The Cover Letter
When you apply for a job, the standard requirement is to submit a CV and a cover letter. The CV, of course, is your career profile, your carefully prepared portfolio that is your personal marketing tool. The thing that will “blow them all away”.
And we send it off with a cover letter that is designed to win over a total stranger and get them to say “Out of 100 applicants, this one is top 5”. Because the top 20% might get a second look, and the top 3-5% will get an interview.
Sometimes the cover letter is an afterthought – and never more so when we apply on line and the website says “Write your cover letter in this text box” – and then we DO! Do you know, that that hastily written cover letter arrives as lines and lines of unprofessional and overpowering unformatted text, and generally doesn’t even get read?
And sometimes we did “thought” about it – like that time when we drafted one that we thought was really awesome so now we attach it to all our applications, remembering (but not always) to change the address or the name of the company we are applying to… Guaranteed, those letters are getting tossed in the bin, especially when addressed incorrectly. And the CV attached to it either joins it in File 13, or goes into the “maybe” pile. Because the cookie-cutter cover letter tells us a lot about the applicant!
So what will work? The answer is simple. Hard work; putting in the effort, on each and every application, will work. It will get your CV read, and once your CV is read, you are in with a shot at an interview. There is only one goal for a cover letter, and that is to get your CV read. And it must do so by making a quick, high impact impression on a busy person who may well be having an overload of nearly identical documents cascading into their inbox.
Here is the attitude of a hiring manager: “I really want someone in this job who wants to be here, and wants to be excellent. So I want to see applications from people who have taken the time to show that they want to be here, and to show that they know how to be excellent”. The point is, everybody wants a job, somewhere. That is not what interests a recruiter. They want to find that person who wants to work at THIS company. In THIS role. In THIS team. Not just “any company, any job, any team” so they can bank a cheque every fortnight. Those people are a dime-a-dozen. Be very different to them.
Here are the basic requirements of a Cover Letter, then I will unpack then in more detail:
- Address and addressee
- Header / Reference
- Role specific motivation
So, five things, of which the first two are dead easy
Address, and addressee
And yet, people still get them wrong. Get the company’s name and address right. Use a physical address, not an email address. Look it up.
And please, go online or call the company and ask who to send the letter to, if you do not know that clearly. If someone called my company asking for the HR Manager, and then asked me for the correct spelling of my name and address so they could send me an application for employment, I would remember that person for all the right reasons!
Header and Reference
A concise header is a clear indicator of a purposeful and economical thinker. A lack of a header is a poor reflection on the applicant. All business documents have headers, to clarify their purpose. Your application is a business document. It needs to look something like this:
Application: Human Resources Manager (Ref 123456) advertised on SEEK on 01/09/2014
First Paragraph Blah Blah
It sits below the salutation, as you can see. And it needs to fit on one line with room to spare.
These two requirements are basic essentials. The next three are vital and they are why it can easily take an hour or more to draft a proper cover letter. If you want to get the job, this is a worthy commitment to make.
Your introductory paragraph is the make-or-break paragraph. You need to have taken time to really get this right. This paragraph will set you apart, pique their curiosity, and get you noticed. Or it won’t. You decide. (There is a lot of flexibility possible from this point on, but whatever you decide to write, write it WELL.)
Your introduction tells people what’s coming, and it makes them want to read it. Dale Carnegie says that “the sweetest sound in any language is the sound of our own name”. A person using our name says they are interested in us and have taken notice of us. So it is with a recruiter, but they may not be looking for their own name – they are looking for the sign of your interest in more than the job – your interest in the Company, what it does, and what it stands for. Maybe knowledge of a newsworthy recent accomplishment, like sponsoring something relevant.
It’s really great to see an introduction that shows detailed knowledge of one or more of these things and then comments and segues well between that and the interests and suitability, etc of the candidate.
Role Specific Motivations
A single page is likely to hold five economically drafted paragraphs. One was the introduction, and one will be the conclusion. You will have 3 paragraphs, at most 4, to write specifically in response to the advert, why you and your track record makes you right for this position.
The advert was drafted for a reason. Your job is to show that you fit the bill. And you don’t do that by ignoring the advert or glossing over what it said. This is about your attention to detail, and your willingness to get gritty about why it should be you, out of the 100 applications they receive, they interview. Every word, every sentence in the advert is worthy of your specific attention and clear response.
Try to distil out of the advert as many core essentials as you can, and then craft very specific statements about how you either a) fit the bill already or b) can adapt and acquire the exposure necessary. You get three to four paragraphs and by the end of those paragraphs they will either want to read your CV or not.
Please don’t start every sentence with “I” Find other ways to write your sentences. Instead of “I have 10 years’ experience in generalist HR…” say “Having had 10 years’ experience in generalist HR, my ability to ….”
You are using your ONE opportunity, to create a journey for the recruiter, from not knowing you at all in any way, to wanting to spend time with your CV to assess your suitability for their vacancy. And then maybe to spend time with you in an interview.
So, you have used up your allotted paragraphs and you have a few lines left at the end of the page. How do you close it out? It’s not easy – the whole letter is about closing it out! How you finish is really up to you, depending on the role you are applying for and what you most want to communicate. Maybe it’s a sales role, and you want to close it out as you would a sale. Or a people role, and you want to close it out as you would a successful conflict resolution.
I would hold in reserve a carefully chosen or unique aspect of who I am or what I can do, and in conclusion, sum up your passion and your unique fit for the company and/or the role. And it’s quite ok to be a little bit cheeky and say you would love to tell them more at the interview
Last words – always sign your cover letter personally. If it means you have to print it, scan it and send a PDF, so be it. Do not send a typed name with no signature. Again, that is simply a lack of attention to detail.