The dreaded cover letter

Having just given some advice on this subject to a job-hunting friend, I thought I would reproduce it here.

I can’t say I’m a pro when it comes to job-hunting (speaking as someone who sent out a fair few CVs and cover letters earlier this year which were mostly rejected), but I do see a LOT of job applications so I can share something of the employer’s point of view. And no, being on the employer’s side of the interview panel most of the time doesn’t make it any easier in applying or being interviewed for jobs!

The first thing you should always remember is that the way we approach job-hunting is the exact opposite to the way employers search for new hires. When looking for a job we are hoping that we will hit on a few important things in our application and that the recruiter will see a spark of potential in us and hand us the opportunity to prove them right via a job offer. The empl0yer, on the other hand, is looking for ways to screen candidates out. Faced with a huge pile of CVs for 1 position, they are mainly looking for ways to reduce that pile down as much as possible before they have to read each one in detail. And they are usually looking to minimise risk as much as possible so don’t give them any excuse to view your application as risky.

  1. The basics are simple but easy to get wrong: proof-read your application and CV before sending it, don’t let them screen you out due to spelling errors or typos (especially if you’re also claiming to have an eye for detail).
  2. Keep it precise and short. I really don’t want to read covering letters that look like essays, so don’t put all that work in to writing an extensive narrative only for it to end up on the ‘no’ pile.
  3. With covering letters, you need to think about what the point of the covering letter is and then write according to that purpose. I would say that the purpose of the CV is to get an interview, and the purpose of the covering letter is to get them to read your CV.
  4. Presumably you’re also sending a CV at the same time, so you definitely DON’T need to duplicate any information that’s already in the CV. Unless you particularly want to draw attention to something from your career or qualifications that is really relevant to that particular position.
  5. Above all it should be tailored to the organisation you’re writing to (especially if you’re sending it speculatively), and it should be where you explain why you’re applying to them – what you can do for them, what you would gain from working for them, who you are as an employee etc.
  6. Mention only what is really important e.g. what are the top 3 things about yourself you want them to know? What most grabs you about their organisation? What can you offer them?
  7. Keep it readable and reflective of who you are as a person, it doesn’t need to be too formal (unless the culture of the organisation is particularly formal).
  8. Make sure you mention THEM and what they are about as an organisation or doing that makes you want to work for them.
  9. A good tip is to use THEIR language in your cover letter – what words and phrases are they using about the role (e.g. from the job description), or about the organisation (e.g. on their website). Their use of language will show you how they ‘think’ as an organisation, so you need to look at that in detail and decide if it matches with your own preferences. And if it does, then mirror some of that language to get across the sense that you are one of them.
  10. If you’re passionate and enthusiastic about your work, then make sure that comes across – don’t be afraid to say so!

I went to a CV and cover letter advice session for HR professionals recently, and the advice we were given is to really cut down on the amount of information included. Try to ignore your instincts to mention everything that you want to in this first piece of communication, but instead make it precise and brief and above all reflective of who you are. It’s an opener to a conversation you’d like to continue with them (i.e. an interview etc), so you don’t need to say everything in the letter.

And finally, don’t forget to include your contact details! If you’ve ended with ‘I look forward to discussing with you further’, make it easy for them to contact you!