How to write a cover letter that stands out
A tip-top CV can prove you’ve got the grades. But what makes a company open that PDF doc in the first place and what makes your CV stand out?
The very first thing a recruiter sees of an applicant is his/her cover letter. And, in a world where only six seconds are spent on any one resume, first impressions count.
Spotted a job ad on Monster that you’d be perfect for? Chances are, so have hundreds of other people. Here’s how you can make your cover email stand out from the crowd:
What are the main objectives of a cover letter?
- Introduce yourself
- Summarise your experience
- Prove your competence
By ‘introduce self’, we don’t mean tell them your name and job. Introducing yourself means giving the employer a sense of your personality, your drive, and understanding of the role. It means communicating why you want their job and what you know about their company.
While you’re never going to befriend a recruiter through twenty lines of Calibre, you can certainly give them an outline of what you’re about.
Summarising experience means just that: summarise. Cover letters are not a second CV. Don’t use them to outline all your work history to date or list your qualifications. This is a supplement to your resume, a cover to make employers want to read it.
Take the highlights and deliver them in as few words as possible. For example: “I know how to deliver accurate copy to spec and to time because I already write two articles a day in my current role, which I have held for seven months.”
Proving your competence is simple: write well. If it takes getting your entire family joint-proofreading your email to iron out those errors, do it. No matter what you’re applying for, a poorly written email is going to turn a recruiter right off.
You’re not writing this cover letter in a vacuum. This is a company you’re applying to, just like a real business which exists in the real world and hopefully makes real money. So research it.
Learn what the company does, how it does it and what values it prides itself on. Examine the spec on the job ad minutely, until you know the requirements they cite off by heart. Research shows that women in particular shy from applying to jobs they feel unqualified for. But so long as you’re 75% there, it’s worth having a go.
Finally, attempt to discover the name of your addressee. If the email is a standard application account (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org), don’t worry too much. But if the name of the hiring manager is mentioned anywhere on the spec or site, make sure you address them by name. Those details make all the difference.
Know the name of your addressee. Use Mr or Ms, depending on gender, and sign off with ‘Yours sincerely’. If the hiring manager’s identity and gender are a mystery, go for ‘Sir/Madam’ and ‘Yours faithfully’. Don’t use first names unless you are certain they’ll be cool with it. Some people take that stuff badly.
Write in short paragraphs of max a few lines each and don’t pen more than four paragraphs. Nobody likes big blocks of text in an email; they simply won’t read it. The length of your email should be less than half an A4 page if you copy/paste it into Word.
Your four paragraphs should cover the following: brief intro and where you saw the job ad; why you’re applying for the job at this company; your more relevant qualifications and a brief, wrapping-up goodbye. Your tone should hit professional but approachable.
Max your pizzazz
At last, the biggy: how to stand out from the crowd.
For a creative industries application, injecting a little fun into your cover letter isn’t the worst idea. It has to be well judged, but a flourish or two could help your personality pop. For a branding job, for example, you might consider using a favourite font of your target company; it shows not only attention to detail, but that you’ve done your research. If you’re a graphic designer, you might like to pep up the look of your email with some subtle design or colour.
For finance and more corporate roles, you’re more constrained. You need to look serious and cracking jokes in your cover letter doesn’t give the right impression. But that doesn’t mean you’ve got no options available to you. Using bullet points to outline relevant experience may be unusual, but it will highlight your best qualifications. You might even consider making up a portfolio of relevant work materials – if you have the examples and if it contains no delicate information about previous employers. Portfolios aren’t just for creatives; why just say you can compile a report when you can actually prove it?
Looking for more ideas? The Guardian website has some pretty fool-proof examples to draw inspiration from. Though a cover letter might make or break your job hunt, it’s still just an email. And an email never ruined anyone’s career… did it?
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