Recently I reviewed some job applications on behalf of a client. I was really surprised by the cover letters! Some people didn't provide a cover letter and of the letters that did come in, none of them inspired me to want to read the accompanying CVs.
Back in the days when I was applying for jobs I thought cover letters were a "must have". Just in case things had changed I asked career coach Jo Ostler for some advice on cover letters. I’ve included what she shared below…
I'm often asked - Do I really need a cover letter? And if so, what does a good one look like – what am I supposed to say?
Yes, you do. A cover letter is vital. While there are many opinions about job search and best process, my advice is to cover your bases and remove any red flags. That is, any small thing that might cause an employer to cut your application from consideration. Not having a cover letter is one of those red flags.
While some employers/recruiters won't even look at it, others will. Some even make interviewing selection decisions based almost entirely on the cover letter alone. You don't know who will be scanning applications so you need to make sure you've prepared the best material you can.
Current market conditions are quite competitive - depending on your skills and industry area of course - but if you're up against 100 other applicants you don't want to be giving the recruiter any reason to not include you in the interview pile.
4 tips to create a compelling cover letter
Here are 4 tips for things to do (and not do) to get your application in the interview pile.
1. Keep it short - 1 page
Tell them how you match the job requirements - this means you need to customise your letter for every application. I know that means work, but if you don't you'll probably hit the generic pile, and that's not going to be good enough for an interview.
Employers spend about 6 seconds on a first scan of your cover letter and CV. If you don't make it crystal clear and totally obvious how you meet the job requirements, you probably won't hear from them.
2. Clearly show how you match the job requirements
This is a biggie and it’s the mistake I see the most. Many people think the cover letter is a place where they say what they want, and give a bit of background about themselves and their experience – from their own perspective. But a cover letter, like a CV, is actually a marketing document. Your goal is to get invited to an interview. Employers typically only spend a few seconds scanning your information, so you have to make it count.
Clarity is key. You've got to make it crystal clear, to the scanning eye, how you match their requirements. And a great way to do this is by using a few thoughtful bullet points in the middle section of your letter.
Use some of the language they've used in the job advert. For example, if they have said they want someone with "Sales and Customer Service Experience" then say you have this.
But don't use all of the same words - add a few of your own - so it doesn’t look like you’ve copied directly from the job advert. That would be a red flag. You have to add your own flavour. And you have to be honest. This is crucial. You can't claim something you don't have. Expect to be quizzed on these areas in your interview so you'll need to speak honestly and positively about your experience and skills.
3. Address the letter to a specific person
Find out the name of the person who's managing the recruitment process for the role - this might involve phoning. If you aren't able to find out, then address the letter to 'To whom it may concern".
4. Double check grammar and format
Obvious, but many people don't do this. Mistakes are a reason to stop you getting into the interview pile. Especially where there is plenty of competition for the role. If your writing and grammar skills aren't great, then give the letter to someone to proof and edit.
Get noticed when applying for a job
To help you out, here's an example template, it’s a word doc version. You’re welcome to download and adapt to suit... Cover letter template.
I trust this is helpful. Have fun and best luck for successful job searching!
Happily based in Cambridge, New Zealand
Jo is a professionally credentialed coach (PCC) with over 1200 coaching client hours. Jo's clients span a wide spectrum - from early career through to senior executives, wanting clarity, focus, momentum, and balance in their roles, career development aspirations, and lives.