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.




Why Functional CVs Don’t Work

November 23, 2015

In all the years I’ve been working in the field of careers counselling I have never been convinced that functional CVs help candidates.  People don’t get them, and don’t want to get them.  We are just too used to the reverse chronological CV.

Glossary time:  functional CVs are the ones that are set out in terms of your various skill sets, reverse chronological CVs are the ones that are set out in terms of your career history starting from the most recent job and moving back in time.


Reverse Chronological, Functional or both? Do you have one CV or 2CVs? (See what I did there? Come on, this is a much better picture than a stock photo of a piece of paper with a pen casually placed upon it, isn’t it?)

So what’s to be done for people making career transitions where their career history is irrelevant?

Well, their career history is often not irrelevant.  The vast majority of what an employer is, or should be, looking for is whether the candidate fits in.  The technical stuff of the job can usually be taught, except in obvious situations where long term training and qualifications are required.

The trick, therefore, is to communicate relevance in ways other than through the body of the CV.  The point is that the CV itself is of very little use for people making a career change.  CVs are for recruiters and employers who want to compare candidates for a job, but you are unlikely to be able to compete for a job in a field you have little knowledge of, against people with experience, so don’t try it.  Don’t apply for jobs through the normal channels.

If you want to move industry or function then you need to build relationships with people in those industries or functions, and talk to them about why you want to change and why you think you have what it takes to be successful, even if you don’t have much experience.

This is the proactive approach, and people who are proactive about their careers are impressive, and are often given a chance to prove their worth.

CVs and application based job searching does not work in these circumstances.  You need to establish the relationship and explain the situation. Then you can offer the reverse chronological CV, the format everyone loves, and the fact that it does not look relevant won’t matter so much, because you will already have explained why it doesn’t look relevant.

Disclaimer:  If this makes it sound easy to change careers just remember it isn’t.  It’s hard, but it’s easier if you do it the right way than if you keep failing while doing it the wrong way.


Why one thousand plus applications isn’t enough.

August 1, 2013

Have you ever noticed that whenever unemployment becomes a news story, some hapless jobseeker is vox-popped delivering a statement along the lines of  “I’ve applied for well over a thousand jobs and I’ve never even had a single reply”?

Someone being vox-popped, but probably not about their jobsearch.  It's just a picture.

Someone being vox-popped, but probably not about their jobsearch. It’s just a picture.

That’s when I start shouting at televisions and radios.  I don’t usually shout at televisions and radios.  I feel that is a pastime that should be reserved for idealistic teenagers.  But the “thousand applications without reply” always gets me.

Have these people never heard of the concept of flogging a dead horse?  How many applications do they need to make before they realise it may be a flawed strategy?

Let’s take a look behind the soundbite.

What do they mean by applications?

When people talk about making a thousand or more job applications what they are saying is that they are going online and hitting a button that sends a standard (or perhaps slightly varied) form to a website.  The website may well have some clever gizmos that look for relevant words and filters out all the applications that don’t include those words.  Those rejected applications go into a black hole, never having  been seen by human eye.  The remainder are then forwarded by the system to a person for the next filtering stage.   Now  you can see why these applicants don’t even get an acknowledgement?

Then why do people continue to follow this fruitless path?

Because it’s easy and it allows them to believe that they are trying very hard and it’s not their fault they can’t get a job.  They can sit at their computer all day long mindlessly firing off these applications that will never been seen, and feel they are doing everything they can, but they are not doing everything they can.  If they were they would give up on things that don’t work and try another method.

I’ve used this blog often enough to talk about networking.  These people are almost certainly doing very little as far as actually meeting potential employers is concerned, yet that would be a great way of emerging from the masses.

They’re almost certainly not adapting their CV or applications in order to emphasise why they are suitable for the role.

They’re almost certainly applying for  jobs for which they have no qualifications, experience or appropriate skills.

It’s no wonder they get nothing back – they’re putting nothing in.

Applying for jobs is anything but a mindless task.  Unfortunately, however, the jobs they are applying for are mindless tasks so it’s no surprise that people don’t understand the need to actually think about their applications.   If they are applying to work in a call centre where the name of the game is numbers and volume, no wonder that’s the approach they take to applying for such a job.

Applying for a thousand jobs isn’t enough.  People need to actually apply themselves.

Linkedin Profiles for Job Searchers

April 23, 2013

I know, I know, all this social media is really tedious for the over 40’s.  The rest of you probably don’t need to read this, and why should you?  What can a (nearly) fifty year old tell you about using the interweb?

Not me.  You can buy this T-shirt at (Now hopefully they won't me using their image).

Not me.
You can buy this T-shirt at (Now hopefully they won’t hound me for using their image).

Probably nothing.  But I have been gathering my thoughts about Linkedin.  These are not the thoughts of a gunslinging socmedguru, although I do still wear T-shirts with provocative slogans from time to time.  Instead, they are the thoughts of a person who likes to think he knows a bit about the job search process and who has been fiddling around with a Linkedin presence for a few years also.

Furthermore, to prove I am fully au fait with the internet age, the contents of this article is the result of internet research.  In other words, I did a quick Google search, found a few lousy articles (probably much like this) lifted a couple of ideas, mixed in my own et voila, and original piece.  Just for you.  Call it “a literature review” if you like,  that’s the way they describe plagiarism these days.  You’ll notice that, like so many other blog articles these days, it is in the form of a boring list of “dos and don’ts”.  Apparently that’s the most effective way to communicate nowadays.  Lists of stuff.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, How to create a great Linkedin in profile.  There’s loads to talk about so this cannot go into everything.  Just a few things that I think make a big difference.

  1. Get a professional profile picture.  In almost every other respect your Linkedin page is like your CV.  However, one of the big differences is that this is a searchable public document.  You want strangers to look for it and to be interested in you.  A good quality photo helps.  A lousy picture is a bad thing.  No picture makes you look like you can’t be bothered.  No holiday snaps.  No pets, family, or full body images of you taking up 10% of the frame because you want us to see the beautiful landscape, no busy backgrounds.  Just a good head and shoulders shot against a plain background.  Look like you’re at work.
  2. Your Professional headline.  Describe yourself as a professional:  Marketing Director, Senior Finance Professional, Property Lawyer.  be truthful, but use the language that people searching for someone like you might use.  There’s no point in giving yourself an obscure title because the chances are you won’t be spotted.  Some people also like to add a few words like “Seeking new opportunity” to indicate they are available for work.  Don’t be shy about doing this.  People looking for you won’t think any the worse if you are not currently working.  They know there are plenty of talented people out there looking for work.  Make it easier for them to spot you.  You have a big advantage in being available to work.
  3. Summary.  Unlike your CV where you should limit the amount of space assigned to this, on your Linkedin profile you can go into a little bit more detail because nobody is counting pages.  That said, it is not an invitation to ramble. Your objective is to communicate, succinctly, what it is you might bring to any organisation.  Since you don’t know who is looking at it or what they are looking for, you need to keep it reasonably general, but not so general that it reads like it could be by or about anyone.  Don’t fall into the trap of using universal platitudes – stick to meaningful facts.  Tell the reader a little about your background, your level, where you have worked, etc, and tell them some stuff that will make you stand out from the crowd.  Particular relevant experience, languages, overseas experience, significant projects, that sort of thing.
  4. Experience.  Describe  achievements, not responsibilities.
  5. Be proactive on Linkedin.  Most people set up a profile and then ignore it.  The way to be noticed, to come up on when people search, and to prove yourself and knowledgeable is to participate.  The way to do this is by joining Groups (up to 50) related to your area.  Recruiters are also in these groups and they will see you there.  Don’t make a nuisance of yourself by spending your whole time in those discussions, but do drop by regularly and offer a comment if you have something useful to add.
  6. Be visible, not anonymous.  When you visit someone’s profile you want them to know you visited, unless you’re a spy or possibly journalist.  Go to Edit Profile, scroll down to the bottom of the page where you will find a heading entitled Connections and the option to Customise Visibility.  Click on this and make sure your connections can see your other connections – that’s what networking is about. Then behind the dialogue box you’ll see a list under Privacy Controls.  Choose Select what others see when you’ve viewed their profile and make sure the first option, Your name and headline is active.

I know this article may give the impression that I find the whole business of Linked in tedious and wearisome.  that’s not entirely true.  I just find all the blabber about it tedious and wearisome.  I also get fed up with the way it is badly used by job seekers.  Linkedin is not networking.  It is a tool to aid networking.  Having a Linkedin profile doesn’t bring waves of job offers to your inbox, it just makes it easier for you to do your job, which it to find people to connect with who may be able to help you.  The above tips just highlight some of the many ways I have noticed that people fail to make best use of their Linkedin presence.

How many CV advisors?

March 15, 2013

It’s the question everyone is asking.  How many people should I ask to comment on my CV?

Well, it’s a tricky one to answer.  it depends to a large degree on just how long you want to avoid applying for jobs.

If you want to put off sending your CV out for say, 6 months, I would suggest you ask 20 people to look at your CV and offer their wisdom.

Let’s look at the numbers to see how I came to this figure.  My calculation is based on the following assumptions:

It takes 3 days to send out the CV to someone and another 4 days to rewrite it according to the advice you received.

Because this is important I assume you will be working on it over the weekend if necessary.

With public holidays and other urgent matters such as collecting the dry cleaning and fixing the latch on your shed door that has been broken for the past two years, I’m building in six weeks where no progress will be made.

So there you have it!  Six months = 20 advisors.  You can extrapolate using this model to find out the number of CV advisors you would need for any period of inaction.

At this point I have to give you the news you don’t want to hear.

The news is that it doesn’t matter how many people you show your CV to, you will still never end up with a perfect CV.  In fact the more people you show it to, the less perfect it is going to become.

The reason you will never have a perfect CV is because there is no such thing as a perfect CV.  The reason you CV will become less and less perfect every time you ask someone to look at it is because the best CV is the one you write; the one that reflects who you are, not the one that is based on the unqualified opinion of someone else.  All they will tell you is what they like a CV to look like.

So here’s another suggestion for putting off the day when you send out your CV:  write your CV, then save it.  Watch TV, sleep, go to the dry cleaners and do as much DIY as you like, and then when you figure out that you are not being invited for interviews, return to that old CV and start applying for jobs.

OK, so if you want to know some basic rules about CV design, but don’t want a hundred people to tell you how to write your CV, download my free workbook from

Why that new CV may not be as great as you think it is.

April 29, 2012

Not that I want to put a downer on it.  I know how excited you might be with your shiny new CV.  You’d be amazed if the top companies in your industry don’t offer you a fantastic job without even needing to interview you.  After all, you’ve just uploaded it onto the job boards and the interest from recruiters has been really encouraging so far.

Have any of those recruiters actually put you forward for roles yet, or have they simply told you they think you have an interesting CV?  Maybe they’ve mentioned a couple of organisations they could put you forward to?

I’m sorry to disappoint you but, well, don’t hold your breath.  Posting an updated CV on the job boards attracts the attention of recruiters because they get an alert and they are always looking for new candidates.  To a recruiter an updated CV is a new candidate.

But what happens next? Often nothing.

Remember:  the purpose of the CV is to get you an interview.  If a recruiter puts you forward for an interview and the employer agrees to meet you then perhaps your new CV is an improvement on the old one.

Contact from recruiters does not mean your CV is doing its job, and it doesn’t mean the CV is good.  It may be, but the proof is in the number of interviews you achieve with it.

If you’re relying on job boards and recruiters for those interviews then all I can say is good luck because there isn’t a recruiter in the world who can put their hand on heart and tell you that all you need to do is re-write and re-post your CV on the job boards if you want to accelerate the process.

Improve your CV by all means – you should always be improving your CV.  However if you’re not being proactive – networking and researching yourself, you shiny new CV is probably going to seem just as lousy as your current one within a month.

The Importance of the Job Title

February 5, 2012

How many times have you heard someone say “Don’t worry about the job title, it’s not important”?

It’s often spoken by recruiters or new employers, and since people don’t want to be seen to be status oriented they let it go.


Your job title is important.  The new job may be much bigger than the old one, but if they give you the job title of  a junior you’ll struggle to persuade the next employer.

An example came up in a workshop I facilitated recently.  A senior experienced finance person, who in the past had titles like Finance Director, took a job as the top finance person in an organisation, a job that in pretty much any organisation would be known as Chief Financial Officer or Finance Director.  They wanted her card to say Financial Controller, a role typically at least a rung lower down the career ladder, and, importantly, a technical rather than strategic role in most places.

So what can this person do about it?  It’s tricky but “Financial Controller” is misleading, and using another title would be dishonest.  One possible way out of the mess is to put something like “Financial Controller (most senior financial role, reporting to MD), then below, a little bit of information demonstrating the size of the role with data about the size of the team, or amount of money under control as well as clear messages about the strategic rather than technical achievements.

Another recent client was changing role within her organisation.  She was a Director and the new role was, in terms of corporate structure, a step down, ‘though no less significant.  The company wanted to take “Director” out of her title but I helped her to negotiate to keep it in.  This way, when she leaves the organisation the issue of the demotion is not going to be a problem at interviews.

So if something like this ever happens to you, and your potential employer says “the title is not important”, just remember that it may not be important to them but it sure is to you.

My next workshop is Interview Preparation and it takes place on Wednesday February 9th in London, details here.

On February 29th I’ll be running my Networking for Jobsearch workshop again.  Details here.