March 5

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How to Write a Cover Letter: a step by step guide

Applying for jobs? Here's what you need to know about how to write a cover letter so you will actually get interviews.

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Your resume has one job, and one job only, and that is to get you an interview.

Similarly, your cover letter has one job, and one job only, and that is to get the reader or computer interested enough to look at your resume.

So, if a well written cover letter will convince a potential employer or recruiter to find out more about you, it stands to reason that a poorly written cover letter could have the opposite effect – even if you are the perfect candidate.

But don’t worry, writing a great cover letter is a lot easier than you might think when you understand what is needed and, to make this even easier for you , we have a simple 6 step guide that will walk you through the whole process from start to finish.

In this post we will cover:


  • Are cover letters important?
  • How long a cover letter should be
  • Top tips on how to write great cover letters
  • A simple 6 step guide that you can use right now to write perfect cover letters
  • An example cover letter to guide you
  • Key takeaways


Let’s start by answering the two most common questions I am asked on the subject of cover letters – are they really that important and how long they should be.

Are cover letters important?

The fear of not knowing how to write a cover letter often means that people simply don’t include one, but this is a huge mistake.

If an employer has specifically asked for a cover letter and you don't give them one, it shows you either cannot or will not follow instructions. That’s not a great start for your application and it also gives those that have written a cover letter a huge advantage.

You may even be rejected for the role because you failed to submit a complete application.

Even when they don’t specify that one is required, you should still take some time to write one because it demonstrates enthusiasm for the role and provides you with a great opportunity to highlight why they should offer you an interview.

Think about the last time you bought a book. What convinced you to hand over your money and look forward to reading the pages inside? Chances are it was the blurb on the cover providing you with an enticing description, leaving you wanting to know more.

Would you have bought it without this? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Well, your cover letter performs the same function as the blurb on a book.

It’s there to sell the idea and content of your resume so that the reader wants to know more.

It takes time, energy and sometimes money to create a great resume so you really should be promoting it with a cover letter to make sure it definitely gets seen.

How long should a cover letter be?

It is commonly agreed that your cover letter should be targeted and succinct and you can achieve this with the following tips and the 6 step guide.

However, at the same time, its purpose is to introduce and sell you to a prospective employer so it also needs to be long enough to achieve this.

Therefore, the content and length should be dictated by the level and complexity of the role you are applying for.

Some argue that you should just stick to four sentences and this may well be enough for an entry level position but what if you are applying for an executive opportunity? Clearly this would not suffice.

Whatever the level, ensure that you only include what is actually needed and never go over one page.

Tips on how to write great cover letters

Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind while you are writing your cover letters.

Use the hirer’s name

Generic salutations such as “Dear Sir” Dear Madam” and "to Whom it may concern” are cold and, if their name is readily available, rather lazy. But what if you really don’t have their name?

Depending on the situation, try to ask a mutual contact, Google the company, conduct some research on LinkedIn or call their receptionist and ask them. If all these efforts fail, aim for something that’s still somewhat specific like “Engineering HR Manager” or “Practice Manager.”

Always write a targeted letter

I know it is so tempting to just edit a standard version by changing the addresses and contact details but don’t do it.

You should be responding to specific points in each job description to sell yourself plus recruiters can spot a generic cover letter from a mile off.

Promote skills not clichés

This is your time to shine not blend in so don't use phrases such as ‘team player’ and ‘excellent interpersonal skills.’ Again, these are generic and meaningless so choose more creative words and put these in context.

But what if they are emphasised in the job description? If such terms are repeatedly used and therefore crucial to a role then include them but put the skill in context e.g I possess excellent interpersonal skills gained and developed through successfully working with a wide range of cultures and stakeholders.

Be Positive

Don’t draw attention and apologise for any weaknesses with words such as “despite my limited knowledge of x.” Instead, say something like “I am looking forward to transferring my skills in (skill you have) to a position that is more (what you will be doing).

Remember, you are selling yourself into the role so you want them to recognise all the strengths you would bring to the role if they hired you.

Struggling with how to identify what your key strengths are? Check out this post on how to answer “what is your greatest strength.” Not only will this help you write better cover letters, but you will be more prepared for your next interview too.

Focus on what you can do for them

The cover letter should not be about what you want, but about what you could do for them.  Take a look at the job description and do some research to try to work out the major issues or challenges that need to be addressed then emphasise how skilled you are in these areas.

Back up experience with evidence

If you have improved a process, say by what percentage. If you brought in more clients than your colleagues, say how many. If you reduced staff churn, say by how much. If you are skilled in project management, mention the actual projects and their positive outcomes.

Be mindful of your 'voice'

Don’t be too formal as you will seem unfriendly and perhaps hard to work with. Be careful not to go the other way though by overusing adverbs as this will make you seem desperate and pushy.

Just be your normal professional self and, if possible, adopt the same type of language used in the job advertisement and their company website so it matches their culture, proving you will fit right in if hired.

Choose quality over quantity

This is not the time to rehash your entire resume. The key is to provide relevant evidence that supports why they really must interview you for the position you are applying for.

Recruiters and hiring managers are time poor and deadline driven so they will be speed reading your cover letter

Give them exactly what they need and want to know in an accessible format so that you end up in the yes pile and not the reject file.

6 step guide on how to write a great cover letter

Now you know what you are aiming for, let’s get this cover letter written. The first time you do this may take a little while but, once you get the hang of it, it will be so easy to produce a perfect cover letter every time you need one.

1

Research

Use Google, the company's website and any social media channels they currently use.


Take notes on any information relating to:


  • who will be interviewing you ie correct name, position and background
  • company news and announcements
  • project details if relevant
  • company culture and reputation
  • specific careers page information on opportunities other than the one you are applying for
  • general news stories relating to the company

Now look at the job advertisement or job description and a copy of your resume.


Take each key skill they mention and highlight your relevant experience or knowledge on your resume – you can do this by printing off a copy or editing it onscreen.


Pick a minimum of 3 up to a maximum of 10 of the strongest matches.

2

Double Checking

Start your cover letter by making sure you put the right name and address on the letter i.e. the hiring manager or recruiter’s actual name plus the right contact details for you.


I know this may sound basic and silly but so many people don’t take care at this stage, especially if they are sending out multiple applications, and it can cost you the job.

3

Brief Introduction

Clearly state why you are writing and, if there is a job title/reference, use it.

4

Prove Suitability

Now choose at least 3 but no more than 10 of those key skills you match to highlight why you are a great fit for the role.


Write these in a bulleted format so they are easy to speed read

5

Provide Reason

This is where you need to convince them that you don’t just want ‘a job’, you want ‘this specific job with this specific company’.


Use information from your earlier research and mention it here e.g. an impressive project they have won that you would be excited to work on, their reputation in the industry where you mention specific achievements or awards or perhaps their growth plans just announced to the media where you could grow with them.

6

Confirm Contact

Finish by thanking them for their time and mention again the best way to contact you.


You are done!

Example cover letter

But what does this look like in practice?

Here is an example of a successful cover letter written to specifically mirror the language and details of a job description for a Health & Safety Manager.
Example cover letter

Key Takeaways...

The 2 biggest cover letter mistakes concern length.

People either offer a generic letter with little content and zero originality or they do the opposite and rehash their entire resume.

Always use your cover letter as an opportunity to highlight key skills and achievements relevant to the role and don’t be tempted stray into areas that may be impressive but are of little or no importance to the role you are applying for.

The content and length should be dictated by the level and complexity of the role you are applying for.

The example above needed to be longer due to the nature of the job description but you can use the 6 step guide for all levels and all positions.

Take the time to write the right cover letter for each and every role you apply for.

Keep in mind that your cover letter is the first thing an employer may look at – and that it could be the last if they are not impressed.

Still Have a question about how to write a cover letter? Leave a comment below...



Mark Daniel

About the Author

A global resume writer and career coach, Mark is known for his honest, direct, and hard-hitting advice, helping people manage job applications and succeed at interviews. Now based on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, he is the co-founder of Real Life Career Advice and the Hi Vis Hub. A prolific publisher, Mark contributes to several industry magazines and his daily career advice blog to his 45,000 LinkedIn followers.

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