Starting to search for a new position, in today’s ultra-competitive job market, can be daunting. With information about job postings so easy to find, the number of applicants for each position has increased dramatically in recent years.
Recruiters are overwhelmed with the number of resumes they are expected to sort through. Job-seekers know that their resume is likely to get lost amidst the hundreds or even thousands put forward for a single position.
Larger companies, and those using job boards, have the option of filtering out unsuitable candidates via their AMS (applicant management system), so, once sent, most CVs are never even seen by a human being.
Smaller companies, and start-ups, however, may not have access to such a system, and each application will have to be reviewed by a recruiter.
Most automated application systems invite you to include a cover letter when you upload your CV, however, this is usually optional. In reality, most applicants don’t include one. Why is this?
- They may be applying to multiple positions in the hope that one employer may be interested, so cover letter writing is not worth the effort.
- They may believe that their cover letter won’t get read.
- They may not understand the value that a well-written cover letter can add.
However, many employers and recruitment consultants still claim that a well-written cover letter will help an applicant stand out among the crowd of other job-seekers.
In this guide, we’ll take you through the times when a cover letter is essential, how you should go about preparing one, and the traps you should avoid falling into when preparing a cover letter.
There are a number of different ways you may approach an employer. But the question is how appropriate is a cover letter in each case. So let’s dig down further:
Via job boards
These usually offer the opportunity to upload a cover letter in addition to a CV. To filter out the (possibly) hundreds of job applications that do not meet the criteria requested, you are often asked to answer two or three filtering questions. Some of these questions may include but not limited to:
- Do you have a valid driver’s license?
- Are you currently resident in Australia?
- Do you have an MSc in Civil Engineering?
If your answer to any of these questions is not what the recruiter is looking for, your application will be automatically rejected. Your skills and experience won’t be of value to this employer, for this position. Save time and effort, don’t go further.
In some particular cases, they may ask questions regarding your academic background, work experience, your selected career path and much more.
However, if you are able to answer positively, and meet the criteria requested, a cover letter can provide useful additional information.
In some cases, the job board doesn’t accept cover letters. In this case, you need to look at the cover letter examples and may consider attaching one to your CV, provided that the system will accept a non-standard CV format.
Via a company website
If you are hoping to work for a specific organization or you apply to a particular educational institute, in this case, it is more likely that your CV will be held in a ‘job bank’. Recruiters of that organization can search among their stored CVs later, by using keywords used in the job description.
If you are offered the opportunity to upload a cover letter, do so. On the other hand, if there is no option to upload it separately, include it as part of your CV document, so that the recruiter will still see it.
Via a recruitment consultancy or agency
Whether you’re applying to a bespoke executive search consultant, or huge agencies specializing in temporary recruitment, your cover letter can help the person who first sees it. It will help them gain an understanding of who you are and what you’re looking for in terms of your job search.
Via a print ad
If you’re replying to an advertisement in a newspaper or magazine, you will most likely be invited to send a CV, plus an application letter.
Even at this stage, you may be asked to provide some details, such as your salary expectations, to assist the recruiter in filtering out unsuitable applicants or those with unrealistic expectations.
A cover letter is a convenient and helpful way to clarify that you’ve read the job posting carefully and are ready to provide all the information they’re looking for.
Via a recommendation
If you have been recommended for a position by a third party, a cover letter is absolutely essential. It lets the recruiter know who has recommended you, and why they thought you would be suitable.
It is a matter of courtesy to acknowledge the person who recommended you, and to express your appreciation for their support. It’s also a great opportunity to start building a positive relationship with the recruiter.
It may just be the case that you send a CV to a company’s inbox, in the hope that, if an opportunity arises, you are already known to them. A cover letter that is both professional and memorable can make the difference between being filed and forgotten, or piquing their interest so you’ll be in the back of their minds as a potential team member.
When the moment comes that your application may be what they’re looking for, your cover letter will provide helpful additional details, such as your availability for interviews with a human resource professionals.
Why do I need a cover letter?
If we look at the process of selecting the right applicant from the point of view of the employer or recruiter, for each job posting, they’ll receive, potentially, hundreds of job applications. Your first challenge is to make it onto a ‘long list’ of 10-25 applicants which means your application letter must stand out.
Let’s assume that all the resume cover letters on a long list are more or less equal in terms of the work experience of the candidates.
On top of that all the CVs are well-presented, professional and contain relevant details. This is where a cover letter can make you stand out and make all the difference in terms of whether or not you make it to the shortlist.
Make your application targeted
These days, applying for jobs is, on one level, easy. Upload your CV, and press send. You can do this hundred of times in the hope that one employer will select you. Unfortunately, this scatter-gun approach does not impress recruiters.
As you’ve shown no real interest in them, you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re shown no real interest in return. In most cases, the best you can hope for is an automated letter explaining that your application has been unsuccessful.
What will make an impression is that you have taken the time to address a potential employer specifically and directly. You’ve shown through your application letter that you’re serious.
It shows who you are
CV and Application Letter can be very dry. While they detail a career path, rarely does the personality of the applicant shine through. However, the style and tone of a short cover letter gives an insight into who you are and whether you’d be the right fit for this particular employer.
It shows how will you add value
Although it should be brief, your cover letter provides an opportunity to explain how you can add value to an organization. Maybe you can mention a success you’ve had, or an experience which may be unusual. For example, all applicants for an HR admin position probably have a similar job description.
But, mention it in your cover letter that you’ve been part of a team responsible for a major organizational restructuring, or the creation of a new office.
Suddenly the employer can see beyond your job description and understand how you could be part of the solution to a problem they have.
Can make you stand out
It’s a paradox that, although, typically, only around 26% of cover letters are actually read, 56% of employers do want them to be included with an application letter. In smaller companies, where the volume of job postings and applications is likely to be lower and probably more sporadic, they are more likely to read a cover letter and take its content into consideration.
Prepare before writing
Now let’s move on to consider how to approach the cover letter writing. It should go without saying that it needs to be tailored to fit each particular application you make.
So before sitting down to craft your job application, it’s essential to do your homework:
- Go back to the job posting and review it carefully. What are the key attributes this employer is looking for?
- Look for the keywords in the job posting. Which ones resonate with you?
- What does their ideal candidate look like? Are they looking for an ambitious disrupter, or someone to bring steadiness to a new team?
- Check their website as this will give valuable insight into their values and brand.
- Check their social media pages, as these will also help you to understand how they like to communicate.
- Check any news articles. Is the company growing rapidly? Does it have a reputation for excellence?
Contents of a cover letter
Addressing the letter
If at all possible, find out the name of the person who’ll be reading your application, and address the letter to him or her. This immediately makes a connection.
If their name isn’t clear from the job posting, consider phoning the company and asking directly if you can have the name of the hiring manager, explaining you would like to address a letter to them.
If the person you’re talking to doesn’t want to share the name, obtain the position title of the person who deals with recruitment.
When dealing with large companies, it becomes more difficult to find a specific person. It may be possible to find them on the ‘About Us’ page of their website, or even via a LinkedIn search.
However, if you simply can’t identify the name of the person, you may have to go with something less personal.
- ‘Dear Hiring Manager’ is now in common use, although it’s very impersonal
- ‘Dear Recruitment Manager’ or ‘Dear Human Resources Manager’, if you know who will be handling the application, but can’t find their name.
- ‘To Whom it May Concern’ – is now old-fashioned and obsolete. Don’t use it. We’re not in the 19th century any more.
- ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ – is also now out- dated and should be avoided. ‘Dear Sirs’ is even worse since it assumes the hiring manager couldn’t possibly be female.
One last point: never use an informal greeting such as ‘Hello!’ or ‘Hi there!’ if you want to be regarded as a serious professional candidate, and not someone looking for a Facebook friend.
Next, move on to the body of the letter:
- Four short paragraphs will be enough
- Certainly, less than a full page
Just ensure you cover the following points:
Paragraph One: Introduction
The recruiter already knows where you saw the job posting and the job title of the position you’re applying for. Don’t waste your first opportunity to make a great impression by writing the same thing a hundred other applicants have written.
- Start your cover letter with a strong statement about yourself, your skills and experience, and why you’re applying for this role. ‘In this position, great selling skills won’t be enough.’
- Go straight to the point: ‘As a new Sales Director, I’ve made the transition from closing sales myself, to developing my team’s skills. In the last 12 months, our results have increased by 57%’.
- Make sure your enthusiasm shines through, but don’t make statements that you can’t back up later.
Paragraph 2: How you’ll add value
- Go back and look at the keywords from the job posting
- Mention your professional skills and experience as well as successes and challenges you’ve faced, which relate to their keywords
- Link them to the role you’re applying for
Paragraph 3: How can you resolve a problem for them?
- They’re opening a new branch overseas – you’ve worked in that country or already speak the language and have an understanding of the culture.
- In an industry where employee turnover is an issue: you have managed a team without losing any members.
- The industry is having an issue with information security: your most recent certification focused on this so you are up-to-date with current best practices
Paragraph 4: Closing the letter
- Confirm that you are serious about applying for this particular position
- Confirm that, what you know about the company and its values, you believe you will be a great fit.
- Confirm your availability for an interview.
- Thank the reader for considering your application.
- Close in a business-like way, but not too formally: ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Best regards’ are neutral yet respectful.
If you need help to get you started, a quick Google search will bring up many great cover letter examples.
Clichés to avoid
Recruiters and hiring managers deal with hundreds of applications each week. Many of the application letters contain almost identical information. Unfortunately, many also contain tired old clichés which instantly create a sense of boredom in the mind of the person reading.
So don’t be another applicant who can’t be bothered to write something original to grab the attention of professionals managing the human resources of your prospective employer.
Filling your cover letter with phrases that don’t add value or mean anything is not the best way to get noticed. Instead, make use of your skills and experience to draw the attention of the reader towards your job application.
The list is seemingly endless, but here are a few of the most common (and irritating):
- ‘My name is’: really, the reader has probably spotted your name already.
- ‘I can work independently as well as part of a team’. This one tries to cover all bases. It is one of the most loathed clichés, yet still perhaps the most common.
- ‘I’m a blue-sky thinker’/ ‘I think out of the box’. Unless you are ready to follow up this kind of statement with a mind-blowing example of when you exhibited this trait, and how it added value, avoid it because no-one will be impressed.
- ‘I’m an excellent communicator/ I’m a creative problem-solver’. As above, it’s never impressive when a candidate boasts about themselves, without any evidence. This kind of statement will make zero impact on the reader.
- ‘I’m a hard worker’ No-one is ever going to admit that they’ll do as little as they can get away with. So really, this makes no difference. If you get invited for interview, have examples of how hard you’ve worked in the past, ready to share.
- ‘This is the kind of role I’m looking for’ – possibly in common with 300 others. Use the opportunity of a cover to letter to explain exactly what makes you the kind of person that the role is looking for.
- ‘As you will see on my CV’ – just say what you need to say. You don’t need to reference your CV, they’ll get to it later.
- ‘I’m the best candidate for this job / you won’t regret choosing me’ – as you haven’t seen the 299 other CVs, let the reader be the judge of that.
- ‘I can provide excellent references on request’ While this implies, I’ve done well in my previous roles, it doesn’t make it clear whether your reference will be provided by the CEO of a multinational, or your favorite uncle. Best leave this until the company requests.
Although preparing a resume cover letter requires some time and effort, it can give you an advantage when you apply for that position you really want.
Recruiters, who are often jaded due to the volume of poor-quality and irrelevant CVs they receive, really notice anyone who presents themselves as professional and genuinely interested in the position they are applying for.
They really appreciate the effort, skills and experience that a candidate has put in to understand the role, the company and whether they are likely to align with the culture of the company.
In the event that you do get invited for an interview, your cover letter may well provide a useful starting point for the discussion.
This is partly because your CV is based on facts, and outlines your career path, whereas your cover letter shows what more of who you are, what matters to you, and what you can contribute to the company. It demonstrates how serious you are and how you present yourself to the world.
It is good practice to go over your cover letter before your meeting and be prepared to expand on the points you made. If you gave one example in your letter, get ready to provide more details, and to provide other, similar examples.
It is astonishing, but true, that candidates will often admit at interview that they know nothing about the company they’ve applied to as if this is a badge of honor.
The recruiter then has to explain the most basic facts about the company, which could have been gleaned in a few minutes from a superficial web search. Such candidates prove at this stage that while they’re focused on finding a new job, it doesn’t really matter to them who they finally work for.
On the other hand, your cover letter will have shown that you’ve done your research into your potential employer. Your interviewer will know that they don’t have to waste time by going over the basics with you.
They can talk to you as someone with a reasonable level of understanding, if not insider knowledge, and expect a productive discussion. You’re already one step ahead of the other candidates.
Finally, and this is often overlooked, your cover letter will have given an insight into your values. Whether consciously or unconsciously you will have provided some insight into the kind of person you are and the way you work.
If your values and the company’s values are aligned, this is often more important than any gaps in experience on your CV. It will be your cover letter, rather than your CV, that gives the recruiter an insight into how well you’ll fit into the team and be able to contribute to the success of the company.
This article should have given you an idea of why creating a cover letter to accompany your CV is a great investment of your time, and will repay the effort you make by giving you the edge in the crowded job-market. We hope it will help you take the next steps along your path to a successful and fulfilling career.