Many people new to the job market think cover letters are overkill. After all, you’ve filled out the application that asks for all of your professional information and you’ve attached a resume that covers just about everything else.
What’s the point of this letter, then? Especially when all of the experts caution against being both too friendly and too formal in tone?
The history of the resume cover letter is substantially shorter than that of the document it covers.
Some unpopular theories about how the cover letter came about include that it was indeed meant to cover sensitive information – keep it hidden from prying eyes and, because it was usually handwritten, it served as a means of judging a man’s character by the way he wrote.
Presumably, the competitive job applicant would have a typed resume, possibly ‘done up’ by a resume service or a typing service.
Cover letters came into vogue in the early 20th century and have lingered to torture prospective employees ever since.
And you, with so little to put on your resume to begin with, must be going mad trying to figure out what to put in your cover letter that isn’t already included in the other, more important document you just agonised over.
Heave a sigh of relief, for your Superprof will now shed light on how you too can write an attention-grabbing cover letter.
What’s In a Letter?
Here’s how a cover letter works.
A hiring manager contemplates the stack of CVs and their cover letters. S/he takes the first one off the stack, peels back the cover letter and scans the CV.
Is it well formatted - in other words, did you write a good CV? Do any particular keywords or noteworthy phrases catch the eye?
No? S/he sets that one to the side and repeats the process, stopping only when something impressive – a turn of phrase or a particular experience jumps off the page. A closer review is in order; let’s have a cuppa and really read this resume.
The tea is now cooling in its mug. The hiring manager kicks back in the chair, picks up the intriguing resume and reads all two pages.
Finally, s/he flips the cover letter back over and reads it from beginning to end.
If the ‘right stuff’ is missing from this cover letter, that candidate may or may not be treated to a phone interview; it depends on what other goodies can be found in that pile of resumes.
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What’s the right stuff?
What you write in your cover letter are facts and details (not minute ones!) that you’ve not had room to record anywhere else in your application or CV.
A crucial factor in determining if a job applicant merits an interview is whether s/he has investigated the company s/he is applying to.
Most online job application services provide a field for you to check a box in response to the question: “Where did you hear about this job/service/opening?”, and they offer several options: “Online, Social Media, Newspaper, Friend...” and so on.
Now we put the question to you: is that lone checked box truly representative of all the time and effort you went into, researching that company? Don’t you think your dedication to finding out about the company you’re applying to deserves more recognition?
A paragraph such as this would do nicely for your cover letter’s opening paragraph:
“When I saw your advert in the online ‘Jobs for Students’ page, I discovered that XYZ company operates within the strictest environmental guidelines. As a graduate student working on Earth and Environmental Science degree, you can imagine that I would be overjoyed to learn how you are putting technical knowledge into practice.”
What does such an opening paragraph do for you?
First, you’ve disclosed where you learned about the position you’re applying for; that is an important inclusion into your cover letter; it lets companies know which of their advertising gambits are most successful.
Next, you’ve revealed that you’re not just blindly applying to a company so you can have a job; you’ve already bought into the company by researching it.
Finally, you’ve provided a vital link between yourself and the company you’ve applied to; as you prepare for the phone interview you will surely have, you can check the question ‘Why do you want to work with us?’ off your list.
That is a question you will likely be asked at a job interview.
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Cover Letter Particulars
Although this letter allows you to be a bit more personable during the admittedly impersonal job application process, you must never lose sight of the fact that it is fundamentally a business letter.
Business letters follow a certain format, all aligned with the left margin:
- The sender’s name and contact details in the top left corner (that would be you, in this case)
- The date
- The company’s and HR’s contact information - address, phone number with extension, etc.
- A subject line
- A greeting
- The body of the letter.
- A closing line
- A salutation
- Your signature
Everything in a cover letter format is standard on a business letter. However, the body of a cover letter should look a little different; for one, your letter should have no more than three paragraphs.
Now, for a time-saving tip: seeing as you will most likely apply for more than one job in your life, you might create a cover letter template using this format so that you can adapt it (and your CV) for different jobs.
The first paragraph of your cover letter should be devoted to how you came across the job posting and connecting yourself to the job you’re applying for but beware: simply writing “I saw your ad in Student Times and I wanted to apply for it” will earn your CV a quick trip to the bottom of the pile.
Give something for your future employer to warm up to the idea that you are the best fit for the job.
Your second paragraph should go on to describe the reasons you are such a good candidate, and they may be presented in bullet points. You may even use a bold font to highlight a particularly fitting experience or aspect of your character.
Just be careful to ‘bold’ the occasional word or phrase, not entire lines.
Your closing paragraph should sum up what you said in the previous two but, please: do not write ‘Like I said above...’. Make use of a thesaurus or ask for help in rephrasing previously-expressed ideas so that they don’t appear repetitive. This is also where you request your interview (more on that later).
Writing a cover letter gives you a bit of leeway to showcase your accomplishments and describe in more detail your interest in the position and how you perfectly you fit the job requirements.
You may also want to read this article - Internships - Slave labour or vital foot in the door?
The Do’s and Don’ts of Cover Letters
Some career advice websites say ‘Aye’ and others say ‘Nay’; quite possibly, the answer lies somewhere in between.
The question is: does anybody actually read all of those cover letters?
More often than not, the process works as described above: your prospective employer will first scan your curriculum vitae for qualifications and relevant skills. If you have listed what s/he is looking for, s/he will then skim your cover letter for supporting information.
Possibly the only time your cover letter will fall under intense scrutiny is if a body makes hiring decisions instead of just one person.
To stand out from all the other applicants, you must ensure your resume and cover letter are peerless. To that end, you may want to know how to write an exceptional resume.
It’s rather odd that the tips for effective cover letter writing mirror what your elders have always told you to do before stepping out of the house:
Always make sure you proofread your work; in fact, you should have more than one set of eyes look it over – not just the body of the letter but the entire thing.
There would be little that could be worse than writing your contact information incorrectly, making it impossible for your potential employer to contact you!
Sign your letter; don’t simply rely on a computer font. Also, minimise any signature flourishes – large swoops or circled ‘I’ dots.
Make sure that you address the letter to the correct person. Even ‘To whom it might concern’ would be better than addressing, say, the digital marketing manager by mistake. Although, if at all possible, try to avoid that ‘concern’ phrase.
Watch your tone! Being confident is good; being cocky, not so much. Likewise with formality. You don’t want to strike a haughty note but you don’t want to sound as if you’d like to interview over a pint, either.
Don’t forget to ask for an interview!
Crafty job seekers include ‘delighted to meet with you to discuss…’ or similar; you’re not being forward in requesting your interview, merely assertive.
Finally: whatever you do, don’t forget to send your CV along with your cover letter! You wouldn’t believe how often that happens… but not to you because you’ll remember to upload everything, right?
Now learn how to write the ‘thank you’ letter that will win you a second interview…
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