5 steps to writing a successful cover letter

How do you write a cover letter? Is it okay to use a template I found online?

FACT: A cover letter is the first glimpse recruiters have of you. FICTION: A cover letter is a short summary of your resume. A cover letter is all you talking about yourself. A cover letter isn’t needed in this day and age.

Other fact: yes, you can use a template you found online. But you have to take special care in making sure it doesn’t sound robotic.

The cover letter is your chance to steal the spotlight, and take the crown, all before you show anyone the goods. Remember that moment in Cinderella where everyone sees her at the ball for the first time? She wows them, and immediately gets the job (of dancing with the prince, becoming the princess, and living happily ever after with a few bumps along the way). Without even telling them her name.

A great cover letter can do all that and more for you, so I’m here today to help guide how you write your attention-grabbing cover letter.

Today, I’m sharing my super-secret, no-fail cover letter formula with you. I rarely write cover letters for myself, because I don’t randomly apply for regular internships, but I frequently write cover letters for other people, and all of them immediately get called in for an interview afterwards (I also help in editing their resumes, so that’s also a factor on why they’re a standout candidate).

Think about it.

What’s the point of spending 3 hours editing your resume, if you only spend 3 minutes writing your cover letter? When you fail to excite the recruiter with your cover letter, your resume pays the price of having to do twice the work to amaze the recruiters.

If a concert needs an opening act to hype up the crowd for the main performer, your resume needs your cover letter to prepare the recruiters for how great a candidate you are.

Don’t let anything fall to chance because of a so-so cover letter. (I advocate a minimum of 30 minutes to write because there’s enough time for panicked brainstorming on what to write for your cover letter then.)

The cover letter helps the recruiters gauge your skills before they look at your resume and definitely before they call you in for an interview.

Note: Before this blog post, I never studied how to make a cover letter.

I just write normally like how I do here on TBC and people get hired. (I like to think it’s because I have such a strong voice that the words practically leap off of the page, so recruiters find cover letters from me memorable.)

But for this article, I decided to do things right by teaching you both the traditional way and my way, so I google-d “how to make a cover letter” and a million articles popped up. Well, 42,100,000 articles to be exact, all promising to talk about the ins and outs of cover letters.

Hopefully one from the 1st page would be insanely helpful, right? (Spoiler alert: not really.)

I read through the first 2 pages of results on Google, and all in all, they gave around 89 different kinds of “advice” but all the articles mentioned the following same 4 “advice”.

  1. “Use good grammar.”

  2. “Make sure you know who to address.”

  3. “Be concise.”

  4. “Close strong.”

I think it’s safe to say that these are the 4 cornerstones of not only cover letters, but of writing in general.

So, it’s useful, but not that useful.

For starters, how do you “close strong” when you’re not even sure what the cover letter’s ending should contain? Should it be contact details, a call to action, or questions to leave the recruiter thinking about you?

Some articles gave even more generic advice than this, like “Write positively.” “Know your strength and play it off against your weakness.” “Be competent, but not too competent.” whatever that means.

How the hell are you supposed to write something like that????

What I understood from every single one of those articles though is that they were all written for people who already know how to write a cover letter.

There is almost nothing concrete in those first 2 pages of Google about how to actually write or phrase a kickass cover letter.

Nothing was instantly helpful. And it got me thinking, “How do I write cover letters????”

So, I went back through my chat logs, read through everything I’ve ever wrote, and noted my whole cover letter thought process down for you, dear readers.

I broke down my thought process starting from how you address the cover letter to how you end it to everything else in between. Also, I detail whether it’s required for every job application. (Spoiler alert: it is. I’ll tell you how to send it in different scenarios.)

I wrote today’s post in the form of generic cover letter advice as well, so that it’s memorable enough for you to recall yet helpful enough with all the samples and anecdotes underneath. And also because I’m a sarcastic person.

Here are my 5 steps to writing a successful cover letter.

1. Don’t mess up the basics.

The basics of the cover letter are how you say everything without saying anything. The most important according to all the articles is knowing who to address it to.

It shows extra effort if you write “Dear Ms. Chua” rather than “To Whom It May Concern” when sending your application to an email with a name in it.

But what do you do if you have to send your application to a generic, catch-all email address like careers@thebordercollective.com?

Simple. Don’t address it at all. Start your cover letter strong. Jump into the content, unless it’s something generic like

“My name is Justine Lara T. Chua and I am applying for the position of Marketing Manager for XYZ.”

Then, stop typing, sit down, and think of a catchier intro because that is the most boring and generic cover letter opener in existence. I’ll talk more about this later.

Make sure the other basics of your cover letter — proper formatting, design, grammar, job title as it appears in the listing — are pristine. It is of utter importance that you convey an attention to detail and seriousness about your application that other cover letters would lack. If you wrote “attentive to detail” but you messed up the basics, expect that no one will call you back.

Super basic errors suggest you didn’t take the time to review your work before sending it off and that you can’t research simple information correctly.

Not a great way to begin the relationship. To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, send your cover letter out to your bookworm and grammar Nazi friends, and have them read it, especially if you’re submitting it electronically.

If you’re sending a creative cover letter, have a fellow creatives check it out to make sure it covers the creatives’ basics. I don’t know what those are because I don’t have a drop of design in my body, but you as a creatives probably know what this is.

Make changes, get fresh eyes to look at it, edit some more, and then read it again. Your cover letter needs to be immaculate and interesting.

The overall look of your cover letter speaks volumes before the recruiter even clicks on your attached resume. So, don’t mess up.


2. 5 minutes of planning saves 5 hours of writing.

This is probably the closest advice to “Write positively.” that I’ll give.

Don’t regurgitate what you already said in your resume. Don’t try to rewrite anything you wrote in your resume. Don’t google “cover letter template” and copy paste your details in. Write something fresh. Or at least, rewrite the lines of the template to sound like you.

You want to keep the recruiter’s attention on you. They’re skimming through tens, hundreds, if not thousands of resumes for this position after all. And the fact that you’re writing a cover letter for the job means you’re not on the top of their priority list for hiring.

(Most places have a short list, from LinkedIn or referrals, of standout candidates for high impact positions that they contact. Posting it for walk-in applications is usually for buffer applicants.)

Since you want to stand out from minute 1, the best way to do that is to start your cover letter interestingly without giving everything away so that the recruiters still have a reason to attentively look over your resume. Where you will proceed to wow them again.

But then again, writing a different cover letter for each and every single job application isn’t working smart. That’s a lot of wasted time brainstorming, writing, and editing that could be spent in getting real world experiences you can talk about at your job interview.

So, before we jump right into the nitty-gritty writing parts, build a framework for how you’ll write cover letters from here on out to save time. Make an interesting cover letter formula only you can use when applying to jobs and internships. Figure out your writing style’s strengths and play off of it with your cover letter.

If you know you write like a textbook, explain in 3 sentences what the best case scenario is for the company if they hire you. If you write like an action adventure story, take them through a situation the company frequently faces and how you’d navigate it in a brief paragraph. Don’t write like anyone else; let your personality shine through.

(I’ll cover more on writing smart and being yourself later on.)

Now what makes up Justine LT Chua’s cover letter framework?

Related: What’s The Difference Between a CV and a Resume?

A. First off, answer the job ad.

Evaluate which of your skills and experiences are the strongest example for why this job should be yours, and list that down. The recruiters are giving you a literal map of what they’re looking for, so write your cover letter around it. But don’t just list down your achievements and expect them to connect the dots. Do the work for them.

Watch out for the language from the listing, and use it in your cover letter as well. Write about how you have the skills and experiences they’re looking for, and how you used them at a previous job through a 2 sentence story. Help them realize you are the best candidate, without them knowing it.

For example, if I’m applying to a Marketing Manager job, I’d write

“I remotely work with a busy team of 3 on tight deadlines to close brands for Blogapalooza, with a closing rate of 1 brand every week in the last 8 weeks. I learned on-the-job what companies are looking for in influencer marketing opportunities, what events can offer it on paper and in reality, and how both the brand and the event can partner for maximum results.”

Not every applicant can offer that, and now I’ve hooked the recruiter into looking at my resume with more interest. Plus, I just told them what I can do, which brings me to my next point.

B. Write about your skills, experiences, and self in a positive manner; don’t apologize for skills you don’t have.

Apologizing right off the bat highlights negative points against your job application that might not have been raised from your kickass cover letter + resume. Be the boundless source of belief that you are the best applicant for the job BECAUSE NO ONE ELSE WILL.

I hate cover letters that go “Despite my limited experience in PR…” or “While I only have work experience doing administrative tasks…” DON’T BE A NEGATIVE NANCY.

Most of the time, the recruiters will be so blown away by your confidently different style that they wouldn’t have noticed your “lack of skills” if you didn’t point it out. This goes out especially to the girls!! Don’t apologize!!

Instead, talk about what you can do for the company if they pick you! Not what you can bring, but what you can actually do. Actionable results that you can deliver, not just talk about, which is a common trait in extremely self-confident people.

Leave the recruiters wanting to learn more about these amazing actionable results through your resume.

C. Let your personality shine through.

People don’t hire robots to fill roles; recruiters hire a person they think can get along well with the team. Not necessarily the one with the most credentials, but the one who is a best fit for not only the team, but also for the company. Write in a way that shows off who you are.

For example, if you know what my voice sounds like, you can hear me speaking while you read what I wrote. But if you have no idea what I sound like, you’d read this as informal chatter from someone who probably talks a lot.

My writing style, according to my beloved English + Literature professor, Maximino Pulan, is conversational storytelling, and its tone is upbeat, a little funny and a lot sardonic. People feel a lot when I write, because I sound so honest that it borders being painful. (First, “border” pun hehe.)

So, I evoke emotions in cover letters as a way of having them remember me. The fastest way to do that is to tell a story with a slight emotional twist in my cover letters.

Usually those stories are about being an underdog, because I’m 5 foot tall Chinese girl, I don’t have a lot of org work experience, and I don’t have good grades. I am the definition of underdog in the corporate world.

A + B + C = Winning ingredients of Justine’s cover letter formula. Figure out what are the ingredients of your winning cover letter formula, and use that for every future one you’ll write.

Related: How to Fix Your Resume in 1 Hour


3. Be a proactively productive stalker.

Sounds super generic and a little scary, right? Well, writing a cover letter is humble bragging your skill set, experiences, and team-work ready personality without sounding like a robot, a narcissist, or an inexperienced newbie. And that’s the simple part.

You also want to show off that you researched about the company as well as why you’re a good fit for them to stand out from the pile.

Again, do the work for them. They are giving you shoes to fill, so research best on how you can force your feet to fill them.

The simplest way to do this is to Google for the latest news on the company, written by the company, be it from their Twitter or CEO’s quarterly letter. Use that knowledge lightly through your cover letter. Mention the recent developments or news that you find exciting, and affects your possible department.

If you’re going into marketing, talk about how you loved their latest campaign. If you’re in sales, talk about their latest product. Show off that you researched about them in 1 sentence ONLY through your cover letter.

But if you’re feeling a little adventurous or you think the recruiters will appreciate the extra effort, write a short action plan or a few points to discuss about the company’s latest move.

This is the most proactive thing anyone can do but recruiters rarely see.

No one does this in the Philippines, or in general because making an action plan requires ‘years of experience’ aka an ability to think critically. It speaks of someone who is invested in the company, able to think critically, and is action-oriented; 3 things recruiters are searching for in talent acquisition.

Talk about what you can do in the role you’re applying to maximize the company’s current actions. Roughly put, make a business proposal of something you can tackle if they hire you through a simple framework that they could copy if they choose not to hire you. I’m being generic again, right?

How I’d do this adventurous cover letter is through this template,

I saw your company is [something specific about the challenges they’re facing, a project they’re working on, etc]. I thought it would be helpful for me to [simple description of your project] to show the value I could bring to [company].

[Present your project idea or if you’re feeling super hard-working, a 90 day plan here . If you just did a write-up (i.e. a design suggestion), then a link or image would do. If you pitched businesses for partnerships, ask if the person you’re emailing would like to be introduced to someone you know, etc]

Now doesn’t that look like a stalker you’d want to hire?


 4. Peek, don’t vomit.

Compelling writing comes from the old rule “show, don’t tell.” Instead of writing a generic, predictable, and boring letter like everyone else, you could stand out instead by describing an occasion that illustrates attributes you want to highlight. On the flip side: you have to make sure your writing is brief and efficient while telling your story.

The rule is 3 paragraphs max, 5-7 sentences each, if you’re doing it the traditional way. First paragraph for the hook, second and third for why you’re the best fit for the job + closing statements.

But if you’re interested in going against the norm, I advocate the 150 word cover letter. Like I said, “Peek, don’t vomit.” Everyone has a shorter attention span, so not only do you help the recruiter learn more about you faster but this forces you to be concise with your cover letter.

For example, you could write

“I’m a hard working team player, who’s extremely organized with a great background in sales, and I’m ready to join the company. (Insert sentences taken from your resume about why you’re a great candidate blah blah blah.)”

Or you could write instead

“In my last position at x org’s fundraiser, I raised over 152% of my sponsorship target in 3 months, and spent the rest of my 3 months before the event learning how to coordinate between the programs and logistics team. Under our team, the event ran on time and ended exactly on time, a first in its 9 year course.”

The second one looks longer, but it’s a little bit more indicative of who the recruiter’s interviewing, don’t you think? The beauty of the second one is that you can use it to talk about gaps in your resume as well in as few words as possible. For example,

I resigned from the executive board in January to focus on my family business’ social media strategy and sales strategy towards millennials, my age group. I studied extensively through the help of online courses, such as Coursera. Using what I learned, our business was able to see a 396% raise in click through rate on the website.

You’ve said 8 things about yourself in 3 vague sentences. A great recruiter can spot them all.

Related: What’s The Difference Between a CV and a Resume?


5. Don’t get caught.

You have to customize every cover letter you send out to show every recruiter that you’re the most serious and hard working contender for the job. Even if you don’t accept the job in the end, you’ll leave a long lasting impression on them that could be useful a few years down the road.

The corporate world is both expansive and tiny. Try to never leave a bad impression behind.

But when you think about it, that’s a little insane.

Writing a brand new cover letter for every single recruiter will cause an insane mental panic for a prolonged period of time, because the average student sends out about 15-20 different applications when looking for internships.

If you follow my 30 minute writing plan, that’s still a minimum of 4 hours of your life spent writing cover letters. And I write quickly.

A normal procrastinating student would spend around thrice that amount of time to write a kickass cover letter like I prescribed. For those too lazy to math, that’s about 6 hours in total aka way too much time wasted.

Here on The Border Collective, my personal advocacy is to work smart, not hard. So, here’s how to hack the cover letter framework.

I’ve been sprinkling my tips throughout the article and now, I’ll consolidate it in one go. First, 150-175 words only, including “Dear Ms. Woman,” because 4 out of 5 times, HR is a woman’s field. If you can, try to profile the recruiter by stalking them on social media and see what they share or post the most. If its pictures, they’re an experience kind of person. If its articles, they’re a facts kind of person. If it’s Thought Catalog, they’re a sentimental story kind of person. Figure it out.

Next start with something either funny or thought-provoking, depends on who you are as a person. I read this opening for a cover letter a few months ago and it’s stayed with me ever since.

Have you ever had your mom call five times a day asking for a status update on how your job search is going, and then sounding incredulous that not more progress has been made since the last phone call? That’s my life right now. But I’m hoping that soon my life will revolve around being your full-time social media manager. The good news is, I bring more to the table than just an overbearing mom. Let me tell you more.

Then, start throwing in your cover letter formula. How I do it is exactly like what I wrote above: my A + B + C. Answer the job ad + write about myself positively + let my sparkling personality shine through.

Throughout it all though, I have to remember 2 things. First is to peek, and not vomit aka WRITE AS LITTLE AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. That’s why it’s 150 words – concise content over clumps of composition. Second is to show off my stalker skills in a not scary way through my skills and experiences portion. Tailor everything to the job ad.

The long and short of this is make your own template. Not something on the internet that someone else could copy. Not something I wrote here today. Something uniquely made by you.

Do it like those fill-in-the-blanks stories we used to play with as kids, or if you’re feeling up to it, make one for every kind of job you apply.

For a marketing, a social media, a HR, or whatever function you’re into, make a solid template you can use now and probably forever.

Oh and one last tip. If they’re asking for a cover letter, send it in PDF form attached to the email. If they didn’t ask, send it as your email’s contents with your resume as an attachment. If they said don’t send a cover letter, what the hell are you even reading this article for?

To sum it up, here’s the five steps in writing a successful cover letter.

If you want a hi-res PDF copy to keep as a reminder, download it here.

In case you have no idea where you are, welcome to The Border Collective, where any question you’ve got on internships, resumes, or careers in the PH can and will be answered. I’m Justine, founder and writer of all things here.

If there’s something you want to ask but never knew where to send them to, drop them in The Border Collective’s Google Form or ask.fm. Being a kid myself, I’ve probably gone through the same situations. And at the very least, I can tell you what NOT to do.

Resumes is a sub-category of Resource where I share things I’ve learned over the course of fixing my own and a lot of people’s resumes, so that you guys don’t have to trial and error this stuff like I did.

I know it’s incredibly hard to force your whole life to fit neatly on paper and worse, to make it attractive to your dream companies. Through my writings, I hope you learn at least 1 thing that makes your life easier.

This is my way of giving back because I wish that when I was a freshman, a resource like TBC existed to help guide me to not wasting my time on things that don’t work.

For content partnerships, plugs, or business deals, like our features on Woman Up 2017 or the APEX Challenge, you can email admin@thebordercollective.com with your proposal and a summary of why that’s relevant for TBC’s audience. Don’t worry, we don’t charge money if you’re student-run, just social media x-deals.

If you want to publicly support us + get brownie points from us, like The Border Collective’s Facebook page. If you’ve got anything to ask me directly, email me at justine@thebordercollective.com.

And if you want to know more about me, or about TBC, click here.

Hope you read something useful, til the next time I write something, bye!

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