The Why and How of a Cover Letter: Opening the Door to Your Next Big Gig

You’re 15 and you’re about to apply for your first job. Your parents give you one piece of advice. They say: “Zack, whatever job you go for when you apply, pick up the phone and introduce yourself.”

It made perfect sense. Because as well as being able to have a good chat with the employer, it allowed you to subtly talk about your strengths and re-affirm your interest, and it gave them an idea of what you’d be like to work with.

That was many (many) years ago when fewer things were strictly online and cover letters weren’t a typical part of the job application. Fast forward to now, and cover letters are crucial to opening the door.

What is the purpose of a cover letter?

In a couple of hundred words, your cover letter needs to convince the reader you are worth getting to know. It should highlight your genuine interest, and outline your career, accomplishments and experience, along with why you’re the right person for the role.

It will be the first thing the employer or recruiter looks at, presuming you haven’t bombarded them with emails begging for the job. And if the role you’re applying for has a lot of applications (which most do), yours might be judged solely on your cover letter, at least at first. If it’s good, they will move on to your resume. If it’s not, well, you don’t need us to tell you what happens next.

Keep it clear and concise

You know what they say, first impressions count. They count when you’re meeting your other half’s parents and they count when someone’s reading your cover letter. But here’s the thing, there’s no guarantee that someone will read your cover letter. More than likely, they will skim it. So it needs to be clear and concise.

One of the soft skills businesses value most is good written communication. And properly formatting and addressing your cover letter and resume show exactly that.

Sending a resume with a shoddy cover is like turning up for an interview and getting the company’s name wrong, and not bothering to send one altogether is well… like not turning up at all.

Make it personal

Professional? Yes. Corporate? No. Your goal is to make the person reading feel an irresistible urge to get to know you more. If you do, it’s a hit and you’re through to the next round.

The most sure-fire way to hook them is to inject a bit of your personality. You can do this by using a slightly more conversational tone, customising the letter to suit each specific role you apply for, and leaving out any mentions of “Dear”, “Sir”, “Madam” and “Best Regards”. Or even worse, ‘To whom it may concern’. Instead “Hi” and “Thank you” are fine, and take the time to find the addressee’s name. It’s a letter to an employer, not the Prime Minister.

But, how do you write one?

Tips to help you write a cover letter

Cover letters aren’t easy to write. If they were, good cover letters wouldn’t exist, and every Tom, Dick and Halle Berry would be landing top jobs. There’s an art to it, like learning how to paint when you’re little without ripping the paper. Here are a few things to think about when you’re writing:

Get to know the company: It helps to know about the company you’re prepared to spend 40 hours a week working for. You might find that you have some skills they’ll really benefit from, which you can shout about in the opening paragraph.

Keep it short and snappy: Short, snappy and to the point wins 100% of the time. Make it easy to scan and quick to digest, at a maximum of one page and with lots of white space.

Use a clear font and bullet points: Pick a font that’s easy to skim. And use bullet points to get your key messages across.

Be positive and upbeat: While it’s okay to show glimpses of your personality, remember to keep things above board. Might be obvious, but avoid using slang or phrases with negative connotations.

Avoid technical jargon: It may seem counter-intuitive when you are trying to convince the reader that you’re an expert in your field. But often your cover letter may first be scanned by a HR Administrator or even a computer software program that is not able to quickly recognise complex role-specific lingo that can only be learnt after years in the trade.

Name drop: No, we’re not saying put down the time you think you saw Johnny Depp at the airport. If someone within the company referred you, pop their name in your cover letter as close to the opening paragraph as you can.

So *clears throat* keep introducing yourself the old fashioned way by picking up the phone and saying hello. But also give the people what they want – your personality, skills, experience and how you will add value to the role – wrapped up in a few paragraphs on one page. Follow this formula and watch your cover letter do the talking.

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