Writing a Cover Letter

Perhaps because putting together a great CV is such a time- and energy-consuming task, people often treat the cover letter section of their job application as an afterthought. To justify not putting their last little bits of remaining effort into ensuring that their cover letter matches their CV in terms of its self-selling power, people often resort to rationalising the cover letter as something that employers just toss to one side before they scrutinise the CV.

Is this a good strategy? Could the efforts that you would spend crafting a perfect cover letter really be better spent on other aspects of your job hunt ?

Well, that really depends on what you’re applying for and how you’re applying for it. For many jobs, a cover letter–or alternatively a personal statement, which as we’ll discuss is used by employers as an alternative to a cover letter–is essential.

But for some positions a cover letter is either not expected, or plays only a secondary role. And while we’re never ones to cut corners, we also wouldn’t want you wasting your time and efforts producing something that was just going to be ignored. So before we go on to how to write a great cover letter or personal statement, let’s just look at a few situations where you probably don’t need to spend too much time on one, or even write one at all.

The first scenario is when the employer stipulates that you only use their application form and also stipulates that you don’t include a CV. In this sort of situation the employer–usually it’ll be a very large company that has a very streamlined applications assessment process to cope with the huge numbers of applicants they get–wants you to follow a very specific set of steps, and if they don’t ask for something it’s because they won’t look at it. Of course, if that application form of theirs includes a personal statement section, then the advice in this article will most definitely apply to you.

The next situation where a cover letter may not be so important is for the sorts of position where you will make a speculative application by going into the premises and handing over your CV. In most cases this would be for positions such as bar and restaurant front-of-house or kitchen work, or perhaps for shop-assistant vacancies. With this type of job a detailed cover letter isn’t really expected, though it wouldn’t necessarily do any harm either.

The next scenario where there’s slightly less need for an outstanding cover letter is when you’re applying for positions through a recruitment consultancy or temp agency that screens all the applications itself. Recruitment consultants tend to handle their recruiting process differently from the HR teams of companies, and as a result they tend to handle the task of recommending you to the employer.

That said, if you know of a recruitment agency that tends to regularly put out vacancies that are of interest to you, then you can certainly make a good impression on their recruitment consultants by sending a CV and cover letter to them. Under this scenario the purpose of the cover letter would be to let them know what a great candidate you’d make for their clients, rather than to apply for a specific position. People who take the time to target recruitment consultants in this way rather than just firing off their CV to hundreds of positions their websites advertise tend to find they get a lot more phone calls from recruitment consultants with information on openings.

These scenarios apart, however, a well-worded cover letter that is tailored towards the specific demands of the job role being applied for is otherwise a must for any serious applicant. Even if the employer’s initial sift of applicants is restricted to CVs, for the process of deciding who to interview they’ll almost certainly turn to the cover letters.

And, quite apart from the fact that a well-written cover letter demonstrates to an employer that you are highly literate, by taking the effort to use your cover letter to persuasively state your case for you being offered the position rather than just blandly expressing an interest in the vacancy, your cover letter could be the thing that gets you included on the interview shortlist.

The Parts of a Cover Letter

But how do you write a good–nay, an excellent–cover letter? It’s not having a good, clear answer to this question that causes many people to cut corners when it comes to this part of their job application.

However, like so many things in life, the whole process becomes a lot less daunting if it’s broken down into far more manageable steps. And while different vacancies will require you to include different things in the cover letter, it’s not unreasonable to base your cover letters around the following blueprint. (We’ll work on the assumption that your cover letter will in fact be a cover email and dispense with a discussion of letter formatting.

Addressing the right person by the right title – It’s surprising how many people overlook this key little detail. If the job advert has a contact name listed, address your letter to that person. Or if you’re sending off a speculative application, take the effort to look up the name of the boss of the company or their head of HR. By just putting ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ when you could have used a name makes it look like you’ve just fired out the same application to hundreds of employers rather than having any sort of specific interest in this particular vacancy.

The opening line and the follow-up – The cliche that ‘first impressions count’ is repeated so often for a simple reason: it’s true. If you start your cover letter with a formulaic opening that simply states your purpose is to apply for a particular job vacancy, you’ve shown very little initiative. Instead kick things off with a sentence saying who you are in positive terms (eg. ‘an ambitious and capable engineering graduate looking to start a successful career in the railway infrastructure sector’ followed by a sentence that states in the most enthusiastic terms possible how this status both makes you very interested in and suitable for the advertised position.

The main body paragraphs – This is obviously where you lay out your case for being considered for the job. It’s here that you will discuss the key attributes you have that make you suitable for the position. There are all sorts of different configurations that you could use for these paragraphs, and exactly how you organise and present this section really depends on what you need to convey to the employer. As a starting guideline you might consider a paragraph on your education, one on your previous work/internship/voluntary experience, and one on the different skills and qualities that you have, such as your strong sense of initiative and your adaptability, along with mentioning any other additional qualifications that the job requires. Whatever structure you choose, however, the key thing is to make sure that each thing you say about yourself covers the specifications the employer has set out in their job advert.

The concluding paragraph – With a cover letter it’s always a good idea to make sure you round things off with a positive and personalised summary of your interest in the position, such as something along the lines of how the role would fit in perfectly with your career objectives while at the same time ensuring the company gets a dedicated employee who’ll make a really positive contribution to their team. At the same time, your final paragraph should also fulfil the formalities of specifying that you have included a CV, stating you are available for interview and thanking the employer for taking the time to consider your application.

Yours faithfully or yours sincerely? – You don’t want to fall at the final hurdle by getting this last part wrong. Remember that it’s ‘yours faithfully’ when you addressed the person as ‘Sir/Madam’ and ‘yours sincerely’ if you used their name.

Pointers on Form and Content

How long should my letter be? – the best way to answer this question is to consult the job advert and see if it specifies a maximum length. If there is no stated maximum then a good rule of thumb is about a single page of a Word document in size 12 font for an entry-level position, and possibly longer if it’s a very specialised or senior position that demands you have a lot in the way of qualifications and previous positions of responsibility.

How much should I sing my own praises? – the art of a good cover letter and CV is to make yourself look absolutely brilliant without coming across as arrogant or appearing to exaggerate. You should definitely use superlative adjective such as ‘exceptional’ and ‘first-rate,’ but also make sure that you don’t go over the top and describe small things such as punctuality in these terms. Also try whenever possible to link your self-praise to specific evidence in the form of achievements.

How do I choose what to leave in and what to leave out? – unlike a CV, a cover letter isn’t supposed to cover your entire career story. Instead, it’s a summary of the best bits, expressed in powerful and effective language. Think of it as a bit like the trailer of a movie, with the CV as the film itself. To decide which of your achievements would be best to mention, use the job advert itself as a guide. What skills or qualifications do they put most emphasis on? Those are the ones that you’ll want to draw the reader’s attention to.

What’s the difference between a personal statement and a cover letter? – in reality there’s quite a lot of overlap between a cover letter and a personal statement. There’s the cosmetic difference of it not needing to start and begin like a letter (ie. by stating the purpose of writing to the person), but in terms of its main paragraphs the personal statement is very similar to the cover letter, and you’ll also want to begin it with an opening statement of who you are and why the role interests you, as well as end it with something that summarises why you’re the right person for the role. In some ways personal statements are easier to handle than cover letters, as generally an employer who uses them will specify what you need to include in the statement, and you can use this information as a basis for deciding what to write