Dos and Don'ts of a Cover Letter

Want to stand out and exponentially increase your chances of landing the job you want? A well-crafted cover letter grabs the reader’s interest and convinces them that you are the right person for the job. Nurses Career Support Knowledge

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Dos and Don'ts of a Cover Letter

It's easy to create an outstanding cover letter once you know the Dos and Don'ts.

It's important to clearly show that you:

  • have the skills and job requirements
  • want to work at their particular organization

It should show your personality and be visually organized with an orderly flow. After reading your cover letter, the recruiter should be racing to pick up the phone and schedule an interview.

Do Not Use Generic Cover Letter

A recruiter can spot a generic cover letter from miles away, they have seen them all.  Do follow these guidelines. A cover letter should have three to five paragraphs.

  • The first paragraph is introductory and states the purpose of the letter
  • The next two paragraphs highlight your strengths by using examples
  • The final paragraph includes a call to action

Do Use Proper Salutation

Do use the person's name, as in "Dear Ms. Emmett". Do not use "To whom it may concern" because it shows a lack of interest and effort. With a few phone calls, it is almost always possible to find out the name of the person you are addressing. Using a person's name is personal, and pulls them in.

First Paragraph is Introductory

Do grab the reader's interest with your opening sentence. Basically you are saying "I'm interested in the position" but infuse it with a little something extra.

"I'm excited to see an opening for an oncology position."

"I heard about an opening through Clair Damron, a charge nurse on 5N."

"I saw in the news that your hospital earned an A rating from Leapfrog for the 6th year in a row."

The first example conveys your excitement. The second is an example of smart networking. Drop names if you have any connections. The third shows your acknowledgment of the hospital's achievements, and that you are savvy. Segue to the job opportunity.

Pro Tip: How can you make these even better? Rewrite sentences peppered with the word "I" to reduce the number of "I" words in your cover letter. Here's how:

"It was exciting to see an opening for an oncology position."

"The news reported that your facility earned an A rating from Leapfrog 6 years in a row."

"Clair Damron, charge nurse on 5N, mentioned there is an opening."

Next, briefly show that you meet the job requirements.

"My name is Kim, and I have 4 years of acute care MedSurg experience. I'm highly interested in the oncology opportunity and believe I would be a perfect fit."

Highlight Your Strengths

In the middle paragraphs, highlight your strengths. Do not "fluff and stuff" with overly-used cliches and buzzwords. Do strive to use words that others will not. Quality over quantity. Do not write lengthy sentences for the sake of writing. Do keep it short but impactful. 

Do include intentional stories, because they are memorable. "My father died at age 54 from prostate cancer. I always knew I wanted to work in the field, and I've been waiting for an opportunity, specifically at your hospital, because of your mission to inspire hope and well-being"

Give examples. Don't say "I'm a "problem-solver." Do say "I served on a unit-based committee that reduced HAPI prevalence by 55% within 6 months." That says you are engaged, committed to solutions, and understand the hospital's problems.

Instead of the commonly used "team player" say "My colleagues say they love it when I'm on, because I help them with admissions and whatever else I can do."

Use Call to Action

The last paragraph in this sample includes a "call to action", meaning a request for the next step.

"A letter and resume can only tell you so much, and I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you in person.  I will contact you within a few days to discuss the next step. I look forward to meeting you. Please do not hesitate to contact me at 555-4343-2121."

Note this is an active, not passive ending. A passive ending is "I hope to hear from you."

Pro Tips

Here are some creative pro tips. Consider an attention-getting top-centered headliner across the top of your cover letter.

Let me show you why I'm  a perfect fit for your position! 

Next, do add a "P.S.".  A P.S. adds another unique touch. People's eyes are drawn to a P.S. Sometimes it's read before the body of the letter! This one contains contact information.

P.S. If you would like to meet with me sooner, you may reach me immediately on my cell at 555-4343-2121. Thank you kindly for your time and consideration, Ms. Emmett

The creative use of  a top centered headline at the beginning and a P.S. at the end help to make your cover letter stand out.

Do not add "References on request." The employer will ask for them at a later date.

Be sure and read How To Get Past ATS Software to optimize your cover letter and How to Write a Nursing Cover Letter That Wows.

Following these tips, you will be well on your way to writing an outstanding cover letter!

Career Columnist / Author

Hi! Nice to meet you! I especially love helping new nurses. I am currently a nurse writer with a background in Staff Development, Telemetry and ICU.

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All great advice.

I've run into a handful of scenarios at huge hospital networks where I'm not sure exactly who will be reading my cover letter (HR, a specific manager, a hiring committee), and I've always been nervous to address the letter to the *wrong* person and risk making them feel awkward or annoyed, as though they're reading a letter that's not addressed to them. I've often used "Dear [unit] hiring team," and I feel like that seems more personal than "to whom it may concern" with less risk of alienating anyone.

Even before nursing school, my tried and true structure for cover letters has been to: A) acknowledge a goal/mission statement/achievement that the hospital/unit is proud of, B) point out one of your strengths/achievements that is related to that goal, and C) explain how you can contribute your unique skills to help the unit/hospital achieve that goal. 

So for instance, you might say: A) I appreciate that your unit has made a commitment to decreasing adverse outcomes through [x] initiative. B) I am very passionate about this topic; in my last job I served on the [x] committee, where I created project to decrease adverse outcomes. C) As a member of your team, I hope that I can contribute to your [x] project in order to provide patients with the best possible care.

Within this single structure, you are able to a) demonstrate that you've researched the company, b) compliment the manager on a program that they're proud of, c) brag about your achievements in a natural/humble way, and d) help the manager to visualize how you could be an asset to their team's specific goals. It also helps make the body of your cover letter more focused and directed. You can use this format for literally any industry, business or application.

I usually look on the company or hospital's website to see what they're proud to highlight and tailor my response to that. It could be some innovative project, or it could be as straightforward as the hospital's nursing mission/aims if they're published on the website. You can also use this approach to structure school applications (I applied it with success for both nursing and grad school applications).