A great cover letter can be just a few lines long (a typewriter isn’t necessary) Photograph: Alamy
Cover letters can be the first chance you get to stand out to your potential employer. What makes them so difficult to get right is that there’s no clear-cut formula. But there are certainly a few pointers to help you along.
Ultimately, the sole point of a cover letter is to draw attention to your CV, which holds all of your relevant information, experience and skills. In just a couple of short paragraphs, you should be able to show competent language skills, that you’d be suitable for the role in terms of your skills and experience, and that you have a genuine interest in the job.
To get this right, a cover letter should be unique to the organisation and job you’re applying to. “It must never feel like a one size fits all application letter that has been sent out to everyone,” says Hannah Morton-Hedges from Momentum Careers Advice.
It’s important to show that you’ve researched the company, so you’re able to clearly show you’re the right person to work there. “We love to see covering letters where applicants have made a real effort to connect with us, show that they understand a bit about us and therefore why we would be a particularly good match for each other,” says Rachel Gowers, a people and culture manager at customer ratings firm TruRating.
“What makes cover letters tricky is that they will always be subjective,” Morton-Hedges adds. “In my experience, it is those candidates who are really able to articulate their specific interest in the organisation who produce the stand-out examples.”
In terms of what should actually go in the letter, the advice can vary, but essentially you should “explain why you have applied for this job, what appeals to you about the role and why you would love to work for this organisation”, says Lisa LaRue, career and interview coach at CareerWorx. Highlight why you would be suitable for the job – but make sure you don’t repeat the information on your CV.
“A cover letter must explain how you meet the employers needs; it’s not about you, so don’t overuse ‘I’,” LaRue says.
It’s an overstated but vital point that employers don’t have a lot of time to look at job applications, so cover letters should always be kept short and succinct.
Jon Gregory, a job search, application and interview specialist, suggests that the best formula is to write an introduction that “states what job you are applying for and that you believe you’re a good match based on the ad requirements for the following reasons...” He suggests you should then include a three bullet point summary of why you are a great choice to interview: “It gets them to open your CV with enthusiasm.”
Another option is “an introduction, a body consisting of two paragraphs outlining your suitability for the role – including competency examples wherever possible – and a closing paragraph reiterating your interest and fit for the role,” says Victoria McLean, founder of CityCV.co.uk.
The style of the cover letter will always depend on the person and the industry, but it’s widely recommended to keep professional. Sarah Archer, founder of CareerTree, says: “Some [sectors] are more traditional and will expect a formal letter style, others will be happy with an informal approach.”
It’s always best to address the letter to a named person – LinkedIn is usually a good place to search, or it’s advisable to call the organisation and ask for the correct name. If not, you can use “Dear Sir/Madam” (although this formality may not be suitable for more modern, startup companies).
If you’re worried about coming across too professional so that any semblance of your personality disappears, you could open the letter with something friendly like, “I hope you’re well”, advises Andrew Fennell, the director of StandOut CV, adding, “keep the tone of your writing slightly conversational, especially when emailing.” To maintain a more natural and personal tone, try drafting it in “spoken form first. This can help to signpost any overly formal or clunky wording”, says Lis McGuire, founder of Giraffe CV.
And if a job ad doesn’t specifically ask for a cover letter, it’s always worth writing an email in the shape of a cover letter anyway. “A cover letter is simply a note to introduce yourself and ensure that your CV gets opened, so in this case you should write your cover note in the body of the email,” says Fennell.
McGuire agrees: “A cover email is a pitch. Imagine it as what you’d say to the recipient if you had the chance to hand over your CV and letter in person.”
A good cover letter should be able to make potential employers take an interest in you. But to show them why you’d be the right person for job, you must first “know what is good about yourself. The key is to take stock of your unique selling points”, says LaRue. “You need to really understand the value you bring to a potential employer to tell them why you’re best for the job.”
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