Cover letters are possibly the most important documents you will write in your career because they can open or close the door to your dream job.
But, surprisingly, people often under-estimate their importance and assume that they are just the lesser companion to the CV/resume.
Of course, that’s not the case. Your cover letter should “cover”, but not regurgitate, your CV in a few paragraphs. It is your marketing pitch for yourself, your first (and often your only) chance to make yourself stand out from the crowd of applicants that have applied for this superb position along with you.
Here are 15 tips on how to write killer cover letters that will help you climb up the career ladder at double speed.
Before you begin
1. Take your time
Before you start writing your cover letter, get ready to spend a good amount of time on it. Allocate at least an hour or two of undivided attention.
2. Tailored, not batch
Don’t be tempted to use a “one cover-letter-fits-all” approach. It is vitally important that you demonstrate your suitability for the specific position you are applying for by drawing parallels between your experience and the recruiter’s requirements. Recruiters will spot a generic cover letter from a mile off, with a high chance that it will end up in the trash rather than on the short list.
3. Do your research
One way to give your selection chances a real boost is to go the extra mile and research the job, department and people you are applying to. Once you have it, don’t be afraid to drop your new knowledge into your letter as it will demonstrate that you were enthusiastic and conscientious enough to do the spade work.
4. Who are you applying to?
Wherever possible, address your letter to an individual rather than a sir/madam. A personal address will naturally grab the reader’s attention more than a general one. If it is not in the ad, call the recruiting office to get the name of the person dealing with the applications.
5. Keep it brief
Your cover letter must grab the recruiter’s attention during their first pass through the pile of applications in front of them. Keeping it as concise as possible will help. A maximum of one page, or ideally just three to four paragraphs should be your aim.
6. First paragraph: Who are you, what are you applying for and where did you find out about this position?
The first paragraph should quickly orientate the recruiter to what you are applying for (there may be more than one position available), where you found out about the position (courtesy information) and your overall qualifications (e.g PhD)
7. Second/third paragraphs: Examples of your suitability and past successes
The second and paragraph should provide a more in-depth demonstration of your suitability for the position. Describe your one (or two) best examples of past successes, experience or qualification that demonstrates your unique suitability for the job.
A good way to approach this is to draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and on one side list the requirements for the job listed in the ad, then on the other side list your qualifications and achievements that satisfy each requirement. The requirements that are mentioned first in the ad are always the most important so the examples you cite should be the best matches that are closest to the top of the list.
8. Final paragraph: Thank you and what happens next?
In the third paragraph you invite the recruiter to read your CV then mention the next course of action to be taken (invite the recruiter to contact you, mention that you will call them or that you will look forward to hearing from them – whichever is relevant to the situation). Also, don’t forget to thank the recruiter for taking the time to review your application.
9. Use their words
It’s really important that you don’t force the recruiter to read between the lines to decide whether you are qualified for the job. One way to do this is to use keywords from the job ad when you are describing your suitability for the job. For example, if the ad says they are looking for someone with the ability to adhere to strict deadlines, use the phrase “adhering to strict deadlines” when describing a situation where you showed the ability to do this in the past.
10. Be yourself
Another way to stand out from the crowd is to be yourself. Don’t just use the same phrases that you and everyone else uses all the time, challenge yourself to inject some of your personality in there.
11. Don’t confess to your weaknesses
There is no need to “confess” to the boxes you don’t tick for the job requirements – you can talk about those later in your interview if need be. Your cover letter should draw attention to your strong points to make sure you get to the interview stage.
12. Don’t give them I-strain
Over-using “I” in your letter will make it seem ego-centric. If you have used “I” too much go back and replace some of them with something else.
13. Look at it from their point of view
A classic mistake is to wax lyrical about how great the job would be for you. Although it’s good to show enthusiasm, you will get the job only if the recruiter thinks that you would be great for the job. So write your cover letter from the point of view of what you can bring to the job.
14. Don’t use cliches – especially if you can’t back them up.
Phrases like “I have an excellent work ethic”, “I am a people person” or “I am a team player” drive recruiters nuts because there are not only cliched but unquantifiable. They are a waste of space and since space is at a premium in your cover letter you should leave them out.
15. Check and check again for errors
And finally, make sure that you don’t send the first draft of your cover letter. Grammar or spelling mistakes will completely destroy your credibility if you are trying to convince a recruiter that you have put a lot of effort into the cover letter, you pay attention to details, or even that you are capable of using a spell-checker. As with all writing, it is best to sleep on what you think is your final draft, then re-read with fresh eyes the next day to root out any errors.
If you have any cover letter tips of your own, be sure to share them with us.