Whatever you decide to call it - motivational letter, application, cover letter - it is one of the cornerstones of a successful job hunt. Perfecting the cover letter has a huge payoff and it represents an opportunity that should not be wasted. According to a Graduateland survey, it's actually the second most important part of an application in the eyes of hiring managers (right after the CV).
The vast majority of cover letters that a company receives are not very original as most of the applications follow the same checklist and have the same buzzwords such as “motivated, humble, team player, and international”. This makes it hard for the HR representatives to find the right candidate amongst the large pile of unfocused and badly written applications. Here is your opportunity to shine and create a great first impression through paper, making the HR-guys’ day a little less difficult.
When writing your cover letter try to write a story. This can be hard for many as not everyone has a modern-day Shakespeare inside of them, but try to write a story nonetheless - or look at some tips on brushing up your writing skills first. It could be the story of how you figured out you wanted to work for the company, the first time you were certain this is what you wanted to work with, or a story that highlights one of your good traits. Depending on the degree of formality within the organization, try to show some humor if possible, but this is a bit harder as it can be misunderstood by the employer.
Small details, with great importance
- Limit yourself to a single page (or less)
- Generally, employers do not ask for a long essay but they want you to answer the simple question: why are you the right candidate? A scary question, but something you must be able to answer briefly and eloquently.
- Know what position you are applying for
- It is also important to mention what position you are applying for, where you heard/saw the job posting, the name of the company you are applying for and VERY briefly who you are (age, latest career/educational level) in the first paragraph of the cover letter.
- Specifically, address why you are interested in the company
- There must be a reason you decided to apply for a job in this company and make sure to tell them that. If the only reason is because you are desperate for a job, this might not be the best point to include, but try to get inspired by what the company does and see if you have any values and similarities in common. This shows personality and sets you apart from the other applicants
- Focus on what can you do for them
- Scrutinise the job description and whatever information you have about the posting, and determine the key requirements and priorities for the job. Then address how you can fulfill these and add value to the company, this can be done through an example that highlights one of your skills and capabilities.
- Get a name
- Addressing your cover letter to “Whomever it may concern” or “Dear Sirs” is not that personal and it is quite bland. Instead, contact the company or do some research online to figure out who will be reading your application and address it especially to them. If you don't have a direct contact, you can also ask your network for help with finding it out.
- The letter has to make sense
- Make sure that the cover letter has a logical sequence from beginning to end, it helps if each paragraph you write is another argument around the main point you are trying to make in the letter.
- Be yourself
- The employers are looking at who you are, so do not be afraid of showing some personality, but avoid hard-sell, gimmicky, or unorthodox letters. Writing an honest and genuine application always goes much further than sticking to rules you read online or on outdated career guides.
- Give the document a distinct name
- This is especially true when you are applying by mail or online (which is the most popular way of applying for jobs nowadays).
- Most importantly, ALWAYS proofread your cover letter carefully!
- It is important that you proofread your cover letter, but not just for grammatical mistakes. Most people do copy-paste from previous cover letters. When you do this, make sure to change the company name and position you are applying for. Because if you do not, it is not just a complete embarrassment for you, but it might lose you the opportunity to be invited for an interview.
Structure your cover letter!
When writing a cover letter get an idea of the structure and what you want to tell with each paragraph.
You want to really catch the employer’s attention here, and this is also why the first sentence is the hardest to write. Start fast and attract interest immediately through a story or a great anecdote. If you have a contact within the company who has recommended you, it can also be a good idea to add this in the beginning. If you need some help getting started, you can check out some examples of how to start a cover letter.
Here you need to inform the employer of why you are writing and give them a brief idea of who you are.
2. and 3. paragraphs:
This is a great place to highlight some of the best things about you and on your resume related to the job you are applying for. Remember that the cover letter complements your CV and not a copy of it. Therefore, make a summary of your career and achievements that you find important to highlight.
Summarize briefly and be polite, thank the employer for their consideration and time, be humble above all else. In the end, you can stress action by requesting a meeting and stating how you can be contacted.
The 3 things you should never do in your cover letter:
- Copy the exact same wording as in the application
- Do not use extreme adjectives such as perfect - you are not sure you can live up to that, and no one is perfect!
- Do not just write: see enclosed CV
Looking for country-specific information on cover letters? Then check out these articles:
Jo Moyle is a careers adviser at Oxford Brookes University
Draw out all the reasons you're suitable for the job and wave them under the employer's nose: It's not uncommon for graduates to worry that referring in a covering letter to experience and achievements mentioned on the CV will be repetitive and unnecessary as the recruiter will get to the CV eventually. The result can be a letter with bland, unsupported statements creating a distinctly underwhelming first impression that is anything but a good advert for the CV. A good covering letter should whet the employer's appetite to read your CV - and ultimately to meet you - by drawing their attention to your experiences and achievements which most convincingly showcase your skills and suitability for the role. No one is saying that doing this succinctly is easy - Mark Twain's famous remark "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead," says it all. But unsubstantiated, subjective claims are more likely to annoy than impress - so work out what the key pieces of evidence for your credibility are and use the covering letter to wave them under the employer's nose.
Hannah Clements is a careers guidance specialist at the University of the Arts London
Think of your covering letter as a love letter, setting out why you and the employer are perfect for each other: Make sure it is relevant to who you are writing to and what you are writing for. Generic covering letters do not work as they do not focus and give concrete examples, or enable a prospective employer to see how you fit with them. One HR professional actually suggested to me that students and graduates should be approaching employers with a covering letter that reads like a love letter. He meant that you should be writing and telling them why you are for them and why they are for you - why you are the perfect match. If you are applying for a specific role, make sure you look at their criteria and match this to your skills and experience, giving examples of where you have developed these skills. Your examples can include previous employment, course projects, volunteering, and so on. The way you present your covering letter will make a big difference as to whether it is read or not.
Phil Marsland is a careers adviser at Leeds Metropolitan University
If a letter reads well, looks and feels good then it is likely that the recruiter will identify those qualities with the candidate: Consider providing a follow-up opportunity or action "I will telephone you on the morning of…" or "I am available for interview…" Keep your letter clear and concise - preferably on one side of plain A4 paper. Remember KISS (keep it short and simple). And finally, use good quality paper and a high quality printer. If a letter reads well, looks and feels good then it is likely that the recruiter will identify those qualities with the candidate. A good covering letter will not get you a job alone but it might encourage an employer to single out your application in preference to others.
Lesley Hassall is careers information and guidance manager at the University of Wolverhampton
An uninspiring covering letter increases the risk of your CV not being read: Your covering letter is the packaging for your CV, just as the design of a bottle represents the perfume inside or the picture on a box represents the chocolates it contains. You need to take care that your letter is consistent with the style, presentation and quality of your CV, and makes the employer wants to open the packaging to find out more about you. Sadly, many people underestimate both the importance of the covering letter and the skill involved in writing a good one; this increases the risk that the employer never reads your CV at all.
Alexandra Hemingway is a careers adviser at the University of Surrey
If you don't ask, you don't get...so don't be afraid of speculative letters: Everybody hates cold calls and junk mail. Knowing how they make us feel probably explains why writing speculative job seeking letters can feel intimidating. But direct marketing is obviously worthwhile, or else companies wouldn't invest the time and money. Similarly, contacting employers gives you a good chance to get noticed, so you just have to grin and bear the potential embarrassment of putting yourself forward uninvited. Planning carefully will make your application more welcome.
Even without an advert to work from, you should be as specific as possible and tailor your approach carefully. The trick is to do your research into the target role and organisation, just like marketers do, so you give the impression of knowing your customer. This will make the reader take you seriously. Try using the company website and talking to employees, check what's been in the news and look up annual reports. Another tip to help the employer understand where you're coming from is to mention what prompted you to write, just as you'd normally state where you've seen an advert. Maybe your interest was sparked by a personal contact or a company representative who visited your university? If so, name the person and indicate their role - it's not name dropping, it's showing that you care enough to follow up on information and ideas. Anddon't be embarrassed. Receiving a well-crafted, carefully considered speculative application will probably make the recruiter's day and, after all, if you don't ask, you don't get.
Philippa Hardie is a careers adviser at the University of Chester
It is essential that you tailor your covering letter to the organisation you're applying for: A generic letter that you send out to any company advertising a suitable vacancy just won't get you anywhere except the bin. It really is worth doing your research and devoting a paragraph of your letter to why you want that job in that company. It's very easy these days to find out information about any organisation by doing your research on the internet. See if the company has a mission statement or an operational strategy. If it runs a graduate scheme, try to find out what the current trainees say about their jobs. There are usually quotes on the website. Don't regurgitate what you read in your letter as that will be spotted straight away, but you can pick out salient points so that the employer knows you've bothered to find out what they do in more detail. Make sure you mention the name of the company at least once and, if relevant, say something about the location of the job and why that is important to you. Employers can't fail to be impressed by your level of research.
Lizzie Dove is head of careers and employment at the University of West London
How to survive an employer's cursory glance at your cover letter…
- Time spent on making your cover letter look good visually is bound to enhance your chances of getting your letter read. Use standard business letter layout and don't forget to use 'Yours sincerely' and 'Yours faithfully' correctly.
- Address your covering letter to the right person as failure to do so has the potential to annoy the reader. It could also cast a doubt about your attention to detail or indeed your failure to find out how the company operates and who exactly is hiring you. Use of a title such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr and so on is usually most appropriate in the first instance.
- Make it clear which position you are applying for and make reference to how you heard about the job, as this helps with a company's marketing and it may be a small plus for you that you mentioned it.
- If you are asked to attach your CV and covering letter to an email, it is important to remember that your email is the first impression you make. That includes your email address, so it is best to avoid anything quirky in your address which may cause hilarity but won't get you the job. Keep the communication formal as in your covering letter and don't be tempted to use "hi" and "bye" and other casual English just because you're writing an email.
- Finally, before sending do a final check to make sure your letter will survive all aspects of the 'first impression' test, giving you the best chance of success in the rest of the recruitment process.
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