are a red mark against your written communication skills, and you may be disqualified as a candidate for typos in the cover letter.

With the right cover letter, you can stand out from the other applicants and prove just how much you deserve an interview.

Explore more career advice from USC Online today.