If you're an expert at writing code, but you could use a new job, then what you really need to write next is a software engineer cover letter.
Resume.io is the right place to turn for advice and help. Our job-winning resources include a wide selection of occupation-specific writing guides and free cover letter examples.
In this guide, we’ll explore in depth why a cover letter is a crucial part of a job application and how to prepare your own. Here’s what we’ll discuss:
- The job outlook for software engineers
- The purpose and goal of a cover letter
- The best software engineer cover letter structure and what sections it should include
- How to write each cover letter section for maximum impact: header, greeting, introduction, body and conclusion
- Design and formatting of your software engineer cover letter
- Common cover letter mistakes to avoid.
Job outlook for software engineers
Finding available job openings in your field should not be a problem. There’s an astonishing number published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting job growth of 22% for software developers from 2020 to 2030. That’s nearly three times higher than the projected job growth for all occupations.
While there are some differences between software engineers and software developers, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Both design, build, test and maintain computer software, although engineers build the tools that developers use to create applications. Software engineers tend to address all issues of software function, while developers tend to work on smaller-scale projects.
Both jobs pay well, though estimates of average salaries vary widely. According to Glassdoor.com, software engineers earn around $108,249 a year, while software developers make $97,763. Payscale.com cites considerably lower averages, at $88,161 for software engineers and $73,031 for developers.
Yet the BLS, which does not list software engineers separately, says software developers earned median pay of $110,140 in 2020.
Given the salaries and job outlook for these related fields, you can expect both plenty of opportunity and plenty of competition as a job seeker. And to position yourself for the top jobs, you’ll need an outstanding resume and cover letter. The builder tool and resume templates at resume.io enable anyone to create a professional, field-tested resume that will get results.
Why software engineers need a cover letter
A cover letter is a hello, a handshake, a greeting from afar. It’s a first attempt to introduce yourself to someone who has the power to offer you a job, so it’s important. If you’ve identified a company you want to work for, sure, you could send them a random resume if you want, with no note to personalize it in any way. But what you really need with this company is a personal connection to a hiring manager, and a conversation that will continue in the future.
In one survey of hiring managers, 10% said one of the top reasons for rejecting job applicants’ resumes was their failure to include a cover letter.
Resumes tend to be somewhat dry lists of jobs, schools and skills. They don’t contain the word “I” or “you,” nor are they addressed to anyone. But a cover letter gives you the opportunity to address a hiring manager in your own voice. It’s a chance to showcase your personality, passion, creativity and personal warmth. A cover letter should be one page only, and a maximum of 400 words.
Occasionally an employer will ask to see a resume only with no cover letter, and if that happens you should obviously comply with the request. But unless specifically asked not to, always include a cover letter when sending a resume to a potential employer.
Resume.io’s comprehensive cover letter guide offers general advice about how to go about writing a cover letter.
Best format for a software engineer cover letter
A software engineer cover letter should generally follow this framework of components:
Let’s talk about what each of these contains.
Cover letter header
In the old days we called this a letterhead — a printed heading on a blank sheet of paper stating the sender’s name and contact info. And yes, we used to roll these into typewriters in order to write a business letter.
The technology has changed, but the purpose of the header remains the same — to quickly communicate to your correspondent who you are and how to reach you. It should be attractively designed, perhaps with a splash of color, to provide an eye-pleasing break from the solid paragraphs of text that follow. A header should generally include your name, address, phone number and email. It may also include what you do: “Software Engineer,” for example. Snail-mail addresses are considered less important now than they used to be, but it’s usually best to include one unless there’s a reason not to.
To review some examples of good headers that will work for resumes or cover letters, visit our template page.
Align document styles
Your cover letter and your resume should be prepared using the same fonts, font sizes and formatting styles throughout. In fact, you may want to use the exact same header for your resume and cover letter.
This consistency of style gives you a “visual brand,” demonstrates your attention to detail, and shows you understand that style matters. It should be obvious at a glance that your resume and your cover letter came from the same person.
If your resume is formatted in a different style than your cover letter, the recruiter may assume that you’re using an old, generic resume that you send to all employers, whereas your cover letter is written using your new favorite fonts and type styles. This suggests a lack of consistency and organization.
Goal of the cover letter header: Readily tells the hiring manager who you are and how to reach you, while demonstrating a visual brand and regard for detail.
Cover letter greeting
“Dear Mr. (or Ms.) Xxxxxxxx:” is the time-honored style for writing any business letter, including the formality of using the last name and ending the line with a colon.
The era of email has relaxed some of the rules, with a comma often replacing the colon, with first names considered more acceptable, and with more generalized salutations like “Greetings XYZ Team.” But beware of being too informal. Probably the best advice is to study the culture of the company you’re targeting and see what kind of language it uses to address the public. Then use the same level of formality or lack thereof in your letter.
Whenever possible, address your cover letter to a specific person. There are several reasons for this:
- One of the primary reasons for a cover letter is to establish a personal connection to a hiring manager. This is hard to do if you don’t even know this person’s name.
- It shows good initiative on your part if you’ve gone to the trouble of finding out the name of the appropriate person to contact.
- People like to read their own names, and people are more inclined to respond to a letter addressed personally to them.
If the job listing you’re responding to doesn’t include the name of the person seeking applications, it may well be worth your while to call the company and inquire. However, there are some hiring managers who prefer to obscure their identities for whatever reason. In such cases you’ll have to find a creative way to address the entire company or the appropriate department within that company in your greeting.
Goal of the cover letter greeting: Starts off in a professional manner that shows initiative in researching the recipient’s name and how formal or casual the tone should be.
Dear Mrs. Wanamaker,
Cover letter introduction
Your first paragraph should be a provocative opening that both identifies the job you’re seeking and offers a preview of your qualifications. It should be written in energetic, lively language that hints at your passion for what you do. Ideally it should make the reader say, “Hey, this person can write.” At the very least, it should make the reader want to read on.
After eight years of software development experience in the ecommerce operations of two leading online fashion retailers (averaging 11 million+ monthly visits), I hope to bring my web development and systems architecture skills to Banton.
Goal of the cover letter introduction: Focus the reader’s immediate attention on your most compelling attributes while sparking interest to keep reading.
Cover letter middle section (body)
Now that you’ve got their attention, it’s time to deliver. The two or three paragraphs in the body of your letter must make the case that you qualify for the job. This is the place to discuss your work experience, your achievements on the job and your qualifications in the field. This is the place to use that telling anecdote about how you once solved a major problem to everyone’s satisfaction.
Be specific when describing past accomplishments, using facts and figures where appropriate. Think of the symbols “$,” “#” and “%,” and try to provide dollar figures, numbers and percentages. If you have a college degree in a computer-related field, this would be a fine place to mention it. You can also turn from talking about the past to talking about the future. You may choose to describe to the employer how you believe your unique set of skills will help it solve its problems.
Goal of the cover letter body: Illustrate how this employer would benefit from your qualifications as an experienced, solution-focused software engineer.
The majority of my career has been spent maintaining ESB applications and ensuring the smooth operations of the ecommerce back end. I am proficient at understanding the needs of the business and putting the customer experience first while keeping an eye on budgetary constraints. After reinvigorating the supplier base in 2019, we achieved a 13% annual cost saving while decreasing website bugs and coding errors by 35%.
My highest profile project came when I designed, developed and implemented the architecture of an award-winning virtual store that allowed customers to superimpose their image onto our products. From initial requirement gathering to design, coding, testing and roll-out, I project managed every aspect. The application increased LFL sales by 18%.
Prior to my retail experience, I spent a decade in a software consultancy, so my technical experience is broader than just ecommerce. This has proved useful for many non-retail requirements. I am proficient in Windows, Unix and Linux platforms, as well as fluent in nine programming languages (including C, C++, VB, Java, Perl and SQL).
My computer science degree from CalTech formed the foundation of my career, but I have taken every opportunity since to take over 60 online courses and certifications. You could say that I am somewhat addicted to improving my software skills.
Cover letter conclusion
One final paragraph of your software engineer cover letter should serve as both a summary and a call to action. You want to close on a confident and positive note, looking forward to further contact. For example: Given my decade of experience in software engineering and my love of gaming, I hope you would be interested in meeting with me to discuss how I could help fulfill your ambitions in this market. I’d love to show you some of what I’ve done in the past and also toss around some ideas about the future.
I look forward to hearing about your development plans and hope that an interview might allow me to expand on how my skills could contribute.
Aim of the cover letter closing: End on a self-assured note with a call to action encouraging an enthusiastic response from the hiring manager.
Your letter should usually close with a simple “Sincerely,” followed by a space and your typed name. There’s no harm in scanning your actual signature and inserting it if you can, though it’s not expected in electronic correspondence.
Cover letter design and formatting
In your career as a software engineer, did you ever have a client who said, “I don’t care what it looks like as long as it works”? Probably not many!
Looks matter. So consider these points:
- Fonts: Use an attractive, modern, legible font that other people are likely to have on their computers. Avoid exotic fonts that call attention to themselves or that may turn into garble on someone else’s screen.
- Font size: Use a font size of 10 to 12 points for the body of your letter (though bigger is OK for parts of the header, including your name). If your letter doesn’t fit onto one page, avoid reducing the font size and instead trim your text.
- Margins: Use a one-inch margin on the left, right, top and bottom of your page. This creates essential white space on the margins of your page and keeps it from looking too dense and crowded.
- Text alignment: Text should usually be justified left, creating a “ragged right” style where the words on the right don’t align. This creates additional white space to the right, whereas paragraphs that are stretched out from the left margin to the right create big, unpalatable blocks of text.
- Paragraph spacing: Put a space between all paragraphs, and do not indent them. It used to be acceptable to deliver a single-spaced document as long as each new paragraph was indented, like in a book. But for most electronic communications today, that convention is long gone.
- White space: Never forget that some of the most important parts of your letter are those that are completely blank. White space is crucial because both the eye and the brain occasionally need a break. Good designers will tell you that you should avoid “trapping” white space inside your design and instead push it to the outside of the page.
- Send as PDF: Except in rare cases where an employer specifically requests a Word file, save your cover letter as a PDF. This file type will preserve all of your formatting so that your page looks the same on your correspondent’s computer as on yours.
- Use a template: The easiest, fastest and safest way to ensure that your cover letter meets industry standards is to download a professional, field-tested template from a service like resume.io. We’ll take care of the design, the fonts and the formatting — all you have to do is write the letter.
Psychology, tactics and tips
Remember that your cover letter is written to a human being, and you should write like one too. Avoid the kind of language that will make you sound like a corporate robot.
Beware of clichés commonly used in cover letters. “I am writing to ...” “Please consider this letter my application for…” “I am a team player and a self-starter, and I’m passionate about thinking outside the box.” Kill all of this language. If it’s been said a thousand times before, do not say it again. Write something that your recipient has never read before.
Psychologists say the brain responds to stimuli with a mix of quick, emotional responses and slower, more rational responses. Both are useful to you in writing a persuasive cover letter. You should use a certain amount of emotional and personal language that appeals more to the heart than the head (“My greatest desire…” I would be delighted to…” etc.). And you should use a certain amount of rational language — for example, the facts and figures that illustrate your successes at past endeavors.
Also remember that everyone loves a good story, and try to include at least one anecdote. Bear in mind that the point of a cover letter is to establish a personal relationship with the recipient. So when you talk like a real person, make sure it's the kind of person the recruiter would want to meet.
System error: Some bugs to avoid
These are some of the most common mistakes that people make in writing cover letters:
- Errors in English. This is among the top reasons resumes and cover letters are rejected: Typos, misspelled words and bad grammar. If writing is not your long suit, find an editor to review your letter before you send it.
- Form letters. A cover letter is NOT a one-size-fits-all document that you send to all employers. Every cover letter should be unique, addressed to a specific recipient and based on the employer's specific needs.
- Bad formatting. The aforementioned problems about strange fonts, tiny text, missing margins or any other reason your letter is ugly (or doesn’t open in a normal application) can be an instant disqualifier.
- Irrelevant info. Whether you run three marathons a year or are an international master of Dungeons and Dragons, leave it out if it’s not relevant to your skills as a software engineer.
Key takeaways for a software engineer cover letter
- Software engineers can look forward to robust job growth and excellent salaries in the years ahead. But the competition for these jobs will also be substantial, and every candidate needs a top-notch job application including an excellent resume and cover letter.
- Unless specifically asked not to, you should always send a cover letter when submitting a resume.
- Understand the basic structure of a cover letter and write yours accordingly.
- Format your letter correctly to avoid deal-breaking mistakes in fonts, design and file types.
- Make sure your letter is error-free before you hit “Send.”
Best of luck!
If you’re looking for additional cover letter writing guidance, check out these cover letter examples and writing guides in our related IT category: