Cover letters – a guide

Writing a cover letter

Not so very long ago it was considered that the purpose of a cover letter was simply to get the recipient to read your CV; how things change! 

A professional recruiter recently advised me that he spends so little time per application that he does not even bother with cover letters unless the CV is up to muster.  Does this mean cover letters have become less important?  Absolutely not!

If actually read prior to the CV then the cover letter must perform its’ time honoured function – to convince the reader that the full CV is worth looking at; if in the hands of a recruiter with similar habit to that described above then it becomes even more important – it may well be the cover letter that decides whether or not you are invited for interview.

Frankly, cover letters often require greater effort, on an on-going basis, than the CV itself.  The CV requires substantial effort to initially produce, but will remain pretty much the same for most applications within a given industry; the cover letter requires specific effort each time it is used.

Read more: sample cover letter

There are three cover letter styles you may use in the body of your cover letters.

Paragraph Style – enables you to write a narrative text describing who and what you are, and the value you can bring to an organisation.

Comparison List Style – allow you to make specific and positive response to the particular requirements of the advertiser.  Should the advertisement stipulate four specific qualities, this format allows you to list each one with your confirmation of capability in terms of experience and accomplishment, thus demonstrating how you match their needs.

Bullet Style – often used, this has become the preferred style of many recruiters, allowing you to take advantage of both the narrative and the comparative styles.   Starting with an introductory paragraph you can state who you are, follow-up to confirm general competence in the particular areas of interest and then provide a bullet list of your major accomplishments as related to the requirements of the company in question.  This may then be followed by a closing paragraph confirming your interest in the opportunity concerned, thanking them for their consideration and … asking for the interview!

Generally, bullet style can be the most powerful presentation; remember, you are trying to provide maximum information in the shortest possible time – whether the reader is a recruitment consultant, a Human Relations manager or a senior executive, they all have one thing in common – too much to do, and not enough time in which to do it!  It is up to you to make their job as easy as possible.

We recommend that your cover letter uses the same font as your CV, maintaining conformity of presentation.  Equally, utilise a font that is in common use, ensuring that any material transmitted by e-mail or web is more likely to be seen as you constructed and not in some default font because the readers PC does not have the particular font you chose to use.

It is notable that all individuals have their own style; equally it is true that differing markets/industries also have individual style constraints.  A style suitable for a conservative engineering company may be unsuitable for a theatrical opportunity!

We are able to provide you with both cover letter templates and purpose written cover letter, individually crafted to your specific needs.

Read more: Cover letters (the University of Oxford)

Cover Letter length should be no more than one page.

E-mail letters should be sufficiently short to ensure that they may be read without scrolling.

Remember that the purpose of your cover letter is simple (even if it takes hours to compose!).

  • To tell the reader why you are writing.
  • To inform the reader why you are the best choice for the job.
  • To ask for the interview.

The purpose of the cover letter is both to confirm that you are a close match to the reader’s requirements, to ensure that he examines your CV if he has not already done so, and to confirm job specific capability in a way that is difficult in the main CV body.

Read more: List of action words

Cover Letter content is enormously important.

This letter is your chance to differentiate yourself for a specific position, to demonstrate, immediately, why you are the right person for the job, to ensure that your CV is read with, perhaps, a more sympathetic, or interested, eye.

However, as noted elsewhere, many recruiters will completely ignore a cover letter and go directly to your CV.  To increase the chance that it will be read – keep it short, lots of white space, easy to read and one page maximum.  The following elements may be included:

  • Central header, in bold – position title, reference number, where advertisement was seen.
  • 1st paragraph – third party referral if you have one, very powerful.

Why you are writing, confirm you are suitable.

  • 2nd paragraph, reconfirm specific experience, followed by (up to) six bullet points defining skills in specific, required areas of expertise.
  • 3rd paragraph – thank the reader for their time and consideration; state how/where you may be contacted 24/7; ask for the interview!

There are, of course, characteristics that you should avoid, that will ensure that your cover letter will not be read:

  • Longer than one page
  • Full of type with little white space.
  • Letters that look like every other letter e.g. from Word template
  • Letters without CV
  • Letters that are supposedly humorous – don’t bother trying!

Whilst many advisors state that you should inform the reader that you will ring in a few days time, we suggest that you treat such advice with caution; several HR people we have spoken to detest this approach.

Read more: Guide to writing a cover letter by the University of Nottingham.

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