Your cover letter needs to convey your interest, connections, enthusiasm, and motivation as eloquently yet succinctly as possible. Below is a step-by-step guide to writing a basic, well-written, and personable cover letter that accomplishes all of the above.

Step #1: Address your letter to a specific, flesh-and-blood human being.

Receiving a cover letter addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom it May Concern” is as flattering as receiving junk mail addressed to “Current Resident.” In the age of Google and LinkedIn, you’ll come across as lazy and uninterested unless you address your letter to a specific individual. Many job postings include information on who will be reviewing applications, so be on the lookout. If no name is listed, hunt for more information online until you find the name of the hiring manager, the head of the department in which you would be working, or the person who would be your immediate supervisor. Try hard to address your letter to the right person, but also know that an incorrectly addressed letter to a real person who works at the organization is still better than a letter addressed to no one in particular.

Step #2: Name drop Your Connections

State right off the bat the name of any current or recent former employees with whom you have talked about the organization or open position. This should be the first sentence in the body of your letter so that the name of your connection catches the recipient’s eye. There’s always a degree of risk when hiring new employees, and anything you can do in your application to potentially reduce that risk—such as referring to one of the recipient’s well-respected colleague—will make you a significantly stronger prospect.

Example:

  • I recently spoke with Joe Smith about the open teaching position within the English department at Prestigious Prep School, and he strongly encouraged me to apply.
Step #3: Express your genuine enthusiasm

Ideally, you’ve been networking and going on informational interviews so that you’ll have inside connections at companies where you eventually plan to submit applications. However, in the (hopefully rare) instances when you’re applying cold, you’ll need to start your letter off on very strong footing in order to grab the reader’s attention and make her want to read more. At the same time, going overboard with your language and enthusiasm can easily turn the read off. Find a happy medium by expressing your enthusiasm for the opportunity and company as genuinely and matter-of-fact as possible.

Example:

  • As an educator and immigration professional, I have followed Helping Hand’s work with migrant children for years, and I was therefore excited to learn that the organization is seeking to hire a policy analyst at a time when I myself am exploring new opportunities.
Step #4: State in broad terms how your background or experience applies

Without going into specifics, generally state the kind or kinds of experiences in your academic career that both make you qualified for the job and would help the organization. This statement should be a single sentence in length and address both points. This sentence can be especially powerful if it also launches a new body paragraph about the ways in which you’re qualified for the job.

Example:

  • I believe that my expertise in 20th-century narcotics policy, combined with my background in academic research and policy analysis, align with your needs and make me uniquely qualified for the position. 
Step #5: Highlight your qualifications with Bullets

Use between 3 and 5 bullet points to show the ways in which your specific experiences and skill sets match the requirements for the position. Bullets attract and focus the reader’s attention and help get your main points across faster, which is essential given that most readers will spend only a few seconds with your letter before deciding whether or not to look at your resume. Rank the bullets in descending order so that your most important qualification/skill/experience (based on your close reading and analysis of the job description) features prominently as the first bullet point.

Example:

In an application for a policy think tank that requires prior experience in policy analysis, project management, and strong interpersonal skills, and a graduate degree in political science or a related field, an applicant might list the she has:

  • PhD in sociology, with 5 years of research experience in education policy (graduate degree and policy analysis experience)
  • A proven ability to prioritize, multitask, and manage large research-based projects (project management skills)
  • Several years of classroom teaching and student mentoring experience (interpersonal skills)
Step #6: Explain Why You’re Applying

After pointing out your qualifications, briefly explain in 1-3 sentences why you’re submitting an application. Specifically, your explanation should show how your professional goals dovetail with the employer’s mission. If done well, your explanation will cement in the reader’s mind that you and she are on the same professional page. She’ll finish the letter wanting to look at your resume not only because you may have the necessary skills to do the position, but also because you’re highly motivated to do the job.

Example:

I am applying for this position because I am seeking opportunities within the field of educational publishing that would allow me to develop innovative digital learning tools to deepen students’ engagement with history-related material. As a former college instructor, I am familiar with many of the challenges that online learning can present, and I would like to help Big Textbook Publishing make digital tools that not only teach history, but also promote the development of strong critical thinking skills.

Step #7: Reiterate Your Enthusiasm

Wrap up with a brief two-sentence paragraph. In the first sentence, restate your excitement about possibly joining the team. In the second, mention which supporting materials you’ve included, and tell the reader that you’re looking forward to speaking more with her soon. Close the letter with Sincerely and your full name, followed by your email address.

Example:

I am very excited at the prospect of joining the Helping Hand team in this capacity. As requested, I have attached my resume and a list of references for your consideration, and I look forward to discussing this opportunity with you further.

Sincerely,

Helen Johnson

helen.p.johnson@youremail.com