The dreaded cover letter.
It strikes fear into our hearts when we read those foreboding words ‘Please Attach Covering Letter & CV’
Attempting to write a cover letter usually starts with fruitless hours spent Googling templates and tips and ends in a blank Word document and feelings of frustration.
Even worse: you spend hours and hours writing a cover letter and still don’t get any interviews.
I know exactly how that feels – after applying to MANY job openings after leaving university and just not hearing back, I decided to up my game. I scoured through what seemed like the whole of the internet looking for cover letter examples and advice but I really struggled to find any examples that were relevant for a fresh faced & inexperienced graduate like I was at the time.
I eventually began to find some useful advice and began to put everything I learnt into practice. Let’s just say, I have had an amazing response to my new and improved cover letter writing skills. I’ve managed to get an interview at every job that I’ve applied to so far!
So here goes – I’ve compiled all the tips and tricks here so you can write a kick-ass cover letter too.
I bet your first question might be:
Why should I even bother with a cover letter?
A great cover letter can make your whole application, and making sure it hits the spot is critical for getting into the YES pile. The goal of a cover letter isn’t just to show you’re qualified: It’s to make the case that you’re more qualified than all the other applicants.
Alison Green, a HR Manager turned consultant who runs the amazing blog, AskAManager said in this post
a cover letter is one of the most effective ways to make an application stand out. They account for such a tiny fraction of applications — maybe 3% at most — that you’ll stand out and immediately go to the top of my pile
Okay, I need one! But where do I even start?
Your cover letter shouldn’t just be a repeat of your CV. It needs to add something new to your application that you wouldn’t be able to tell from the CV alone.
A good cover letter needs to answer these two questions:
- Why you are interested in the job
- Why you’d excel at it
To do this, you can’t just list off the skills you have because there are going to be other applicants with exactly the same education, skills and job history. You need to differentiate yourself from the crowd. To do this, you need to think about
What you have accomplished in previous jobs that someone else wouldn’t have
If you are struggling to get the words down to answer this question, The Muse suggested re-framing it in your mind:
Pretend you already have the job, and they want to know more about you! So, tell us: What inspired you to apply for this position? (We’re sure glad you did!) What are your big passions, dreams, and goals? Got any ideas on how we could do things even better around here?
Look over the job listing and think about the type of person they are looking for. Is it someone who needs attention to detail? Someone who thrives under pressure?
You need to tell a story with your cover letter that illustrates that you are the type of of person they will need.
WAIT – to do this part effectively, you need to….
Show Not Tell
Instead of saying you have strong communication skills, provide examples: I recently led a training session on a new database application and received significant praise for my ability to relay complex information to a non-tech-oriented audience.
I found this the hardest part of writing the cover letter, especially as a graduate when I didn’t have much experience to draw on – but it is possible! Did you take a summer class? Take part in a team sport? Take an aspect from that and use it as evidence of a trait that the job position requires.
For example, in one of my early cover letters I used one of my hobbies (Scuba Diving) to highlight my communication skills. Here is how:
This takes saying “I have great communication skills” to a whole other level. This uses experience people wouldn’t think could apply to a job role and turns it into a positive asset.
Now, I missed something that would make this paragraph even better – applying it to the job role.
I could have added that these skills will help me quickly spot mistakes, or enable me to give orders clearly to other members of a team. This shows the employer how I would use these skills in relation to what they are looking for.
Show Your Interest
A company want to know that you are interested in what they do. Why would they hire someone who didn’t even bother to look at their website or research the position over someone who showed interest and excitement about the job and company. A little research goes a long way!
Recently, your company has been highlighted on The Huffington Post and Forbes because of your partnership with Charity Z. After reading those articles, I became inspired to seek employment opportunities with your company and was excited to see an opening for an administrative assistant.
GlassDoor – Opening Lines to Get You Noticed
Make It Relevant
We all want to make a good impression, but listing everything you have ever done is overkill. A cover letter should never just be a re-hash of your CV. From the cover letter they want to know why you’re a good fit for that particular job. Be sure to include relevant experience that the job role specifically mentions. Lee Newham from design company P&W said;
Don’t include things I don’t care about, like ’I once worked as a waiter’ or ’I got a qualification in chemistry’. I don’t care if you like swimming. I do care, however, if you saw the last lecture by Paul Rand before he died and what your thoughts were.
Ryan Cash from Marketcircle also shared how adding relevant details in works for them;
If you’re applying for a marketing position at Marketcircle, and you used to do marketing for a restaurant, talk about how you were able to bring in more customers during non-busy nights, and how you were able to create promotions that increased the average dollar amount spent on each bill, etc. If you are applying for a job in your current industry, having relevant examples is even more important (e.g. “I was able to increase trial downloads by X amount” or “increase website traffic by X amount of visitors”).
Keep It Short and Sweet
Alison Green states in her post on cover letter length:
The perfect length for a cover letter is the amount of space that it takes to explain why you’re an unusually strong candidate for the job aside from what’s on your resume.
You have to keep in mind that HR managers see thousands of cover letters, and they want to quickly see if you will be a good fit. If your cover letter waffles on, they are quickly going to lose interest. The main rule that most people agree on is no longer than one page! There are some variations depending on the job, but between 300-500 is a good benchmark. Remember, the Hiring Managers time is limited!
If you are struggling with weeding out any unnecessary wording check out Hemingway App – it quickly analyses your text and show you how to make improvements.
It will spot unnecessary words, complicated sentences and make your writing stand out – and help you cut the waffle. In fact, I’ve really found it useful in general. It has made me think more about how I can get the same amount of impact using less words.
Avoid ‘salesy’ openers:
- Are you looking for a detail-oriented self-starter with a background in _field_?
- You can stop looking for someone for this position, and I shall tell you why..
- I guarantee that you will find that I have all the skills you are looking for
- I strongly believe your search can end today
and openers with no personality:
- I’m applying for the Marketing position because I want to find a place to use the skills I acquired in university
- Please find enclosed my CV and Cover Letter for the Marketing Position I found on LinkedIn
- Please consider my attached CV for the job posting for the Marketing Position
Forget the first sentence
This sentence says nothing in 22 words and will have hiring managers pressing the snooze button just from the first line:
I am writing to inform you of my interest in applying for the position of social media director at Save the Dolphins. I believe I am highly qualified and possess the necessary skills to meet the criteria you have outlined.
A lot of this comes from trying to sound professional, however it comes across very stifled – if you weren’t qualified, you wouldn’t be applying right? Using phrases such as “I believe” sound too unobjective. A sentence with I believe statements without any evidence it just makes the HR manager think, “and?”.
Jump right in
Get in straight with the point. Cut out the statements, and run straight in with the evidence. This line commands your attention and will make a HR manager sit up, especially when you are just about to follow it up with an example.
Written and verbal communications are two of my strongest areas of expertise. Through my years of experience of producing engaging PowerPoint presentations I have….
Which brings me on to the next rule:
Lose Those Generic Sentences
Those statements that appear in every cover letter example, and most likely your CV… you know the ones I’m talking about:
I am a reliable and conﬁdent individual…
I can work both within a team and individually…
I meet the requirements for this position…
I believe that my experience and skills will help your company to grow and succeed….
I am confident I am the best candidate for the job…
Those ones above are just the ones I just found in my own CV and cover letters! Take them out! Hiring managers see these sentences constantly and they just don’t add anything to your application because they don’t say anything.
Address It To the Right Person
Make sure you find out who will be reading your cover letter and address it accordingly.
I want to click delete if I see “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To whom it may concern.” It’s not hard to find out who you’re talking to if you actually take time to browse our website.
Josh Cramer – Cramer Dev
And make sure you double check the spelling:
Law firm Mayer Brown found that 20% of applicants got the firm’s name wrong.
Example of a Cover Letter DO from Muse.com
Why it works:
Personality really shines through here; shows that she has interest in the job area as well as the skills to do well in the job role. It reads as an invitation to look at the CV and find out exactly what those skills are! Going a little bit extra by giving a report shows an example of your skills – even if you don’t get hired that time, your name will always be remembered for any future positions!
Powerful Before and After Example
My full on worship for Alison Green will come across here, on just how many examples are on her site; seriously have a good read through relevant posts on her Topics page. From advise about co-workers and bosses to student advice, there is a wealth of information and the comments section is full of gems too!
Here is an example of a great cover letter and CV from AskAManager.
Alison goes through exactly why it works. This example is what I based my cover letter for a Graphic Design position – I didn’t get an interview, but when I asked for feedback they said I was a very strong candidate as my CV and Cover Letter were great, but my portfolio wasn’t as strong as some others.
Please don’t copy it though, it is just for inspiration. People will notice if you copy!
Using these tips and advice you should have hopefully finished your amazing cover letter…
…. now we just have a few final checks to do. Believe me, you will find a silly mistake or spelling error – just as you send it – so double check!
- Addressed it to the hiring manager, or owner of the business you’re applying to?
- Checked the spelling of the company & hiring manager?
- Talked about why you are interested in the amazing company/job role?
- Given relevant examples of your experience?
- Taken out any cliché sentences?
- Is it as concise as possible?
- Does it have personality?
- Have you double checked spelling or grammatical mistakes?
- Are your contact details up to date and spelt correctly?
Bonus Tip: Read it back from the employers perspective – pretend you are the hiring manager for the job and that cover letter just landed on your desk. Does it fit into what the job needs? Can you see potential? If your finding it hard to do, ask a friend to pretend to be the hiring manager. Sometime a fresh pair of eyes & perspective can get you some useful feedback.
If you want a quick look at what NOT to put in your cover letter, pop take a look at Business Insider’s list of the 12 worst cover letters they received. And for a hiring manager’s perspective, check out Alison Green’s collection blog posts on cover letters. If you want to hear more about what the people doing the hiring think, head over to Smashing Magazines list of DO’s & DONT’s from companies themselves.
Need Some More Tips?
What Makes a Good Cover Letter from AskAManager
31 Attention Grabbing Cover Letter Openings from The Muse
Examples of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ from Kristi Dosh
I hope these tips have been useful!
Have any questions? Share them in the comments below!