A cover letter is written to accompany your resume or application form. Most job applications require a cover letter and one reason for this is that they are a great way for an employer to quickly find out about you and your skills.
Typically a cover letter will explain the purpose of your communication, introduce you to the employer, give information about your skills and request an opportunity to either gain an interview or discuss the position further.
Before even considering your job application or resume, an employer will read your cover letter. If you’ve spent time crafting your resume it’s tempting to neglect the detail in your cover letter; this would be a mistake, first impressions matter.
Your cover letter also gives you the opportunity to demonstrate a number of transferable employment skills. These include: spelling and grammar, written communication skills and people skills.
Not everyone knows how to lay out a formal letter; here are some simple steps to help you:
1. Your contact information including your phone number (mobile if you are not likely to be at home), your email address (one that you check regularly) and your street address.
2. The date you are sending the letter.
3. The name and address of the recipient. It’s important to address the letter to a specific person, if necessary contact the company to check.
4. A ‘regarding’ statement (usually abbreviated to ‘Re’). This is like the subject line in an email and gives a quick indication of the purpose of the letter. If the job for which you are applying has a reference number you should include that as well.
For example, ‘Re: Education Consultant Vacancy (Ref. 098-4342)’
5. A salutation (always ‘Dear’), which should include the recipient’s title (Mr, Mrs, Ms etc) and their surname.
For example, ‘Dear Ms Smith’.
If you are unable to confirm the recipient’s name, avoid using, ‘To Whom it May Concern’. Instead try to be creative about a title for your contact.
For example, ‘Dear Director of Education’
Don’t ever be tempted to use a recipient’s first name. More than one person is likely to read your cover letter and you will not be on first name terms with all of them.
6. Paragraph 1 should explain in more detail why you are writing and let the recipient know what you have included (usually your resume or application form).
7. Paragraph 2 should explain why you feel you’re suitable for the position.
8. Paragraph 3 should make it clear that you would like to meet the recipient or attend an interview. It should refer to a method of contact and thank the recipient for taking time to consider your request or application.
9. You should always end your letter politely with a complimentary close. Use ‘Yours sincerely’ if you have addressed the recipient by name, use ‘Yours faithfully’ if you haven’t.
The tone and message of your cover letter are as important as the layout. You should aim to sound professional but also show something of your personality. A good way to ensure this is to make sure that you write about yourself and the company in equal parts. Ask somebody who knows you to read your letter through and check that it sounds like you.
One word of warning, the length of your cover letter is important. If you make it too short it will lack detail and the employer will assume that you haven’t made enough effort. If your letter is too long you risk important information remaining unread.
Writing cover letters for different industries
A strong cover letter should be written specifically with the recipient’s industry in mind. Thinking about the key skills that were listed on the job description will help. We’ve broken our tips down into four careers sectors:
People Industries – E.g. Education and Community Services
In this sector an employer is going to be looking for people who are friendly, trustworthy and excellent communicators. You can show this by:
1. Mentioning the names of trusted mutual contacts.
2. Referring to situations in which teamwork was a key factor in success.
3. Demonstrating your personality rather than listing personality traits.
Business Industries – E.g. Project Management and Accounting and Finance
Recruiters in the business sector will be looking for candidates with a bit of industry knowledge, good communication skills and some innovative ideas. You can demonstrate your aptitude for this by:
1. Mentioning the results of some of your company research (remember to look at social media pages as well as websites).
2. Letting the recruiter know you have previously worked in a business context.
3. Highlighting things in your skill-set that might help the company with current challenges.
Technology Industries - E.g. Information Technology and Software Development
The requirements for the technology industry can be very niche (specialised). It is likely that your resume will contain technical terms and industry jargon. Your cover letter provides you with the opportunity to show that you can communicate your specialised knowledge to people who might be less technically minded than yourself. With this in mind you should:
1. Avoid over-stuffing your cover letter with jargon; some technical terms are fine but keep the overall balance in mind.
2. Follow up lists of technical experience with an explanation of the specific skills you gained.
3. Make sure your letter demonstrates your research into both the company and their particular technological niches.
Creative Industries – E.g. Fashion, Design and Media
It goes without saying that an employer in a creative industry will be looking for flair and maybe something a bit different. This doesn’t mean that you should make your cover letter appear too unusual. Remember that not all of the people reading it will be artistic. For this industry you should aim to stand out from the crowd whilst demonstrating your ability to be professional. How you do this depends on your particular creative skills but we have some general suggestions below:
1. Don’t confuse creativity with over-familiarity. Being creative does not mean resorting to first names or using unsuitable language.
2. Allow yourself to be creative and attention grabbing in your first paragraph then return to a more traditional format.
3. Use graphics cleverly but sparingly. For example, if you have designed your own logo include it or if you have built your own website add the URL underneath your address.
4. Pay particular attention to the visual impact of your cover letter but remember that ‘function’ should come before ‘form’. A pretty letter that nobody can read will not land you a job.
Writing cover letters for different positions
At different stages in your life you will apply for different types of position. You may start off as an intern or in an entry level but will hopefully progress into permanent employment and then maybe into management. There are subtle ways you can tailor your cover letter to reflect these different positions:
Writing a cover letter for an internship or entry level position
For this type of position you won’t necessarily be expected to have lots industry experience. What the recruiter will be looking for is someone who can demonstrate a genuine interest in the post and who has already started to build the required skill-set.
You can achieve this by listing your qualifications and providing some detail (not too much) about these. For example if you studied Event Management, your details might include relevant modules such as event marketing, customer relationships and venue selection.
You should also touch on any personal experience that relates to your transferable skill-set. For example if you have completed a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award you will have demonstrated determination, teamwork and creativity.
Writing a cover letter for a management position
The two most important management skills that a recruiter will be looking for are leadership and management ability. In order to demonstrate these stick to quantifiable achievements.
For example instead of,
‘I have five year’s experience as a supervisor in the beverages industry.’
‘During my five years with Smithson Foods, my suggestions for packaging adjustments were adopted. This increased beverage profits by 5%.’
Writing a cover letter if you are sending an enquiry
There may be times when you want to send your resume to a company that has not advertised a vacancy. This is known as a speculative letter and is perfectly acceptable. Some employers are impressed with people who show their pro-activity in this way.
In this situation it’s even more important to make sure that you know the name of the appropriate recipient. Your first paragraph should state that you are looking for work and then explain why you have chosen that particular company. You won’t know exact skills requirements so focus on demonstrating transferable skills like communication, leadership and teamwork. From your research you should also be able to work out a couple of more industry specific skills.
How to check your cover letter
Never send a cover letter that hasn’t been thoroughly checked. You should do this at least twice yourself and then ask someone else to read it through. To help with this, here is a quick cover letter checklist:
1. Look carefully at the layout of your letter; text should line up against margins, the use of commas at the end of lines should be consistent and you should only have used one font at 10-12 point.
2. Even if you are confident with your spelling and grammar run one last check.
3. Your cover letter should not take up more than one A4 page but should have at least three paragraphs. Edit out unnecessary words or sections of text if it’s too long and do some company research or ask for help if it’s too short.
Writing a cover letter is a great opportunity to summarise your skills and personality. It won’t take as long as your resume but it is just as important. Don’t be afraid to ask for help at any opportunity, if you can find someone who works in recruitment to give you advice then all the better. Good luck with your application, with a carefully crafted resume and a top-of-the-pile cover letter we are sure that you’re already on your way to interview.
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