How to write a Cover Letter

Many of our mentees ask of their mentors is how to improve their chances of success in getting a job.  Many mentees believe the key to success is how to handle job interviews. However before this can take place you need a good Cover Letter and CV. We recently covered the essential elements of a CV in a four part guide:

This week, we discuss:
  1. What is a Cover Letter
  2. Will anybody read my Cover Letter
  3. Before you get started
  4. 7 Basic Rules
  5. What to include
  6. What not to include
  7. Cover Letter Formatting Guidelines
  8. Defeating the Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

So grab a coffee – and lets delve into it.

What is a Cover Letter?

A cover letter is a document sent with your resume to provide additional information on your skills and experience.

  • Its purpose is to interpret the data oriented, factual resume and add a personal touch to your application for employment.
  • Effective cover letters explain the reasons for your interest in the specific organisation and identify your most relevant skills or experiences and why you are qualified for the job you are applying for.
  • It isn’t simply a repeat of your resume, but rather it draws out specific information on why you are a strong match for the job requirements.

Think of your cover letter as a sales pitch of your credentials to help you get the interview. As such, you want to make sure your cover letter makes the best impression on the person who is reviewing it.

A cover letter typically accompanies each resume you send out. Employers use cover letters as a way to screen applicants for available jobs and to determine which candidates they would like to interview. If an employer requires a cover letter, it will be listed in the job posting. Even if the company doesn’t ask for one, you may want to include one anyway as it will show that you have put some extra effort into your application.

Will anybody read my Cover Letter?

Yes, we can assure you that cover letters do, in fact, get read. In fact, to some hiring managers, they’re the most important part of your application. And yes, while it would be easier to let your resume speak for itself, if that was the case you’d completely miss the opportunity to tell prospective employers who you are, showcase why they should hire you, and stand out above all the other candidates.

Some organisations may specifically ask you to provide a cover letter instead of submitting a resume, to prevent an avalanche of applications and resumes coming their way.

Before you get started

It is important to find out more about the job before you write your Cover Letter. Remember, you need to sell yourself, and you can’t properly sell yourself if you don’t know who your customer is or what they are looking for.

Spend five or 10 minutes reading over the company website before you get started. This will give you an understanding of the Company’s history, strategy and direction – which is important when framing your Cover Letter, CV and interview.

The company website may also help you get into the right mindset when writing your Cover Letter. Using the same language as the company website will also help convince people you are suited for the job –  and help you write in the same language as the company fitting the culture and replicating the tone.

Other questions you need to ask include:

  • If the job ad doesn’t have a company, call the recruiter and ask who the company is – and a Position Description.
  • Try to obtain the a Position Description to give you an idea of the experience you need and the role you will play in the new job. It could also tell you about the type of people that they are looking for.
  • Who would I be reporting to?
  • Does the job involve working a part of a team?
  • Find out the name of the relevant people:
    • Hiring Manager – do your best to research who the Hiring Manager is at the Company. If you can’t find this then;
    • Department Manager – this person will be involved with hiring you. Even if they are not the direct hiring manager, address the letter to them will show that you put in some effort.
    • Human Resources Director – If you can’t find the Department Manager – then try the Human Resources Director.
    • CEO or Vice President – If you can’t find any of the above, then you could be dealing with a small or new start-up, in which case the CEO or Vice President may be the people responsible for hiring.

7 Basic Rules

There are 7 Basic Rules that we recommend you follow when writing a Cover Letter:

  1. All cover letters should be no more than one page long. Some hiring managers suggest you shouldn’t write more than 25o words. 70% of employers either want a half page cover letter (250 words) or shorter. But don’t make it too short, otherwise hiring managers will think you possess too little experience or enthusiasm for the position.
  2. Error free. Make sure your check your cover letter for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Remember, you only have 1 page to nail it, so if you can’t get spelling or grammar correct in that page, the hiring manager will exercise caution inviting the applicant to the next round.
  3. Don’t be a thesaurus. Some applicants believe that using many complex words and sentences will convey their intelligence. But it can make your cover letter difficult to read or understand and may lose the interest of your hiring manager. You may also come across sounding like a robot, rather than a human being.
  4. Don’t be overly creative. We don’t recommend writing an overly creative covering letter – it can backfire on you. We aren’t suggesting that you write like a robot or keeping a very dry tone in your covering letter, but we advise caution trying to be wacky, goofy or overly interesting. You can be unique in other ways – for instance – consider adding a headline like “3 Reasons I’m an Excellent Fit for the Senior Accountant Position” – no one says you have to follow the tried and true format, but this can be an easy way to catch the hiring manager’s eye quickly.
  5. Formality. There is a fine balance with regard to formality. It is important to maintain some level of formality to some respect for the Hiring Manager and the Position. However if you are overly formal, it can make you seem insincere or robotic and potentially unapproachable and unfriendly.
  6. Don’t regurgitate your resume. Draw out specific information on why you are a strong match for the job requirements.
  7. There is no “One size fits all”. Try not to make your cover letter generic – try to customize it around the job you are applying for. For instance – mention the specific position you are applying for – e.g. “I’m applying for the Account Manager Position at Apple” as opposed to “I’m apply for the open position at your company”.

What to include

Section 1 – Header

  • Put your name and contact details at the top of your cover letter. E.g:
    First and Last Name
    Street Address
    City, State, Zip Code
    Phone Number
    Email
  • If you don’t live in the area of the job – for instance if you plan to relocate for it, then perhaps remove your address from the header as it instantaneously puts you on the back foot. It is something you can address in the interview – i.e. that you are willing to relocate.
  • Make sure your email creates a professional impression – not like “Hotstuff@hotmilk.com”.
  • Today’s Date
  • Name of the person you are writing to – i.e. the Hiring Manager (try to us “Mr.” or “Ms.” unless you know them well.)
  • Their position or name of the company.
  • Company Address
  • Hiring Manager’s Email Address.

Section 2 – The greeting

The greeting is important – it sets the tone of the letter and if not done correctly, may put the Hiring Manager in a negative frame of mind before they have even considered your Cover Letter.

Try to avoid generic greetings such as “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam”. Try to address your reader (i.e. the name of your Hiring Manager, HR Director or Department Manager etc). Unless you know them well, try to use their last name – e.g. “Mr.” or “Ms.”

Section 3 – the position/name of the job you are going for

At the start of your cover letter, you need to identify the job you are apply for. You can either do this by:

  • A line by itself – for example “Re: Application for Machine Operator”; or
  • In the opening paragraph – “I am writing to apply for the recently advertised Machine Operator position.”

Introduce yourself – don’t start with “My name is _____” – its a waste of space – your name is already in the header. Get straight to the point – tell the hiring manager that you are excited to be applying for the job – you can use the following reasons:

  • You like the company – its a great way to demonstrate to the Hiring Manager that you know about the company, you took time to research it.
  • You think the opportunity is interesting – even if you don’t know the company, the role itself may be interesting or line up with your passion, If that’st the case, tell the hiring maanger why its interesting to you and how it fits with your passions.
  • You have the perfect skill set to perform the job well. If the job isn’t a dream hob, don’t lie about it, as this could backfire, as the hiring manager will likely know. In this case, just emphasize that you’re perfect for the job because you have the required skill set.

Ideally, you’d use all three reasons to explain your excitement for applying for the job. Whilst #1 and #2 are optional, #3 (having the perfect skill set) is essential.

Also explain where you heard about the job – particularly if you heard about the job through a contact associated with the company, or perhaps the job was posted on the company website (demonstrated that you regularly follow the company). Consider telling a story on what brings you to this company – e.g. did the product the company produce make some incredible difference in your life? or you read that the organisation is make great headway into tackling global warming and you want to be part of it, etc…

Section 4 – The Pitch

This is the part that the Hiring Manager is most focused on – it is the critical element that sells you. This is where you provide the evidence that you can actually handle the work.

Identify the skills

If you are answering a job ad, either the ad or the position description may provide a list of skills and experiences that are essential for doing the job. It may also provide a list of “desirable” skills and experience. Your cover letter needs to respond to all of the items on the “essential” list and as many items as possible on the “desirable” list in as short a way as possible.

Try not to be Generic, boring, cliche’d. For instance:

I’m a enthusiastic and a real team player. I’m really hard working, have excellent interpersonal skills, and highly motivated. In my past job, I sold widgets to customers and was considered highly successful. Overall, management was proud of my work and would frequently commend me.”

  • Blue = cliches. Avoid using cliches such as describing yourself as a team player or a people person. Instead show off your skills with descriptive statements.
  • Pink = generic
  • Orange = boring.

Rather – be precise, detailed and quantify where you can:

“During my first year at Widget Co, I increased my department’s revenue by over 95%. My passion for the widget industry is demonstrated in my approach to my customers; I recently won a national award for maintaining an 80% customer satisfaction rate, and  an award for exceeding an 20%  month-on-month sales target over one year.”

  • Blue = precise and detailed
  • Pink = quantified – Don’t be afraid to use numbers. Numbers speak louder than words and use tangible examples

Show them what you can do:

Try to show hiring managers what you can do in the future. Consider crafting a section within the letter that begins with: “Here’s what, specifically, I can deliver in this role” and then expound upon your strengths in a few priority requirements for that role.

Section 5 – Conclusion

Your conclusion should

  1. Re-iterate that you’re excited for the job and that you’re the best choice to help the company
  2. Let them know you are available for an interview at anytime. Don’t be picky about timing, or if you are busy, let them contact you first.

Section 6 – Signing Off

Your cover letter should finish by asking the reader to read your resume. This also serves as a prompt in case for some reason the hiring manager didn’t get your resume with the covering letter.

Always make sure you sign off thanking them for taking the time to read your cover letter – such as “Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

Then a sign off such as “Best Regards”, “Warm Regards”, “Kind Regards”, “Sincerely” or “Yours Faithfully” followed by your name.

What not to include

Don’t apologise for skills you don’t have

When you don’t meet all of the job requirements, it’s common for job seekers to use lines like, “Despite my limited experience with marketing…” or “While I only have work experience doing administrative tasks…” But why apologize? Instead of drawing attention to your weaknesses, try to focus on the skills you do have.

Don’t write from the perspective of what the company can do for you

A common mistake is about how great the position is for you and your resume. The Hiring Manager knows this, and is more focused on what you can bring to the position and the company.

Don’t mention salary

Don’t mention salary unless the company asks for your salary requirements.  If you have questions about the job, the salary, the schedule, or the benefits – it isn’t appropriate to mention them in the cover letter.

Don’t share too much personal information

The letter is about how you are right for the job. It isn’t necessarily about you personally. Try not to share too much personal information about yourself or your family. It can distract the hiring manager from the critical elements that you possess for the job.

Don’t overly focus on education

Many new grads make the mistake of over-focusing on their educational qualifications and backgrounds. However most hiring managers care more about your work experience (including volunteer or internship experience) and what you can deliver when you get the job. If you have no work experience, then perhaps focus on your softer skills.

Using “I” too much

Try not to fill your cover letter with “I” – such as “I believe”, “I have” and “I am”. It can put the Hiring Manager off for various reasons.

Cover Letter Formatting Guidelines

  1. Margins:
    Left and Right– Should always be equal. Never below 0.7″, and never above 1.15″
    Top –Never below 0.5″, and never above 1.0″
    Bottom– Never above 1.0″, never below 0.6″
  2. Font:
    Don’t go below a 12-point font unless absolutely necessary. Anything below 12 can strain the eyes.
  3. Font style:
    Font style is really a matter of preference.Try to choose one that looks professional. Keep in mind that different styles will change the size of the font. Typically the most common font is Arial, Calibri, Verdana or Times New Roman.
  4. Alignment:
    Maintain a uniform alignment throughout. We suggest keeping all paragraphs left-aligned.
  5. White space:
    Make sure there is enough white space. Having white space makes your cover letter easier to read. Add space between the header, salutation, each paragraph, the closing and your signature.

Defeating the Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

70% of jobs are filtered via an applicant tracking system. We covered how to make sure your CV isn’t rejected by the ATS in Part 4 – the dark art of ATS (Applicant Tracking System) – how to make sure your CV isn’t filtered by a ATS.

The same elements apply to your Cover Letter. Some Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) will read your cover letter to assess if you’re a good fit for the job, (and they’ll also look at your resume.) Basically, the software will read your cover letter, and determine if you’ve included enough job-relevant keywords.

A good way to figure out which keywords you should use is to look at the hiring manager’s job description for the role you are apply for.

For instance, if you are an accountant, you’re going to manage accounts and balance budgets, use Excel or SQL Databases, and generate financial reports.

 

If you need help, you can always engage a third party to help you write a great cover letter, but it is also important to have your cover letter reviewed by someone (such as a friend) as well. Don’t forget MentorSelector is also here to help – MentorSelector has people experienced in industries who may be able to guide you on what to focus on in your cover letter.

To learn more about MentorSelector or to find your mentor or life coach, please click here. We are always looking for more mentors to join our family – its a great initiative that is mutually rewarding for both mentor and mentee. Register now to become a mentor or a mentee.