Have you heard the phrase: ‘Behind every CV is a great cover letter’? We’d argue that the reverse is true. In front of every CV is a flawless cover letter. It’s your introductory tool which whets the appetite and leaves a memorable impression. Think of your CV as the facts and stats of your application. Your cover letter is your chance to add the depth and showcase who you really are.
Before we get stuck into the practicalities of writing a flawless cover letter, it’s vital to understand what you are trying to achieve.
The purpose of a cover letter
Whereas a CV should be a matching exercise for the recruiter, the cover letter expands your application from a set of data, into an individual worthy of attention.
Therefore, the goal of your cover letter is to convey more than the CV, expand on its content, and evoke emotion in the reader. It’s the hook – by the end, they should be diving into your CV and very keen to meet you.
A cover letter is also your chance to get personal. Even if you tweak your CV for every job you apply for (which is often impossible), a cover letter is your chance to address the question: ‘Why are you applying for this job at this company?’ Your cover letter, therefore, must play to the requirements of the specific role.
As a result, all cover letters must be unique. As such, we urge you to steer clear of cover letter templates. Take the time and effort to craft your own, or get a professional to do it for you. It will pay dividends.
The structure of the cover letter
Whilst remembering that a cover letter should be memorable, personalised and specific, cover letters should follow a basic format. This is:
- Your memorable introduction.
- Specific examples of how you meet the job criteria and fit the company.
- Succinct conclusion with a clear call to action.
How you ‘fill in’ these sections is where people often go wrong. Indeed, it’s in how you actually craft these sections, that you can elevate from the mundane to the flawless cover letter.
So let’s explain more about what you should include, in these different sections of the cover letter.
Your cover letter introduction
The average recruiter is often inundated with applications. According to one famous and often quoted study, the average recruiter spends just 6 seconds reading a CV. We’d argue that this length of time is even shorter now we are smartphone scanners. The same will apply to your cover letter.
However, this is no reason to feel despondent. Your aim is to grab the recruiter’s attention and hook them in. In this way, you’ll get far more than 6 seconds of attention. But that introduction needs to be really powerful.
There are a few ways in which you can do this.
First, before you even put fingers to the keys, do your research. Find out the exact name of the recruiting manager. Address the letter directly to them.
Also, research the company and their culture. Choose a tone of voice which reflects this. Your cover letter is an excellent opportunity to show that you will fit their culture. Do it right from the start. However, don’t shed your personality completely to achieve this. In fact, if you need to, we’d argue that this isn’t the company for you.
Finally, ensure your opening paragraph is unique. Remember, the average recruiting manager reads hundreds of cover letters. They don’t need more of the same. Therefore, eliminate buzz words like ‘dynamic’ and ‘creative’, and instead inject some words which require a little more thought, and that haven’t been copied and pasted from a generic template.
The body of the cover letter
The body of the cover letter is the meat. However, it cannot be too long. You should aim for around three paragraphs here. Keep your language succinct and to the point.
Therefore, do not make the mistake of rehashing your CV, or cramming your entire career into the cover letter. Instead, think of your cover letter as being a way of painting a picture, which will make them want to find out more, from your CV, and by meeting you in person.
The ideal way to do this, using the written word, is through a story-style technique. These short stories illustrate that you will a) meet the requirements of the job, and b) fit in the culture of the organisation. The reader needs to be left with the sense that you can add value to their organisation.
To crack this, get hold of a detailed advert for the job or, ideally, the job description. Try to ascertain which the most important requirements are, as far as the recruiting manager is concerned. Then, try to pick a few examples from your experience that demonstrate that you’ve done this with success before.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say a core requirement is the ability to manage large budgets with multiple stakeholders. The average cover letter may say something like “I have worked with complex budgets.” In contrast, a more successful cover letter may say “During my time for X Company, I was responsible for a £1.1 million budget, for Y project. I successfully delivered the project at a total cost of £1 million, and navigated the needs of employees, shareholders and the board, as evidenced in the post-project reports and surveys.”
Moving on from showcasing your experience, you also want the body of your cover letter to cover how you can solve their specific problem. In our example above, the average cover letter writer would simply state that they are a “problem-solver”. Instead, you expand on your example to explain how you overcame specific problems. Quantify it where possible.
Remember to keep your language and tone of voice in keeping with your introduction; you still want to show your work style and personality.
The ending of your cover letter
Finally, you need an engaging closing. This needs to include a clear call to action. There needs to be a reason that they want to contact you. For example, state that you would enjoy the opportunity to explain more about how your specific experience is relevant to the role. Put your number in here.
Further advice on writing cover letters
Always be honest in your cover letter. Do not dramatize, and do not imply something which isn’t true.
Ditch overused phrases. For example, don’t waste time thanking them for looking at your CV. Keep the words for your unique message. Avoid clichés.
Consider the visual appeal of the letter. Keep it to one side of A4 or less, with plenty of whitespace. Avoid gimmicky fonts, but do use techniques such as bold, italics and bullet points, to highlight key messages.
Also, take time to edit and proof-read your cover letter. You may find it helpful to get a friend or two to do this for you.
It does take time and effort to craft a flawless cover letter. However, it’s worth it. It will lead the recruiting manager on, to read your CV, with a genuine idea of who you are as a person. They’ll be much more likely to call you for an interview.
Andrew Fennell is the founder of CV writing advice website StandOut CV.