How to write a top-notch cover letter

Writing a good cover letter involves telling a story about your experience.

Tell a story that will get your resume read.

It seems you might finally have found the job you’ve been searching for. Your qualifications and experience pretty much match those stipulated in the recruitment ad and you can tick most of the boxes for required skills. Your CV is fine-tuned and with just a couple more tweaks you’ll be ready to apply.

Well, not so fast. At the very end of the ad there’s a line that states: “Please forward your CV together with a cover letter” to XYZ.

The CV’s not an issue, but a cover letter? What can – or should – you say that isn’t already in the resume?

The answer is quite a lot and the way you say it is important too. It will almost certainly influence whether you get a first interview.

Be original

For those not regularly called on in their professions to write more than perfunctory emails, the process of original writing can be daunting. It is vastly different to speed-writing dozens of messages a day – typos, what typos? – which probably explains why many ignore the request for a cover letter, instead hoping their professional credentials, spelled out in the bare bones format of a CV, will be enough to carry the day.

Related: Do your skills measure up? Assess yourself with CPA Australia's Career Guidance System.

However, rattling off a cover “note” along the lines of “please find my CV attached for your consideration” will rarely, if ever, pass muster, and you will have denied yourself an opportunity to cut through the applications clutter and make a sound impression.

There are generic cover letter templates around, but they are easily pinned for what they are, especially if your application is screened by someone in human resources.

If you can’t be bothered putting in the hard yards to craft something specifically targeted at the job on offer and which doesn’t just duplicate your CV, don’t be surprised when potential employers can’t be bothered seeing you.

Get around writer’s block

Unfortunately, applicants that do press ahead often open Word on their PC and then stare blankly at a blank page.

If this happens to you, remember that everyone from prolific novelists through to a prime minister or president’s speechwriters – not to mention the thousands of journalists and public relations practitioners that have to produce to tight deadlines every day – has, at some stage or another, been in the same agonising predicament.

If time permits, one trick is to think as long and hard as you can before you write. Many articles – books even – are roughly drafted in an author’s head before they go anywhere near a keyboard.

That said, you at least still need a rudimentary idea as to what you want to communicate.

In any job application, an effective cover letter should give someone you’ve never met insight into who you are in addition to what you’ve done. It is a statement about yourself, and this means emphasising the personal, interpersonal and professional qualities you have that will bring value to the job.

Here are some points to consider:

  • What interests you most about the position and what are the most relevant skills you offer?
  • Why do you want to work for this particular organisation anyway?

  • Which of your professional achievements are you most proud of, and why?

  • What has satisfied you most about your chosen career to date, and in what ways does this job satisfy your desire for new challenges? 

  • Are you really answering the fundamental question: Why should I see you?

Back to basics

In terms of structure, there are a few basics to cover off.

If you don’t know the name of the person who will hopefully read your letter, salutation-wise it’s best to opt for “Dear Sir/Madam” or, failing that, “To whom it may concern”.

Remember, however, that if you don’t start with a name, you should end with “Yours faithfully”. If you do have one, it’s “Yours sincerely”.

"At the end of the day, a good cover letter is an honest one – one that doesn’t try to bluff you with worn-out phrases." – Brody Sully

It’s also a good idea to reference the job you’re applying for. No hard-and-fast rules here, but do note where you saw it advertised. For example, “I read with interest your advertisement for XYZ posted on XYZ website.”

The last thing you want to end up with is mishmash, so make sure the body of the letter is formatted, outlining paragraph-by-paragraph why you’re interested, strengths, skills, competencies, and so on.

Once you’ve overcome any writer’s block, the next question is how much to put down. Someone with 30 years’ experience should be able to justify writing more than a recent graduate, but general consensus is that a cover letter should never go on for more than a page, and preferably less.

Proof perfect

Once the letter is drafted, it’s imperative to check and recheck everything. If a word can be cut, cut it. Never use a long word if there’s a shorter one. Avoid meaningless buzz words and jargon and above all, proofread for grammatical and spelling mistakes.

Even seasoned writers can find it difficult to properly proof their own work, so if possible get someone else to go over the copy.

At the very least, do a spelling and grammar check, bearing in mind this isn’t necessarily a panacea for an error-free document.

Brody Sully, a human resources manager at a major Bangkok bank, has pretty much seen it all: Applications with covering letters addressed to another employer; his and the bank’s name spelt incorrectly; applicants spelling their own names two different ways; and reams of words that still don’t match skills and experience to the job’s specifications.

“People make honest mistakes, so we make allowances for occasional typos, especially if what’s in the CV is what we want,” he says.

“The most riling are those that seem to go out of their way to avoid clarity and use words the applicant obviously doesn’t understand. It’s as if they’ve got a Roget’s Thesaurus next to them, but all it does is demonstrate lack of confidence in their ability to communicate on their own merits.

“When I worked in Australia I didn’t like it when applicants used American English, but I suppose we weren’t looking for aspiring journalists.

“At the end of the day, a good cover letter is an honest one – one that doesn’t try to bluff you with worn-out phrases like ‘dedicated team player’, ‘results-driven’, ‘hard-working’ or ‘committed to excellence’.

“I’m sick of things like that, so now when I see them, I just stop reading.”

Cover letter dos and dont’s

DO:

  • Take the time to write specifically for each position you apply for
  • Highlight how your skills and experience match the job’s specifications and can add value
  • Explain why you’re interested in the job and want to work for the company in question
  • Emphasise and elaborate on your most noteworthy achievements
  • Be clear, concise and to the point
  • Be yourself

DON’T

  • Try to impress with big words you would never use in the day-to-day
  • Use buzz words, jargon or clichés
  • Over write – if it’s too long, it’s too hard 
  • Lose focus on the fact that the main objective is to answer one question: Why should I see you?
  • Ever fire off an application without thoroughly proofing it – if you can, leave it for a day or so, then revisit
  • Let the whole process get you down

Mark Phillips is an Asia-based writer and former editor of both Marketing and Franchising magazines in Australia.

Do your skills measure up? Assess yourself with CPA Australia's Career Guidance System.


February 2019
February 2019

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