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How to write a cover letter in 5 minutes, says Harvard career expert: 'It's professional Mad Libs'

Source: Envato Elements

Cover letters can be tedious. They're less formulaic than a resume, more freeform like an essay and for those who struggle with writing in general, can feel like a homework assignment to drag yourself through. But they're critical for showing an employer why you're right for the role.

"A cover letter is like a written introduction of yourself," says Gorick Ng, a Harvard career advisor and author of "The Unspoken Rules." It helps you address some of the questions interviewers will potentially ask you down the line such as, "Why this role? Why this company?" he says. It's like putting a human face to a resume.

And though this document can seem daunting, Ng himself has a developed a hack that cuts his writing time down significantly. He creates a basic cover letter template including all of the key talking points, then leaves out components like the HR representative he'd address and the specific company he's applying for. Going forward, he simply plugs in the relevant information and saves each cover letter as a new document.

"It's professional Mad Libs," he says, adding that, "It takes me, what? Five, max 10 minutes to do a new cover letter" each time.

Follow this template

To replicate Ng's hack, start by writing your cover letter template, including the following four paragraphs:

  • First, write "your introduction of who you are, what you're applying for, when you can start," he says. Leave out any specific details you'll be filling in going forward, such as company name and position.
  • "Second paragraph is why this industry, why this company, why this position," he says. If you're applying for jobs in different industries, you may need several cover letter templates. But for cover letters sent to employers within the same industry, you can keep your industry explanation the same and leave room to personalize "why this company/position" for each different role.
  • "Third paragraph is what is one or two relevant experiences that you've had" that prove you have the background and know how to excel in this position, he says. Use the same examples for the same industry and change them up for a different one (unless they're relevant).
  • The final paragraph is a concise outro. Say you've attached your resume, you'd love the opportunity to discuss your candidacy further and where you can be reached. Then finish with a "Thanks so much for your time." This can stay the same for every cover letter.

"Whereas your first template might have taken several hours, each additional template should only take several minutes to update," he says. Save the master template (or templates) under a title you'll recognize later and, going forward, simply make a copy of each and fill in the blanks.

Ng recommends sending your final cover letter as a PDF, so make sure to read through for correct company spellings and any other mistakes thoroughly. Finally, before sending, save the files under names that would help the companies keep track of your documents. Include your full name, for example, the role you're applying for and the date you're applying.

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