Speculative letters (by post or email) might work better than you think. They're a recognised way of communicating with employers who are not currently advertising for staff. If your message finds a decision-maker who has a problem or an opportunity, you could be in a meeting pretty fast. But consider if a letter out of the blue is the best method of connecting with an organisation – it's often more effective to get a warm introduction through existing contacts.
Be concise and to the point
Many speculative letters are pure time wasters. They make little attempt to understand the needs of the organisation, and are instantly considered as junk mail. Too many letters use dull, predictable wording, over-long introductions and explanations, and communicate too much using long paragraphs which will never be read. Get to the point quickly. Show, rather than tell, how you have the skills and know-how necessary to do the job – provide evidence in bullet point form. Get across key evidence from your CV, but avoid repeating exact phrases.
The first mistake is to believe that it sells you into a meeting. It won't. If you're lucky, it will simply persuade the reader to consider your CV. The only function of a cover letter is to get your CV read, and to get you a meeting. If your CV is a short book, your cover letter is like the blurb on the cover – it gives a reason to start reading. It should therefore flag up three or four strong items in your CV worth considering.
The second mistake is to rehearse every reason why you might get hired. Some candidates send in cover letters more than two pages long, crammed with information. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the longer you argue your case, the better your chances of an interview - the opposite is almost certainly the case. If you can't write a coherent one-page letter, what does that say about your communication skills in the job?
The employer is the focus not you
Try not to begin every sentence and paragraph with "I". Focus on the reader of the letter and his or her perspective. Your letter should say more about the employer than it says about you. State why you are attracted to the organisation and what you like about it. Research. Refer to the problems, opportunities and headaches your target company is facing. Remember Swot as a prompt: what can you say about a company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? Try to work out the top half dozen or so priorities in the employer's mind and offer five or six matching pieces of evidence in your cover letter.
Why are you a good match?
Refer the reader to your enclosed CV, stating briefly why you are a good match as a candidate. Don't apologise in your letter for the lack of industry experience or your lack of a specific qualification. Select a range of achievements relevant to the needs of the organisation, and set out your top three or four as bullet points in the letter. This short burst of information is the element most likely to get you into a meeting.
Avoid the hard-sell
In the UK job market, selling yourself too hard can be counter-productive. Avoid the pushy assumptive close you see in some recommended formats: "I'll be calling you on Monday to discuss my application further", or "I will expect your call". Simply end your message stating that you'd like the opportunity to take the conversation further – they'll respond fast enough if they're interested.
Accuracy and research
Ensure complete accuracy in names and job titles, as well as the name of the organisation itself (plus the names of products or services). Cut and paste from previous letters with great care. Print a letter off and proof read it carefully before emailing.
Don't put anything in your cover letter which gives the reader an excuse to put it aside. For example, apologising for your lack of a particular requirement, mentioning your age, or referring to negative aspects such as why you left your last job.
Research the staff list of the organisation carefully to ensure your letter is read by the right decision maker. It pays to make some calls to anyone who knows anything about the organisation so you can find out who to approach and what you might say which makes your approach stand out. Remember that the organisation will be researching you in return – make sure your LinkedIn page is up to date and tells the story you want to get across. Telephone to check that your letter has been received by the intended recipient. If you get connected, ask one relevant question, and mention one reason why you might be able to help the employer, then suggest a meeting.
John Lees is a career coach, founder of John Lees Associates and author of Knockout CV.
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The first couple of sentences in any cover letter have a loaded task: they are supposed to grab the attention of a recruiter who has already reviewed hundreds of applications. Then they need to convince a hiring manager to dive deeper into your background to find out whether your skills and personality match the position they need to fill.
Conveying all this in a few lines is by no means easy. After all, the beginning of an application letter should be catchy, but not overselling (especially when you are a student or graduate who doesn’t have years of experience to refer to). It should be professional sounding, but not boring. And the border between those extremes is sometimes blurry.
Therefore, it is a good idea to have a couple of cover letter examples you can fall back on, when you are desperate for inspiration. We have picked a few examples for first sentences in cover letters. (We have also included a brief explanation when to choose a certain sentence and what pitfalls to avoid in connection with it.)
1) The ‘better safe than sorry’ example
“I have read your advertisement of the junior research assistant position with great interest and would like to use this opportunity to apply for said position. What has particularly sparked my interest in this job is…”
Works well when...
...you do not consider yourself a great writer and the job you have set out to apply for does not require you to be one. In that case, just keep the start of your letter simple and straight to the point.
- Referring to the position with a generic or downright wrong term. Stick to the exact one mentioned in the job description.
- Forgetting to mention a specific reason why you found the job description interesting.
2) The ‘extra confident’ example
“The sales rep position advertised by you sounds like a great match with the skills and qualifications that I have been able to acquire during [relevant study programme or employment]:…”
Works well when...
...the job you are applying for requires a certain amount of self-confidence and sales abilities - and you actually have the skills and experience to back up your claims. You just have to be aware that you are using an element of provocation here that not every recruiter finds charming.
- Using phrases like “perfect match”, “no one better for the position” etc. Remember there is a fine line between confidence and douchebag.
- Making claims that you already know you can’t deliver on - after an opening line like this, you will be subject to extra scrutiny and tough questions in any interview.
3) The ‘enthusiast’ example
“Having finished my education in international business, I’m in search of an opportunity to combine my passion for exploring cultures with my professional career. Your advertisement of the position as business development manager for the French market, therefore, appears very intriguing to me. …”
Works well when…
...you don’t have that much practical experience in the field that you are applying for and you want to convey that you are eager and willing to learn.
- Coming across as uninformed. You have to rely on the information available to you to deduct what you can possibly learn from this job. For example, writing that you are passionate to learn about auditing when you are applying for a marketing position can raise some question marks on the recruiter’s side.
- Using too many buzzwords - enthusiasm is cool, but there is such a thing as an overkill.
4) The ‘creative quote’ example
“As economist Hal Varian has observed: ‘A billion hours ago, modern homo sapiens emerged. A billion minutes ago, Christianity began. A billion seconds ago, the IBM PC was released. A billion Google searches ago ... was this morning.’ I have chosen this quote as an introduction to my application as a digital marketing manager because…”
Works well when…
...you are applying for a position or to a company where you know a certain amount of creativity is appreciated in your communication - and you actually find a relevant quote.
- Attributing a quote to the wrong person. (Double-check! Only because you’ve read Ryan Reynolds saying it in an interview, doesn’t mean that he actually came up with it... maybe he was quoting Albert Einstein? Extra points, though, when a Ryan Reynolds quote gets you an interview invitation...)
- Using generic quotes. It’s great that you “seize the day”, but no hiring manager cares. As a rule of thumb: any quote that can be found on a greeting card that features a beach, footprints in the sand and a very pink sunset are not cover letter material.
Have you decided on your opening lines? Great, now you only have to write the rest of the application. Check out our cover letter guide for more tips.