A top quality covering letter is a must do, not a nice to have. It can make or break an application for a role – putting you heads and shoulders above candidates who haven’t been so diligent. It’s also a fantastic tool to use simply as an expression of interest in working with a company or volunteering for a cause.
Throughout my corporate career I’ve reviewed a fair few resumes, or CVs if you prefer – not as a HR professional but as the hiring manager. My naturally optimistic side has usually found me advertising a role confident I’d be spoiled for choice with candidates who have invested in their application.
Often things don’t unfold this way, and too often I’ve found myself picking out the best of an average bunch of applications. It’s not that the candidates aren’t suitable, rather they don’t put their best foot forward with their application.
The good, the bad and the ugly
One of my biggest application bugbears (I’m sure recruiting managers the world over would concur) is a neglected covering letter. Often it’s firmly mediocre (the good), sometimes it’s clearly a generic template that’s been sent with a ‘spray and pray’ approach (the bad) and many times its missing altogether (the ugly). Either way it speaks volumes about a candidate.
A solid, persuasive and well written covering letter really can get your name onto a shortlist. It gives you a prime opportunity to convince the recipient that they need you on their team.
With this in mind here are five boxes to tick before sealing your letter:
1. Don’t be lazy – customise, tailor, edit
Read and re-read the description of the role you’re applying for. The more you can make you and your skills and experience hit the right buttons the better. This means whilst every covering letter can come from a template the actual words should really be written from scratch each time. Once drafted be a bystander to each sentence and ask yourself – how could these 10-20 words be more tailored to the role description.
Tip: If you’re finding yourself squeezing a square peg (being you) into a round hole (being the job) during this exercise then question whether the role is right for you.
2. Too formal sucks – express yourself
Don’t fall into the trap of writing a dry and formal letter. The letter should work with your CV to speak volumes about your personality. Use it to make yourself real and human. You can achieve this through a conversational tone of voice, approachable and jargon free language and memorable points of difference about you. But be sure to keep the role and company in mind as sometimes being too informal may not be appropriate.
Tip: If the role calls for a creative mind then consider showing off your creativity through a unique approach to the letter – a video, a visual etc.
3. Be succinct – not verbose
This one is really simple. Say more with less. Don’t summarise your entire resume or CV but rather pick two or three matches on where your experience or skills scream ‘you need me’. Make every word work hard and if the word count creeps over 400 then be brutal with the delete key. Just make sure that the words that remain flow logically and tell a clear story.
Tip: Using two or three concise subheadings is a great way to add structure to your story – helping ensure each paragraph serves a purpose.
4. Boast with substance
It’s far better to write a letter that shouts about your achievements and how you would add value to a company than to write a pared back and timid letter. The latter could be interpreted as bland and showing a lack of passion for the role. The rule here is to use facts and figures to support your sales pitch – to show you don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk.
Tip: Another good way to add substance when selling yourself is to use a brief extract from a testimonial or endorsement you have received.
5. Don’t be ‘me, me, me’
It’s easy to talk only about yourself on a covering letter – but remember in most cases it will be sent packaged with your resume – another document that talks only about you. The covering letter is your one opportunity to show understanding of and enthusiasm for the company. Use at least 100 words to show how and why you are passionate about their purpose.
Tip: Not intrinsically motivated by the company purpose or offering? Regardless find a way to make it more than ‘me’ for example show you understand their bigger picture aspirations.
Finally don’t neglect to wrap up with a closing sentence that leaves them wanting more. Like I’m about to do…
In a world where tweets, texts, hashtags and emojis are all legitimate means of communication it often feels like we’re losing the ability to write an engaging letter. Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to an application that stands out, with a covering letter that’s a sure fire way to boost your chance of scoring an interview.