A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article called “3 Editing Secrets That Will Make Your Cover Letter Even Better.” To which a dear (and succinct, and purposefully overdramatic) friend wrote, “Can’t you just HELP ME WRITE MINE?!?”
Where was she stuck? In her words: “Is it terrible to say I haven’t written [a cover letter] since college and don’t even know where to start anymore?”
No, it’s not terrible. And I think a lot of people—those changing careers, those who landed previous roles through networking and never submitted a formal application, and those who have been in the same job for the better part of a decade—are all in the same boat. Here’s what I recommend:
1. Remember “Out With the Old, In With the New”
If you still have that old cover letter, floating around in a now defunct Hotmail or AOL account, you may be tempted to use it as a building block. And it’s OK to review that letter (perhaps with a cocktail nearby)—as a study in what you sounded like at 22.
Maybe your cover letter went on and on about why working at your dream company would be, like, a dream. Maybe you said that even though you didn’t have five years of experience, you were a quick learner. Reading this letter is good because everyone deserves a humorous reprieve from what can otherwise be a rather stressful job search.
Do not—I repeat, do not—try to work off of a cover letter that is several years old. First, you’re starting by boxing yourself in. Why would you want to edit a document that you wrote back when you had a flip phone? Haven’t your writing skills improved since then? Wouldn’t you describe your earliest experiences differently in retrospect (or perhaps leave them out altogether)?
Give yourself the freedom to start fresh. Write new paragraphs about new experiences in ways that make sense now—not that fit whatever you thought “the rules” were in the early aughts. (Hint: They’ve changed.)
2. Get Reading
Whenever friends ask me where to start with their cover letter, I send them three of my favorite Muse articles. I know it sounds too promotional to be true, but I often tell loved ones to read these and then let me know if they have questions. (It’s my version of, “Take two and call me in the morning.”)
I start with “How to Write a Cover Letter: 31 Tips You Need to Know.” It’s like a Russian nesting doll: It covers a ton of aspects of writing a cover letter—and many of the points link out to other articles. So, it’s easy to take a deeper dive into a particular element that interests you.
Next up is The Daily Muse Editor-In-Chief Adrian Granzella Larssen’s article, “The Pain Letter: The Best Way to Write an Article That Gets Results.” The first two lines are: “Hiring managers don’t just want people who can do the job. Ideally, they want people who will make their lives easier.” If your cover letter skills are rusty, this article will walk you through what hiring managers really look for.
Yes, I know it’s beyond predictable that someone who writes career advice would tell my friends the solution is to read career advice—but that doesn’t discount its value. (Fun fact: I do the same thing with resumes, interviews, and networking.)
3. Make Yourself Write a Draft
Reading is important, because great advice can save you from sending out total duds. But here’s what awesome articles can’t do: They can’t write your cover letter for you. Odds are, you only have a certain number of hours in the week to devote to job searching—and at some point, you’ll need to bite the bullet and get writing already.
If you feel too nervous to even begin, ask yourself: What’s the very worst thing that can happen? That you write a terrible cover letter?
Let’s say that happens. The good news is, it’s out of your system and never has to see the light of day. The better news is that now you have a true starting point, because you can review it for what isn’t working.
Why don’t you like it? If you think it’s boring, focus on being more engaging. If you’re worried someone reading it won't understand how qualified you are, find a way to highlight relevant skills through a story, rather than just listing them out. Once you write a draft, you will have already crossed one item off the list—you’ll no longer be able to say you don’t even know where to start.
So you last wrote a cover letter 10 years ago—that doesn’t mean you have to submit the same document you did back then. And that’s a good thing. I bet you’ve gained a ton of experience since the last time around. Use the advice above to put your best foot forward and launch yourself into the next stage of your career.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author