Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.




On the other hand…

April 30, 2010

One of the pleasures of being a career coach is I’m always right.  One of the problems is that so is every other career coach.  This would not be an issue if we all shared the same view but we don’t.  If you ask four career coaches for their opinions on a given topic you’ll probably end up with six different answers.

Well, I’m a bit fed up dealing with “this recruiter said this” and “my outplacement consultant told me not to do that” so I’ve decided to pick out some of the more controversial issues and give you different opinions for each of them.

First let’s look at cover letters.  The options are, don’t bother or do bother.

Argument for don’t bother:

Nobody reads them.  Instead a recruiter or hiring manager will go straight to the CV.  Even if you have written a good one, most are so poor that nobody bothers with them so they’ll never know yours is a good one.

Argument for do bother:

A good covering letter may be read, especially if it’s short (less than one page) and clearly set out.  If it does get read then it may help the hiring manager to focus on those parts of the CV that are relevant.  Besides, if you are really serious, show it by making the effort to write a covering letter even if you suspect that it won’t be read.

Second, letters after your name on the CV.

Arguments against:

It looks gauche.

Arguments for:

It may be a selection / deselection issue.  If you are an accountant and the employer wants someone with a CIMA qualification, it’s relevant.  If, however, a recruiter is advertising for anyone, but specify a graduate, don’t put BA (Hons) by your name.

Next, should you bother with a profile statement?

Arguments for don’t bother:

Much as above.  Nobody reads them because they are usually rubbish.  They tend to make impressive sounding claims that are no more than platitudes.  “I am a highly enthusiastic team player who is also able to work on my own.  I am creative and able to focus on the task in hand blah, blah, blah”.  Oh shut up!  I’ve yet to meet the person whose profile statement reads, “Unenthusiastic misanthrope who works with a team when I absolutely must.  I don’t have a creative bone in my body and don’t ask me to follow instructions or do what you want because I won’t”.  If I did I’d probably offer that person the job on the spot.

Arguments for do bother:

A profile statement needs to be factual and relevant.  In other words, if you can be bothered to write or at least adapt your profile for each role so that it is relevant to the organisation, and instead of writing garbage you actually tell them stuff that will help them, it may help you.  The profile should be the first thing that people read.  Make sure that by the end of it they want to find out more by reading on.  You do this by telling them facts that will enable them to identify you as a relevant candidate for the role.

Finally, Should you include a section about your hobbies and interests?

Arguments for don’t bother:

It’s not relevant.  The reader wants to know about your professional life, not your private life. They always say the same boring stuff:  reading, going to the cinema and socialising with my friends (I’d be more interested in a person who socialises with complete strangers, although I might be concerned about them on another level).

Arguments for do bother:

It is relevant.  The reader wants to know all about the person.  Also, if you have an interesting hobby it may get you an interview just for its own sake, everything else being equal.  A good interests and hobbies section should enable the reader to know if you are healthy, community focused and whether you keep your brain active outside work.

When all is said and done, different people feel differently and the problem is you don’t know whether you reader likes or dislikes these things, which brings me to the real point of this article:  YOU DECIDE!

Don’t let one person or another tell you what you should do because you’ll get contradictory advice every time you ask.  Instead do what you feel works for you, and reflects your true self. But if you do decide to include any of the above, do them right.