by Carson Kohler (Staff Writer)

Updated January 15, 2021

In this video, Alex Mahadevan explains three steps to landing your perfect job. The Penny Hoarder

When you’re writing a cover letter, all of your deepest insecurities can surface.

You start to question your writing skills, your professional experience and, really, your entire life.

How do you introduce yourself? Do you repeat what’s on your resume? How much should you talk about yourself? How can you mirror your whole being on to this one page?

We talked to several career-advice specialists who say a cover letter is really only as complicated as you make it. To tackle yours head on, you first need to understand its purpose.

What Is a Cover Letter?

All those questions swimming in your head? They’ll settle down when you start to understand the purpose of your cover letter.

First, think about a cover letter just as it is: It’s a one-page brief that physically (or virtually) covers a copy of your resume.

Second, think about your cover letter as a way to emphasize the most relevant points presented in your resume and to provide extra context. Your resume should point out your transferable skills; those are the skills or experiences you have that will translate to your success.

Your cover letter then explains those skills with a little more flavor, color and personality. It also proves you have the communication skills you need for the job.

Think of the cover letter as you would a short commercial, as a quick piece that captures your audience’s attention, says Loren Margolis, CEO of Training Leadership Success, a global consulting firm specializing in executive coaching and leadership development.

As creepy as it might sound, Margolis says you want it to be like you’re whispering in the reader’s ear: “Hey! Look at this! Look at me!”

3 Types of Cover Letters

You’re probably familiar with the classic cover letter you send when applying for a particular job. But there are actually three types you might write during a job search.

“You can call them all cover letters,” said Erica Stallings, program director for career advising and counseling at Florida State University. “And typically they’re all going to be followed by your resume.”

But they all serve different aims.

Networking Cover Letter

This is a more personalized version of a cover letter that you would send to someone with whom you are trying to forge or strengthen a connection. It could be a LinkedIn message or body of an email — with your resume attached, of course — so it should be short and to the point.

“You don’t want to write a dissertation in an email,” Stallings said.

In it, you might request an informal coffee meeting to discuss how they landed a job, inquire about having that person become your mentor or ask if you can shadow them on the job. Keep it personal, and be specific about what you want from the letter.

Prospecting Cover Letter

A prospecting cover letter is aimed at helping you develop a connection at a company and let’s you inquire about a variety of open positions — not just a single job posting. It should be about a page long and be addressed to the recruiter or HR manager at the firm in which you are interested, Stallings said.

Basically, you’re reaching out to see if a company has any openings rather than targeting a specific job description you might have seen.

Traditional Cover Letter

This is what you’ve probably attached to your resume when applying to jobs in the past. And this is the type we’re focusing on in this how-to guide.

How to Format Your Cover Letter

With cover letters, it’s easy to get hung up in the details. Many of us are really good at that.

For that, here are some important details to consider before diving into the meat of the letter:

How to Write a Cover Letter in 3 Simple Steps

Google “cover letter,” and you’ll get pages upon pages of templates and best practices and theories and expert opinions.

So, no, there’s no singular universal answer as to the best way to write a cover letter. But there’s no need to make it more difficult than it has to be.

A Quick Note About Keywords

If you’ve read our advice on how to write a resume, then you probably understand the importance of keywords — important words or phrases repeated throughout a job listing. You should also include these throughout your cover letter.

To keep it simple, Margolis suggests a three-paragraph “You, Me, We” approach.

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