5 questions your cover letter should answer

For those who aren’t natural-born writers, the very thought of penning together a cover letter can be anxiety-inducing. How do you start it? What should you include—and what should be left out? How can you stand out from the pile of applicants gunning for the same gig? While each and every job opportunity should be considered and approached based on the brand and their values, there are some steadfast rules to follow when you’re writing a cover letter.

One easy tactic to try is making sure it answers these five essential questions before sending in your application. Recommend by career experts and psychologists, consider this your roadmap:

Who is This?

Remember in elementary school when your teacher taught you to answer the who, the what, the when, the where, the why and the how? Though you probably don’t want to go this route verbatim when applying for jobs, your cover letter should clearly identify who you are from the get-go. Industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., while this seems fairly obvious, many people forget to sign this document before submitting it. Whether electronic or physically signed and scanned, don’t forget it! “Ideally, you should also include your contact information below your signature. If printed on your letterhead, then the reader can easily locate your contact information that way,” she adds.

Why Do You Want This Job?

Before you decide to go through the application process, it’s essential to understand why you are interested in an opportunity. Not only so you can explain ‘why’ in your cover letter but also to really think critically about if you would enjoy working for this company and if you would thrive in the position. When you aren’t excited, your writing will suffer as a consequence. As psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. explains, employers will be able to see through generic statements, causing them to pass right over your resume. 

To explore your interest level, Dr. Thomas suggests taking the time to research the company, read up on their recent news, and glance through reviews from past or current employees. With a better grasp on the type of work they do, the clients they choose to associate with, and how others have faired, you’ll have a much better grip on the ‘why’ part of your cover letter.

Why Should I Care?

Or another way to put it: ‘What’s in it for me?’ As Hakim explains, many recruiters and hiring managers skim over a cover letter to see if it’s worth reading further. That’s why a killer opening that is digestible and compelling will help get your foot in the door. “Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Why do you stand out? How will you help the reader to solve a problem? Include that detail in your cover letter,” she continues. “Think of a cover letter as your elevator pitch. Be compelling yet brief.”

Why Should I Interview You?

Dependent on the brand and industry, you could be going up against hundreds or thousands of other applicants for one job opening. Not to put the pressure on, but this makes it absolutely necessary to explain, in detail, what makes you stand out from everyone else. As Dr. Thomas says, if you don’t pinpoint what your top skill sets are and why they should hire you, your cover letter will blend into the woodwork. You should think of this document as your first impression—and make sure it’s memorable. “There is a way to do this in which you don’t sound like you are bragging, but merely stating the facts and sounding confident about your work capabilities,” she shares. 

As an example, she says you might write, “I have taken some extra classes to purposely increase my competence with leadership” if the job involves you managing people or having direct reports. “Or you could note in your cover letter that you have been commended on other jobs about your ability to work collaboratively with your colleagues on team projects,” she shares. “This can help a potential employer more accurately envision what it would be like for you to work for his or her company and determine if this would be the right fit.”

Are You Qualified?

There’s nothing wrong with reaching for a job that is perhaps, a bit out of your wheelhouse. But, the golden rule is to try and play within the 80 percent range. This means you meet 80 percent of the job responsibilities and requirements. What employers are looking for in your cover letter is an explanation of how much of a fit you are for the opportunity. If you can, match up your paragraphs with the job description, recommends executive business coach Ivy Slater. “Even though your resume might point out bulleted points, from your experience, the cover letter allows you to expand on how your experience complements the job you are applying for by citing specific accomplishments and strengths,” she shares. “Think of the cover letter as a sales pitch; great sales pitches are when you give a customer the results to a problem they are having.”