When applying for a job, a cover letter can make or break the impression of a potential employer. There is a reason why a cover letter is the first page of a job application and not just an additional component of it. Getting it right will go a long way in increasing your chances of getting that job.
So why are cover letters so important?
First and foremost, cover letters are important because it tells a lot about your personality, insights and writing style. It actually does so more than your CV itself which is more brief and factual. All in all, a CV is the skeleton of a job application and the cover letter constitutes the fleshy and meaty part. When written right, it can demonstrate to the person going through your job application that you are the perfect candidate for the job and make a statement about you and what you are all about as an individual as well as a potential asset to the company. It gives that personal touch that your CV will by default lack.
Key things to remember about how to write a cover letter
- A plain white A4 paper is just fine. Of course you can choose to print your cover letter on an expensive luxury-grade cream or pale blue paper but at the end of the day, remember this: What matters most is your message and not how much money you can afford to spend on stationary. Avoid using lined paper or paper with punched holes.
- If you are emailing your cover letter, make the cover letter the body of the email. If you simply email the letter as an attachment with nothing in the body of the email, the latter may be misidentified as spam.
- A cover letter should be clear and simple. Keep it short, straight and concise. Don’t make your potential employer work to understand the message you are trying to convey.
- In general, you want to limit your cover letter to only one side of a regular A4 paper. Remember that there is a difference between an essay and a cover letter.
- Use your own words to write your cover letter instead of things like quotations and long-winded clichés. Take the time to find the right words to convey precisely the message you want your reader to take away.
- Once you are done drafting your cover letter, scour every inch of it to check and double-check for spelling and grammar mistakes. Remember that spell checkers do not pick up on typos like “ate” instead of “are” or “sex” instead of “six”.
- In your cover letter, attempt to answer the question “ Why should the employer see you?” In the cutthroat world of today, the job market is getting more and more competitive. For any job that you apply for, you are probably one among hundreds of applicants. Give your reader a reason to pick you over the other 100+ applicants.
- A cover letter should be flattering. This is a mistake many people make. It is not enough to have a perfect but generic cover letter that you send out with all your job applications time and again. A cover letter should follow a one-to-one function whereby you write one letter addressed to each of your potential employers.
- In addition to demonstrating your writing style and personality in your cover letter, you can also include a snippet of your insights into the company and the job you are hoping to land. Relate the skills you have to the job and show the potential employer that you have what it takes for the job opening. Make a mention of your communication skills, problem-solving ability and leadership as well as team building skills.
- If it’s possible, try to find the name of the person you are writing to instead of an impersonal “To whom it may concern”. Research suggests that in the job market today, a cover letter addressed to the correct named person has 15% more chance of getting an acknowledgement. The same research also suggests that 60% of CVs are mailed to the wrong person, often to the managing director.
- If you have the choice between a short word and a long word that means the same thing, use the short word.
- Do not use extra words just to increase the word count of your letter. In fact, if you find that you can cut out a few words from your letter without compromising the letter, they are most probably useless. Cut them out.
- In a cover letter, you never use the passive voice.
- Even if you are brilliant with them, jargons are not appropriate for use in a cover letter.
The best structure for a cover letter
- 1st paragraph
In the first paragraph, aim to state clearly the job you are applying for, how you found out about the job opening (this is particularly important because often companies like to know what form of media worked best for them) and when you are available to start work.
- 2nd paragraph
In the second paragraph, state why you are interested in the job and why the company attracts you. Maybe you like what the company or brand stands for. Maybe you are intrigued by how well the company did in the last quarter.
- 3rd paragraph
In the third paragraph, talk about your skills and strengths and how they relate to the job advertised. Right here is your chance to sell yourself without sounding to conceited. Equally important as not self-promoting too much is not coming across as too boring.
- 4th and last paragraph
In the last paragraph, mention the dates that you won’t be available for the interview. Finish off by thanking the reader and saying that you will be looking forward to a reply soon.
If you started your cover letter with a name, you should end it with a “Yours sincerely”. If you started off with a generic “Dear Sir/Madam” you should end with a “Yours faithfully”.
For emailed cover letters, as we’ve covered before, you want to put the content of your letter in the body of the email. Format it as plainly as possible so just about any email reader can read it.