So, your CV is looking fabulous; you’ve managed to either condense 40 years’ worth of experience into two pages of razor-sharp content, or you’ve expanded six weeks’ experience working in your local supermarket during the school holidays to one page of impressive skills just waiting to be nurtured. Then your heart sinks as you see that the job application entails providing a cover letter. What on earth are you supposed to write?
I like to look at cover letters as the wardrobe to your Narnia-esque CV, leading the reader to want to open the door to discover the land beyond it. Ok, maybe a little dramatic, but you get the idea – basically, your cover letter needs to make the reader want to read your CV. In my experience, the cover letters that have grabbed my attention, are those that have addressed the most crucial needs of the role whilst convincing me that there’s no other organisation the applicant would want to work for. Producing something like this is no mean feat, however, once you’ve written it, it can easily be adapted for other organisations you’re applying to (with the replacement of the company’s name of course – see the below soapbox hopping). Stick to a maximum of one page for your cover letter, as there aren’t many jobs in the world where being verbose is considered a positive thing, and this isn’t the time to test that. As well as a doorway, your cover letter is an accessory to your CV, not an extended version. It should supplement, not detract.
Firstly, and arguably most importantly of all, address your letter to the correct company both literally and within the content of the letter itself. That may sound ridiculously obvious, but I worked in recruitment for over 15 years and I would need the equivalent of a rugby team’s (including substitutes) pairs of hands to count how many times I had a cover letter addressed to, or referring to, one of the main competitors of the organisation I worked for. It happens. A lot. Some recruiters deem it unforgivable and you can understand why. If you can’t get that right, why would they continue to read your letter, let alone take more time out to go through your CV, which they now assume will contain a profusion of errors? Throughout the process of writing both your cover letter and your CV, check, check and check again for spelling, grammar and more subtle errors like this. Ideally, have everything proofread by a professional or, at the very least, a family member or friend that you know is a bit persnickety about accuracy (a very noble trait in my mind)!
You’ll want to try and work out who specifically to address your cover letter to, whether it’s someone within HR, a specific recruiter, or a relevant manager. If it’s not apparent from the job advert, do some LinkedIn, Google, company website research, or simply give the company a call and ask them. It looks much more professional if you can include this in your cover letter and shows that you’re making some effort. Keep it formal at this stage, as you’ve likely never met this person – you’ll want to address it to ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ unless and until it seems appropriate to drop the formality eg. if you’ve spoken to them and they’ve advised you otherwise.
Whilst you’re researching, find out what the company’s values are and what key qualities they look for in applicants. You’ll hopefully have done this research for your CV, so it should be a case of refreshing your memory and drilling it down to the most pertinent details or extracting a few you want to focus on.
Your first paragraph should really grab the reader’s attention. Overall, they want to know why you’re applying and what’s in it for them to give you the job. This is the paragraph where you refer to the job you’re applying for so, again, get it right. If there are similar positions at competing companies, but with slightly different titles and you’ve slipped up, the recruiter will assume you’ve either not done your research or you’re not too concerned about accuracy.
Ok, this is where I get a bit controversial, and it is just my personal opinion I’m sharing here so I’m just going to come out and say it – I’m not a fan of gushing cover letters. You know the type, where an applicant expresses their undying love for a company and how their dreams would literally come true because it would be the absolute pinnacle of their career if they got the job. Just calm down a tad. Yes, you really want the job and yes, it may be your dream job and yes, it could set you off on the most amazing career trajectory BUT, you’re still a professional applying to a professional for a profession, so keep it professional. Believe me, over the years, I’ve seen everything - poetry, jokes, love letters, humorous videos, not-so humorous videos, cartoons... I mean, full credit for originality but do tread carefully. It’s worth bearing in mind that my recruiting history is very much on the corporate side, where this kind of ‘originality’ isn’t necessarily appreciated, but there are probably some industries and companies out there that would love it. It all comes down to research and knowing who you’re applying to, tailoring your cover letter and CV to reflect their style and values.
So, back to that all-important first paragraph and what you should include. Definitely express your passion for the company and role (in a professional manner), and give specifics about why you’re applying – it could be because they have an amazing track record in client service, they’re renowned for their contributions to social economic development, or they have had significant and measurable impact in their research into the effects of deforestation. In terms of the role, it may be that it’s an obvious progression on the career ladder for you offering you opportunities for development in x, y, z, or that it aligns with your skillset whilst allowing you to apply it to a different industry. Whatever it is, as long as it’s relevant and true, make sure you articulate it as it shows you’ve done your homework.
You then need to explain why they would benefit from you in the role. This is where you can give a few (I recommend sticking to three) examples of what you’re offering them. And the key thing here is to make the examples relevant to what they’re asking for. There’s no point waxing lyrical about your skills and experience in customer service if the role you’re applying for involves zero contact with the outside world. Although I think customer service skills are nearly always important, if it’s not even mentioned in the job spec, there’s no point in you mentioning it. You may be able to think of additional examples to those you’ve used in your CV and, if not, make sure you’re presenting them in a different way. I always recommend using bullet points in your CV whereas, in your cover letter, you could let your writing flow a little more expressively. As with your CV, don’t forget to make those examples measurable in either quality or quantity – you need to highlight the specific impact your role had on the client, customer, company, department, product, service etc, whether it be in cost savings, efficiency improvements, great customer feedback, a more productive team, or a good old-fashioned pat on the back (but I advise against using this rather whimsical phrase and opting for something more pragmatic like winning an award or gaining a promotion)!
The final paragraph should be straightforward and concise with a call to action. It could be as simple as ‘Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you’. Again, in my personal opinion, all attempts to gush should be avoided, although you could remind them of how perfect you are for the job by saying something like ‘ I’d love the opportunity to show you how my success at [insert existing/previous employer] can translate to growing the market value of [insert potential employer]. What a finish!
Formalities should be applied to the signoff to a cover letter as well – using ‘sincerely’, ‘kind regards’ or ‘best regards’ is considered pretty acceptable.
My final words of advice on writing a cover letter are to avoid using too much jargon or too many abbreviations or acronyms, as the first reader of your application may not be an expert in a specific field and it could limit their appreciation of your experience. Also, whatever you do, avoid the use of text speak. One day, this may well evolve to be the everyday dialect of the human race, but textese is currently still viewed rather negatively by most employers so best not to chance it. I know I keep saying to keep the content of cover letters and CVs concise, but this is not the way to accomplish it!
In a later blog post, I’m going to address cover letters and CVs based on specific work history eg. if you’re applying for your first job or returning to work after long-term sickness or maternity leave. In the meantime, if you’d like any help in writing your cover letter and CV, get in touch.