How to Write a Compelling Cover Letter
Making First Impressions Count
Your dream job has opened up, at just the right time in your career! You've built up the skills and experience to take this next step, whether at your own organization or elsewhere, and you're fired up with enthusiasm.
But the deadline for applications is approaching fast. So, you update your résumé and, feeling positive about your chances, you even take your interview outfit to the dry cleaners!
Next, you sit down to write your cover letter – and your hands freeze over your keyboard. You're desperate to make a great first impression on the hiring manager, and to get your application to the top of the pile. Should the letter be formal or quirky? How much and what type of information should it contain?
In this article, we explore tips and techniques for writing a cover letter that can help you to get through to the next round of the recruitment process.
Click here to view a transcript of this video.
This article gives general tips and guidance for writing a great cover letter, but there is no "one size fits all" template. After reading this article, use your own experience and judgment to decide on the best approach for the role that you are applying for, taking into account the organization's culture and best practices.
Preparing Your Cover Letter
First, you need to do some homework. Find out as much as you can about the team you are hoping to join. Start with your company's website and, if possible, the team's intranet. Then explore industry websites, journals or newsletters for news and information about the company and the industry in general.
This will help to make sure that you are fully up to date with current trends and potential pain points in your sector. You can use this information to gain a better understanding of what the team needs, and how you might be able to help.
Your cover letter needs to find the right tone, one that reflects the culture of your organization. Chances are, you're already familiar with this. But different teams and departments may have different ways of working. For example, do they have a formal, reserved approach, or a more relaxed and informal feel?
Next, look at your résumé from the hiring manager's point of view. Does it include anything that might concern him or her? For example, are there any gaps in your work history? Your cover letter should include brief explanations for these, such as taking a career break to raise your family.
If your résumé needs more than just a quick refresh, or you need to create one from scratch, you can find out how to do this with our article, Writing Your Résumé (CV).
Getting the Basics Right
If you were meeting a potential boss for the first time, chances are you'd take extra care with your appearance. If you pay the same attention to your cover letter, that meeting will more likely take place! So, check and double check the following areas:
- Spelling and grammar: these mistakes are easily avoidable. A cover letter with spelling mistakes or missing words looks careless and unprofessional. Use a dictionary! Ask someone else to read your letter, too, as a "fresh pair of eyes" can pick up errors that you've missed. Reading it aloud can also help to ensure that the letter "flows."
- Consistency: for example, if you capitalize one job title – say, Marketing Executive – capitalize all the others, too. Our article, Encouraging Attention to Detail, has strategies for maintaining high standards of work.
- Confidence: avoid saying that you "believe" or "feel" that you are the right person for the job. Have the courage of your convictions and say that you know you are right for it.
- Jargon and clichés: use the correct technical terms where appropriate, but bear in mind that the first person to read your letter may be an HR manager, rather than the team leader or other expert. Also, jargon and acronyms can mean different things in different teams or businesses, so they could cause confusion. Similarly, avoid meaningless, over-used phrases such as "people person" or "thinking outside the box."
Writing a Compelling Cover Letter
Chances are, you're not the only person who sees the role as a dream opportunity. It may have attracted numerous applications. That means the hiring manager has to sift through a lot of cover letters, so she will want to see at a glance what you have to offer.
Brevity is key. As writer and editor Lily Herman instructs, "Keep it short (like, really short). Your cover letter should be a single page (no more!) and around 300-350 words."
Consider the following structure as a guide for your letter:
1. Introduce Yourself
Grab the reader's interest with your opening paragraph. In one or two sentences, tell him who you are, and why he should hire you, and express your enthusiasm for the role.
For example, you could say, "As a sales manager with six years' experience of motivating my team and exceeding my targets each quarter, I was excited to see your advertisement for regional sales director." This sounds much more appealing than, "I am writing to apply for the role of regional sales director, which was advertised on LinkedIn."
2. Explain Why You Are the Best Candidate
Next, describe what you can bring to the role. Give examples of skills that you've developed or successes that you've enjoyed that are relevant to the job description.
Be specific, and quantify your achievements wherever possible. If you've exceeded your sales targets, for example, give a percentage or monetary figure. Tell the truth, and don't be tempted to exaggerate or embellish your accomplishments – it's unethical, and will backfire if you are caught out.
3. Be Enthusiastic About the Role
You may have the qualifications and the experience to do the job, but employers also want to know that you feel passionate about the role and their organization. Describe why the company or department appeals to you. For example, you could explain that you share its values. This signals that you'll be engaged, committed, and likely to stick around.
4. Summarize and Request a Follow-Up
Finally, round up what you've written, and indicate your availability for interview. A strong closing paragraph could be, "I've always delivered outstanding results, and I've enjoyed every challenge that has come my way. I'd be delighted to meet with you and discuss the value that I can add to your team."
Formatting Your Cover Letter
Format your cover letter as though you were going to send it in the mail, even if you're sending it by email. This will make it look more professional.
Here's a point-by-point guide for laying out your cover letter:
- Write your name and address at the top of the page. Align it to the right.
- Write the name and address of the prospective employer. Align it to the left.
- Add the date of your letter under the employer's address, and align it to the left. Leave a line space between the address and the date.
- Begin your letter with "Dear…" and the name of the hiring manager. Avoid "To whom it may concern." If you don't know who to address the letter to, send the HR department an email asking for the appropriate recipient.
- Use a font that's clear and easy to read, such as Arial or Helvetica, with a type size of 10 or 12 points.
- Space your paragraphs, keep wide margins, and don't crowd the page.
- Leave a line space under the final paragraph, and sign off with "Yours sincerely" or "Best regards." Leave a couple of line spaces under the signoff, and then sign your name, typing it in full beneath your signature. If you are sending the letter digitally, it's not necessary to actually sign it – just type your name instead.
Consider sending your cover letter as a PDF (Portable Document Format) file. PDFs are compatible with most computers and devices, so it should look the same on the recipient's screen as it does on your own.
Beware of These Pitfalls
Here are a few mistakes to avoid when writing a cover letter:
- Making jokes. Avoid doing this, because humor is highly subjective, and can be easily misunderstood.
- Mentioning your current salary, or salary expectation. Don't do this unless the job advertisement asks for it. This type of information is best left until you are able to negotiate a job offer.
- Using generic cover letters or templates downloaded from the web. Recruiters read numerous applications, and it won't reflect well on you if they've seen your letter before.
Your cover letter needs to show the recruiting manager that you're the right person for the job, and that you will be a good fit for the team. Research the role carefully, and pay attention to the tone and language that you use.
Your letter should fit on one page, and be presented in a way that's easy to read. It should follow this structure:
- Introduce yourself.
- Explain why you are the best candidate.
- Be enthusiastic about the role.
- Summarize and say that you are available for interview.
Try to give real examples that demonstrate your skills, or that show how you added value to your team or organization. But tell the truth! Don't exaggerate or embellish your accomplishments.
Finally, remember to check your letter carefully for mistakes, and then check it again.
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