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5 Must-Do Steps For The Perfect Cover Letter

Writing the perfect resume cover letter
Written by Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

Before I started my job hunt, I severely underestimated all the components that were involved in executing it successfully.

Job hunting is a job in and of itself.

There was no rule book for me to follow to ensure it all went smoothly, let alone successfully.

I had to learn by trial and error.

Mostly error.

The most frustrating mistakes are the miniscule ones that could easily have been avoided.

Like a spelling mistake on your resume that you notice only after you’ve submitted it.

Or trolling job boards, only to find out that the position at your dream company closes that very same day.

This sets off panic-mode.

You have mere hours to put together your resume and submit all the necessary documents.

I remember frantically pulling out resume version number 55 from my computer.

Adding a few keywords here and there, spell check and grammar check.

Attach. Send.

Ugh. They also required a cover letter.

When the average hiring manager spends only 6 seconds skimming a resume, does a cover letter even matter?

Seemed like wasted energy.

Still, I was not going to let that stop me from applying for the perfect job.

I threw together a few paragraphs which regurgitated the accomplishments from my resume and sent it away.

Of course, I never heard back from anyone.

And the silence was painful.

That’s when I started to be more strategic with my job search.

I placed networking high on my priority list and ensured that I had an internal referral to mention in my cover letter each time I applied to a new position.

I paid attention to details and took time to customize each cover letter for each job and each company.

At the very least, I addressed the cover letter to the correct hiring manager.

Did my newly crafted cover letter get me the job?

I’ll never know, but I was more confident knowing I wasn’t missing out because of careless errors or incomplete applications.

Job recruiters want to see a cover letter on resumes

Why You Cannot Risk Omitting Your Cover Letter In A Job Application

There is no denying the fact that cover letters are becoming less and less popular.

According to a survey in Jobvite, 55% of hiring managers say that while cover letters are not important in their job search process, they still recommend that you learn how to nail them.

With the advent of social media, recruiters and hiring managers can easily vet a candidate on LinkedIn without even looking at their resume.

But here’s the thing.

You never know what the hiring manager wants to see and it can be a huge misstep if you forget it.

Or worse, if you have it but it is rubbish.

In a recent survey of 1,500 recruiters and hiring managers by CareerBuilder, 29% of employers said they wanted a cover letter.

That is significant enough to include it.

In that same survey, 77% of employers indicated that they are most interested in knowing if the job candidate’s skills match what they want.

Your cover letter should convince employers of precisely this.

Your cover letter is one more opportunity to prove your worth.

It’s your opportunity to show the hiring manager that you have what it takes to do the job and that you take the hiring process seriously.

Why not spend a bit of extra time ensuring you are covering all your bases?

Make sure critical information stands out in your cover letter

5 Tips For Crafting The Perfect Cover Letter For Your Resume

A cover letter is the hiring manager or recruiter’s first impression of you.

You need to be concise and need to make sure that key information clearly stands out.

Here are some basic, general layout rules:

  • use a standard business layout (include the date, your address, and the address of the person you are sending it to),
  • keep it to one page, and
  • keep it to three paragraphs.

Let’s get past the obvious mistakes of spelling and grammatical errors.

If you are still doing this, then you are not worthy of the hiring manager’s time.

You are an intelligent and industry-ready PhD, so take your job search to the next level.

Here are 5 tips for creating a cover letter that will be sure to grab their attention…

1. Address the letter to the right person.

“To whom it may concern,

I was too lazy to find out who to address this letter to.


Failed Job Candidate”

Don’t give the hiring manager an excuse to disqualify you from a position.

Show the initiative to find out who to address the cover letter to.

If it is not indicated in the job posting (and it rarely is), call the human resource department and ask.

Yes, call.

It is the easiest and most immediate way to get a response.

You may have already built a relationship with the recruiter before applying to the role and can ask them who will see your resume first.

They will be impressed by your resourcefulness and you will have instantly made a good impression.

Network with employees at a company before sending your resume

2. Mention your referral in the first sentence.

The most powerful thing in your cover letter will be mentioning a referral in the first paragraph.

This should be your goal.

Before you apply for any position, you should be networking with employees at the company, building rapport, and gaining crucial insight into the role.

Play the long game.

You may come across a position at a new company and think it is better to apply than let the opportunity pass you by.


By blindly applying without trying to reach out to at least one person, you are burning bridges.

Then when you go to apply again in the future, they will have your previous application on file and see you did not get past the resume screen.

Leverage any connections you may have at the company.

Your first sentence should read:

Mr. [President/CEO] encouraged me to apply to position X at company Y. I am writing in response to this and with great interest in the work being done at company Y.

Now you have just landed an industry interview.

3. Have a killer introduction.

You want to make it clear who you are professionally and specifically why you want the role.

Think about what you would say if you were sitting across from the hiring manager at an interview and they asked you, ‘tell me about yourself’.

It is an opportunity to provide a tailored elevator pitch.

Talk about your previous experience, but do not regurgitate what is in your resume.

Instead pick one or two defining accomplishments that showcase experiences and skills that are relevant to the role.

It is important that you highlight your transferable skills and show that you can explain your accomplishments in a way that is relevant to a business, and not only to academics.

It is great that you have published papers, but would that matter to a pharmaceutical company?

Is it relevant to, for example, a project manager role?

Instead, talk about how your budgeting skills saved the lab thousands of dollars, how your innovative technique increased lab efficiency ten-fold, or how your time management skills led to the successful completion of a project which awarded the lab millions in grant funding.

Employers want to hire people with a vested interest in the company

4. Make it clear why you are a match for the company.

You have articulated your skills, but the next step is to describe why you are a match for that particular company.

Research the company, their mission, and what success would look like for someone in this role.

If you cannot find the answers online, reach out to employees at the company and arrange for informational interviews.

This will come in handy, not just for targeting your resume, but to prepare for the industry interview as well.

Once you have done this, you can align your goals and values to that of the organization.

They will be impressed that you did your homework.

They will be impressed that you can speak their language.

Companies want employees that can not only do the job and do it well, but have a vested interest in the company itself.

Employee retention is one of the biggest challenges facing companies.

In fact, one third of new hires quit their job after 6 months.

The cost of employee turnover is high and it is extremely advantageous to have well-trained employees who are knowledgeable of the organizational structure and policies.

By showing you are committed to work for them, rather than simply any company, you will come out a winner.

5. Keep it conversational.

The company wants to hire a genuine, likeable person.

Not a robot.

You have to be professional, yes, but keep the tone conversational as well.

Remember that you are not asking for a meeting with the Queen, but for an interview with a company where you are confident you can be a valuable addition to their team.

This team-oriented mindset is crucial for almost every industry position.

Convey passion and enthusiasm.

Cut out any overly verbose or flowery language.

Your cover letter does not have to read like a poem.

It is a letter from a confident applicant to their future manager.

A cover letter is still a necessary evil in the world of job searching. You can never be too sure which hiring manager will take the time to read it. To be completely certain, include it and do it properly. Your cover letter should not exceed one page and must contain 3 paragraphs. The goal of the first paragraph is simply to state the position and your internal referral. The following two paragraphs are for you to outline your key accomplishments that align with the position and how you can bring value to the company. Once you get the hang of it, your cover letter will be another valuable piece of your job application.

To learn more about the 5 must-do steps for the perfect cover letter, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I had to laugh out loud at your sample letter from “Failed Job Candidate”! Thanks for a great article, Cathy.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you Matthew!

  • Winona Petit

    You’ve definitely got the order down right, Cathy. I see too many people just shooting resumes out there and not taking the time to get their credentials in order, do the networking, and find those referrals.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, Winona!

  • Harvey Delano

    This is not the first time you’ve mentioned the elevator pitch, Cathy. Do you think it would be wise to have more than one for different situations? For example, would it be advisable to have a separate one for networking, cover letters, and perhaps different kinds of companies?

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Harvey – an elevator pitch is all about showing a person what value you can offer them and this will change depending on who you are talking to.

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    Thanks for the tip on keeping it conversational instead of being so stiff and formal that they think you’re from another planet! This is a good thing for me to remember.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Shawn!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Thanks for that tip that it’s fine to call the hiring manager and find out who to address the cover letter to.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Marvin – it pays off to go that extra mile when applying.

  • Kathy Azalea

    I always thought that you should not include a cover letter unless they ask for it, being considerate of their time, but I always had uncertainty about this. Thank you so much for clearing it up.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Kathy – always better to err on the side of caution and include it.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    There are two points that are critical in my opinion, and one is that you always have to do the research to find out whether or not you’re a good match for the position. And, as Cathy has said before, you might not seem to have all the “minimum qualifications” that they’re asking for, so you find the equivalent qualifications via your transferable skills. My personal secret is to find a writer to not only help with my resume, but with my cover letter as well. I agree with Cathy that it’s critical. After all, it’s the first written document of yours that the hiring professionals are going to review.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great tip! Thank you Carlie!

  • Theo

    Thanks for the info about the length of the letter and what to cover. Makes a lot of sense.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Theo!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    The stakes and requirements are definitely high, but it’s great to know that they’re still doable with a little guidance. 🙂

  • Julian Holst

    It seems to me that the informational interviews are the best way to get the information you need about whether or not you’re a good fit for the job. I think it’s great that networking is so effective in helping you get a foot in the door, especially when it pays off so well in information. In fact, I hope that a few years from now, I’m helping other people get recognized for their ability to contribute, too.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Absolutely Julian – I have no doubt you will be!

  • Mahesh

    Wonderful post Cathy ! Very well written and to the point. Most helpful for the people in the job search game. 🙂

  • Shiv

    I have a contact with one employee at the Company. We had a long chat for an hour at his office. I even ask the requirement of visa issue for the position. He is aware that I may apply for the position. Does it mean that I can include his name as a referral in the cover letter? Thanks

    • Cheeky Scientist

      Hi Shiv – first of all, well done building this connection. That’s fantastic. It does seem like this person is a prime candidate for an internal referral. However, I would always ask first before adding anyone’s name to a cover letter. I would reach out and thank him for all his help up to this point, tell him that you are going to submit your application and ask if he would be comfortable if you added his name to the cover letter. Best of luck!