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What to write in a cover letter, according to career experts

No, it's not optional.
Alamy Stock

So, you're applying for a new job. You've got your resume nailed — but what about your cover letter?

Starting a cover letter opens the door to a whole host of questions: How much should it mirror your resume? How much of your personality should you actually include? And is it ever really optional?

We spoke to career experts who shared their top advice for writing an effective cover letter that shows off who you are as a person and as a potential employee.

1. DO always include a cover letter

Even if a job listing doesn't specifically ask for a cover letter, everyone we spoke to agrees it's important to include one.

"People want to ask me 'Are cover letters still a thing?' and cover letters are absolutely still a thing," says career expert and podcast host Angela Copeland. "If two people submit the same resume and one person has a cover letter that explains everything and the other doesn't have a cover letter, you're obviously going to go with the cover letter."

2. DON'T just repeat your resume

"It can be really confusing to say 'Okay, I know what a resume is and I have to write this cover letter — is it just the same thing but with more words?' And the short answer is no," says Allison Sullivan, a career trends expert at Glassdoor. "A cover letter is really supposed to complement a resume."

Sullivan says that while a resume should show off qualifications and relevant information in a concise and clear manner, a cover letter should show more of an applicant's personality and why they want that position. "It's a narrative that really helps reach out and directly talk to that person on paper," she explains.

3. DO answer any questions your resume may have created

Resumes don't offer much room for explanation or putting your experience in context. Jeannie Kim, the editorial director at The Muse, recommends using the cover letter to answer any questions that a recruiter might have after reading your resume.

"Maybe you have a gap in your work history or you're a career changer or you're especially passionate about the company you're applying to — you can use your cover letter to explain all of that, in a way that makes you more memorable," she says.

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4. DON'T forget about design and readability

There's plenty of talk about how to design a resume, but that conversation doesn't usually expand to cover letters. Copeland says if you're submitting a resume and cover letter over email, the cover letter can just be the body of the email, but if you're uploading the document online, some visual similarities to your resume can help.

"For example, you might use the same header on your cover letter that you used on your resume, almost like stationery, so they look like they go together," she advises.

5. DO try to "culture match" and show your understanding of the company

Career coach Angela Lussier points out that since a resume alone won't show how someone might fit in at a company, a cover letter can provide the space to make that clear.

"If you're going to apply for a start-up, you'd probably write a different cover letter than if you were going to apply for a job with a corporation that has maybe 50 people doing the same job," she says. "You want to make sure the energy in your letter matches the energy of the company so that they can say 'Oh, this is someone who can match our culture, they have the same kind of vibe and personality.'"

6. DON'T be scared to mention personal connections

Sometimes a personal connection can make a major difference, so don't hesitate to include any ties you may have to the organization or position.

"If you're a reference, if you know someone at the company or someone referred you, weaving that in and saying 'Hey, I talked to this one person in sales and was really excited' helps," Sullivan explains.

Copeland even recommended going a step further and trying to pass your cover letter and resume along to the hiring manager directly.

"Email people directly so you're not being filtered out," she says. "If you really want to get yourself through the hiring process, the best way to do it is find out who the hiring manager is and email them."

7. DO try treating it like a personal essay

"The most important thing often not included in the cover letter is the personal narrative," explains Copeland. "Job seekers don't realize it but the cover letter is your chance to tell your story."

"Even if it's as simple as: You're applying for a job as a graphic designer and you took an art class at camp where you were able to really recognize your passion for designing things ... and that was what ignited the flame for you wanting to do this professionally," adds Lussier. "That's a compelling story."