Everyone hates writing cover letters.
And reading them generally bores recruiters to tears. I’m literally crying right now just writing the words ‘cover letter’.
I mean, I get it. You’re probably thinking, ‘What’s the point, when all the information’s already there, on my CV? Does anyone even bother to read them?’ And because it’s seen as a pointless exercise, people tend to just make a sort of desultory, cursory effort at assembling something that’s part cut-and-pasted job description, part every-management-speak-cliché-known-to-man. As a result, recruiters don’t tend to bother reading them. It’s a vicious cycle.
That’s a huge wasted opportunity. Aside from your CV, it’s the one chance you have to set yourself apart from the pack. On the odd occasion that I receive a really outstanding cover letter, it’s glorious. I’ll pick up the phone right away just out of sheer gratitude.
Here are my top 5 tips for writing a non-sucky cover letter:
Address it to an actual person
Let’s all pledge right here to condemn the dusty old ‘To Whom it May Concern’ to a quick death. It’s really awful. Likewise ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. What is this, Downton Abby? There is no quicker way to make the person reading your letter feel as though they are merely one of the bajillion recruiters you’ve hit with the same tired cover letter.
If the recruiter or hiring manager has listed their name on a job ad, use it! (Do make sure to get it right though: I’ve lost count of the number of cover letters I’ve read addressed ‘Dear William’ - my name’s Ellen Williams). If they’ve given their job title but no name, do a LinkedIn search of the company, then select ‘people’ for a list of everyone who works there to find out who holds that job title at the company currently. Otherwise, simply call the main line, say you’re writing a cover letter for xyz position and want to know who to address it to.
Be a human, not a robot
Your CV should be pretty tight and to the point. That doesn’t leave you much scope to be yourself. But with your cover letter, you have a whole page (albeit a short one – aim for about 4-5 paragraphs) to showcase your personality and tell a bit of a story. Of course, you should keep it professional, but you needn’t sound like a robot. If you struggle with walking that line, try imagining you’re writing an email to a colleague you’re friendly with. That’s about the tone you’re looking for.
Make it about them, not you
Because after all, first and foremost the hiring manager’s looking for someone who can make their lives easier; not the other way around. You’ll definitely want to explain – specifically – why their company and the job on offer gets you excited, but after that, you should focus on why you’d be an asset to their team.
Highlight just a couple of skills
While your CV should be structured around your experience, your cover letter gives you a chance to really expand on your most relevant skills. Rather than just cutting and pasting all the skills from the job ad into one paragraph (you know who you are!), pick out the top two or three skills you’re especially strong on, then dedicate a paragraph to each, using concrete examples of your experience as an illustration.
Answer any questions that your CV raises
As my esteemed colleague Crispin puts it, ‘a cover letter is like the entrée that you eat after the main’. Generally recruiters will read the CV first, and many will then only read the cover letter if they’re on the fence and need more information.
Wherever possible, include all crucial information in your CV - don’t rely on your cover letter being read. For example, if you’re applying for a position in another city, mention at the top of your CV that you’re relocating on a specific date and you’re available for interviews in person in the meantime.
However, some things might require a more in-depth explanation. If, for example, you took a step back in your career for a short while after having children as a trade-off for working part-time hours, and now you’re applying for a position at the level you held previously, your cover letter’s probably the best place to explain that.
One last, small tip: to increase the chance of your cover letter being read, include it in the body of the email. Attach it as a document too, to make it easy for applicant tracking systems to save.
While all this might sound like a bit of work, I promise you it'll be a lot more effective than writing another dry-as-two-day-old-toast missive that's destined for the trash file. You might even enjoy it!