Hays’ Jane McNeill explains why cover letters are still as relevant as ever, and how you can ensure you write the best one possible.
Writing a cover letter to accompany your job application can really help you to stand out in the mind of a hiring manager or recruiter. Taking the time and effort to write one positions you as a proactive candidate who is genuinely interested in the role you’ve applied for.
Before we begin, let’s go back to basics: what is a cover letter? This is a document that candidates sometimes submit alongside their CV when applying for a job. It serves as a personal introduction to you as a professional, and enables you to briefly summarise why you are the right person for the job, before the reader goes on to find out more about you in your CV.
Not all candidates will make the effort to write a tailored and personalised cover letter. So, if you do, it’s more likely that you will catch the attention of the reader. As Jodi Glickman, a communications expert and author of Great on the Job, has observed: “Not sending a cover letter is a sign of laziness. It’s akin to making spelling and grammar mistakes in your résumé. You just don’t do it.”
How to write a cover letter
While the purpose of the cover letter has never changed, the advent of digital technology has meant that the way it is presented and submitted has evolved. For example, rather than sending hard copies through the post, cover letters take the form of a personalised note to add to your LinkedIn application or an email attaching your CV.
Your cover letter needs to communicate that you are genuinely interested in the opportunity that the given role represents and why. This means the letter needs to be tailored, and not just a standard letter that you’ve edited. Here, then, are some of the things you should and shouldn’t do when writing yours.
What to do when writing your cover letter
Do your research before you start writing. This will help to give you a clue of the appropriate tone to use in the cover letter and the points you should include, bearing in mind such factors as the organisation’s industry, culture and values. Look at such sources as the organisation’s official website and social media profiles, its executives’ social media profiles and any online employee reviews.
Personalise it. This information is easier to find than it has ever been before, so you really don’t have much excuse for getting any names wrong or not addressing the cover letter personally to the hiring manager. And certainly, don’t just copy and paste your cover letter for every position you apply for – make it personal and targeted every time. It’ll be obvious to an employer if you’ve just edited a few words of the same cover letter that you send to everyone else, which may suggest you have little real interest in the vacancy.
Start with a strong intro to hook the reader in. The first sentence of the cover letter will either grab the hiring manager’s attention or lose it, so it needs to powerfully demonstrate that you understand what they are looking for and need. Instantly communicate your unique selling points that will help to solve the hiring manager’s problems, such as relevant industry knowhow, skills, experience and achievements, instead of the generic ‘I’m applying for the role of ____.’
Mention a personal connection
If you’ve come across this opportunity via a friend or have a previous connection with the organisation, mention it. Maybe you were previously introduced to the hiring manager by this person because they thought you were a good fit for the role? Or perhaps you crossed paths as an intern or an employee at one of the company’s suppliers or competitors?
Optimise the subject line if you can. Also check the job description again, in case the employer asks applicants to include something specific in the subject line.
Optimisation and formatting
Use keywords mentioned in the job description, but don’t keyword-stuff in the hope that your application will get picked up in any applicant tracking software – it is possible to overdo your use of keywords. Include your contact information including your name, phone number, email address and LinkedIn URL.
Sign off professionally. Conclude the main body of the cover letter with a power phrase such as, ‘I would like to discuss in greater detail the value I could bring to your organisation’, and close with the formal and widely accepted ‘Best regards’ or ‘Sincerely’.
Spell-check and ensure the formatting is correct.If you’re submitting your cover letter as an attachment online, write it in a Word document so that the program can flag up obvious issues like misspellings. Also, check that any formatting in Word translates properly into the email or online form. In terms of formatting, break any intimidating blocks of text into more readable paragraphs and bullet points.
If possible, put your cover letter and CV in the same document, which will help to avoid your cover letter being misplaced if the employer uses an automated online applicant tracking system.
What not to do when writing your cover letter
Don’t drone on – keep it succinct. The reader is interested in concrete facts rather than quirkiness or clichés.
Don’t overlook the finer points. Have you taken the time to find out the name of the recipient so that you can address the cover letter to them personally? What about confirming your availability towards the end of the letter and signing off appropriately? It’s small touches like these that could really help you to stand out from other candidates.
Don’t just repeat what you’ve said on your CV or LinkedIn profile – a cover letter should be complementary to these other means of marketing yourself professionally, and should therefore support and enhance your story. What is it about your hobbies, interests and background that made you especially interested in this position?
Don’t go overboard with the flattery, as this could risk you coming across as insecure, insincere or sycophantic. Professionalism, maturity and authenticity are vital qualities to communicate from the beginning of your relationship with the employer.
Don’t write in the third person. A cover letter is, after all, a letter addressed directly to the employer. You are using this document to sell yourself and, while a cover letter’s tone of voice should be professional, it should also be sufficiently conversational to engage the reader and communicate your personality, values and interest in the role.
Don’t use WordArt or unusual fonts. Use a standard professional font such as Arial, which is readable and clean. This isn’t just about making the right impression on hiring managers and lessening their eye strain, as the automated scanning systems used by applicant-tracking systems can also sometimes struggle with more unusual fonts.
Example cover letter
45 King Edward Street
Dear Mr Carl Smith,
Subject line: Experienced senior manager for____ position
I was previously introduced to your company by your colleague, Susan Bainbridge, at the recent ____ trade fair, and became particularly intrigued by the work you do and the culture of the business. Subsequently, I was especially excited to see the role of ____ recently advertised on your website.
I believe my 15 years as a senior manager for one of the biggest names in the ____ sector, overseeing a 25pc rise in revenues over the last half-decade, uniquely equips me to build upon the experience I already have, apply my knowledge and skills to the role of ____ , and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to your business.
From reviewing the job description, I believe that I am a great match for this role and could become a key team player in helping your business to attain its ambitions.
Pinsent Media is at a similar stage of its development to my present employer when I began my role with them, and I would love nothing more than to be able to help drive similarly incredible growth and success for your business.
I would like to draw your attention to the following skills and achievements that I would appreciate the opportunity to build on as your brand’s next ____ :
- Exceptional people, resource and process skills that have helped to drive consistent and measurable improvements in the company’s productivity, performance and sales in my present role – all skills that are well matched to Pinsent Media’s search for an ____ with a ‘proven track record’ in these areas
- An influential player in the transformation of my present company from a small business generating £2.2m in annual revenue with an 18-member staff team, into one of the most thriving and respected firms in its industry, employing 48 staff and recording revenue of £26.2m last year. I would be delighted to draw upon my skills and contacts to further Pinsent Media’s own ambitious growth objectives
- The conceptualisation and establishment of such strategic initiatives as ____ , ____ and ____ , as reported by Forbes and HuffPost, and driving the company to new heights of operational success. These achievements are highly relevant to Pinsent Media’s intention for its next ____ to assist in significantly expanding its international media profile and reputation for innovation
Thank you for your consideration. I have attached my CV and look forward to speaking to you further about this opportunity.
Simon M Taylor
The principle of a successful cover letter is simple: it needs to be sufficiently interesting to an employer to leave them feeling compelled to find out more by reading your CV, before finally deciding to call you in for an interview. By following the above advice, you can help to make yourself a more attractive candidate so that you have a greater likelihood of being shortlisted for interview.
By Jane McNeill
Jane McNeill is the director at Hays Australia.
A version of this article originally appeared on Hays’ Viewpoint blog.