By Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. Cover letters give you an opportunity to set yourself apart when hunting for jobs. Sadly, only few jump to this occasion. Equally disappointing: Hiring companies and recruiters who only ask for a CV, and nothing else.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve trawled through countless applications in search of the next top candidate; and I’ve tried my best to write the most captivating cover letters.
This post covers letters of introduction – from the worst to the best – and how to get better at writing, and reading them.
The new workplace environment is about finding the right person rather than the right fit on paper. It’s much more about the WHO – attitude, personality, goals and potential – than just about the WHAT – skills, achievements, past work experience.
A cover letter gives you the opportunity to SELL YOURSELF.
Think about it this way: If I ask you to sell an ordinary pen to me, how will you go about it? If you try and convince me that your pen is better, stronger and more reliable than all other pens, I guarantee you will lose my attention. If, however, you tell me how this pen may sign lucrative contracts, write a love letter, or how it will draw the best doodles, I will be all ear.
Sell potential, use emotion
When you write your cover letter, tell the reader about your potential. Tell them how you’d help achieve their goals. What assets you’d have to offer that will assist them in building their legacy. What it is about you that will set you apart from everyone else – your quintessence. Don’t just give them a laundry list of your core skills and past achievements.
It is all about the advertiser’s needs, and how you’d provide a solution. It’s not about what you want to achieve, and how they’d fit your goals.
9 tips that will make a cover letter stand out
Tip 1: You are the solution
Check the core requirements and highlight how you could provide a solution to their needs; talk about the company and why you want to work for them.
Tip 2: Show what makes you tick
Use the cover letter to show who you are; what makes you tick; and why you’d be a great fit for the company or organisation. Nobody wants to employ a robot (yet).
Tip 3: Make a connection
Find out if the job advertiser has been in the news recently, or if they have shared an interesting message on their social media channels. Refer to it and comment on it positively.
If you are applying via a recruiter, you often don’t know the name of the company or the organisation that is advertising for the vacancy you are interested in – but you will still know what industry and location they are in, so draw from other news sources to make a connection.
Tip 4: Be open to learning
Even if you think you are an expert at what you are doing – the truth is, nobody wants to hire a “know it all”. Leave some room for improvement, while coming across confidently. Highlight that you are keen to learn more, and to grow with every new opportunity.
Tip 5: Know where and how you can improve
If you see yourself as a mature, confident yet humble person (like most of us want to see themselves), then substantiate it by highlighting your strengths, but also your weaknesses and areas that you can still improve in, given the opportunity and guidance.
Most of us struggle with this. Keep it light: Tell them you’re still trying to parallel-park uphill with elegance, even if you’ve been driving for years. And that similarly, you’d be more than happy to improve on your current skills to be a great fit for their needs.
Tip 6: Be specific
Highlight your core competencies and exemplify your past professional experience. Be specific: match these precisely to the job requirements. Do not use a cover letter to chronologically list your past experience, education and achievements. This can be seen from your CV, or when interviewing you.
Tip 7: Address the reader
Address the person you are writing to by name; if you don’t know who it is, use “Dear Sir/ Madam”, or “Good morning”, or “To the HR team at Dreamworks” – depending on the type of job you are applying for, and on your own style.
If you are applying to a company directly but the job ad doesn’t give you any information about who to address it to, find out yourself. Look them up on the web, give them a call.
Tip 8: Don’t steal from someone else
Do not copy, steal, plagiarise. Don’t use someone else’s words and make them your own. If you want to add a nifty quote or reference a statement, indicate the source clearly. This is about you – nobody wants to hire a copycat or a fraud.
Tip 9: Keep to the point
It’s simple: Don’t write a biography. Don’t write about your neighbour’s dog, your uncle’s sailing expedition and your early childhood memories – it’s not a novel. Keep your cover letter to a maximum of 1 page in length. Break your copy into short paragraphs.
3 examples of things gone utterly wrong
The below are some examples of cover letters gone wrong; they are taken from motivational letter I’ve received myself. The copy has been slightly edited, and names have been changed. There is no need to make anyone feel bad, after all – we all make mistakes and can only learn from each other.
Spelling. Spelling. Spelling.
Yes, triple check. Also review your grammar and sentence structure. Remember that spelling mistakes, especially if more than one, make a bad first impression.
I would luv to share my passion. Its my wish to work with you and I hope to recieve an invitation for an interview. – Matthew
Bad spelling invokes the impression that you are sloppy and careless. That you won’t be able to cope in your job. Use your built-in spell checker, have someone else read your cover letter, or download Grammarly. The 2016 survey by Forbes found that 49% of hiring managers toss out a cover letter with spelling mistakes!
Remember that the person reading your cover letter makes up his or her mind in 30 seconds. So make sure your story sticks. Think of it as online copy-writing: short sentences, short paragraphs, strong and succinct vocabulary. No generalising, boring phrases!
Bad example: I’ve been producing, managing, creating, storytelling and delivering contents, creative marketing messages, and mass communication solutions for almost over a decade now; this global era has allowed me to have international working experience in over 8 countries so far, in a diverse range of professional activities, going from conceptualizing and generating corporate and institutional communications, to experimental artistic work, documentary film-making, political campaigns, broadcasting (in my early years I worked as an editor and occasional camera woman for the former BCC in Portuguese Brazilian correspondent back in 2001), and nowadays I mostly do advertising, creative content, and communications strategy -combined with video-graphing. – Sophia
This seems to be a super interesting person, but there is too much repetition, and she doesn’t manage to make an impact. Imagine she would have instead broken up the sentences into a few short ones, and removed redundancy. Or better even, exemplify what kind of content she produced, and what project she was most passionate about and why.
The other extreme is to keep your cover letter as short as a Snapchat video. For instance: I have 3 years working experience in IT and currently I am an IT Support Technician at Hilton’s. Please find a copy of my CV. If you need anything please do not hesitate to contact me on 011-12345678. – Karen
Remember: You are not sending an SMS or a Tweet, you are writing a letter. The following is unacceptable, even if you apply to a technical position at a mobile phone provider: Hi there, i hear u are looking for a new technician. See my stuff attached 🙂 – Morgan
Add some wit!
Here some inspiration for your next cover letter (examples below are edited and names were changed):
Richard: :”I am an accountant by profession but that tells you very little about me. I am a father of two who loves to play Lego on the carpet; and don’t be fooled by the slightly corporate photo, I rock a beard like a Lumberjack”.
Mariette: I love making coffee and sandwiches… so there’s that. Dogs, raccoons, ferrets and the environment are my favourite things and I’m passionate about taking care of them all”.
Sheena: My personal values and attitudes are best explored over a cup of tea or coffee. We might also discuss organic gardening, yoga, the waterfalls of Swaziland, kayaking and a good book or two”.
Make your cover letter look good
Appearance is important – especially when making a first impression. Find out what the standard format is for cover letters in your own country, or in the country where the job is advertised.
A standard format when applying to jobs in English-speaking countries:
What to do when no cover letter is requested?
You are not always requested to submit a cover letter. Sometimes, the application software system won’t allow you to add a personal introduction. At other times, you are asked to only send an email with your CV.
There are still ways to be seen and heard.
If you are not requested to submit a cover letter, take the liberty to write one in any case. Make sure to keep it to 1 page maximum, and use your words wisely. Do a thorough spell check. And review the tips and examples above.
If the system doesn’t allow you to upload a letter of introduction, add a key summary (a personal note) in the header part of your CV.
If you are asked to only send a CV to an email address, then surely you won’t just use the body of the email to say “Please find my CV attached, and as requested”. What a waste of precious real estate that would be! Use the opportunity to introduce yourself. You may even pull a trick out of a journalist’s hat and treat your email note as a teaser, tickling the curiosity of your reader to open the attachments to find out more.
Here an example:
Dear Ms Human,
If I could… I would love to become part of your team.
I was born to the fragrance of the jacaranda trees in Rio de Janeiro, and raised barefoot in the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the clapping sounds of flying foxes at night. At age 7, my parents bought me my first pair of shoes and... to read more, please open the Motivational Letter of Interest as attached.
So, what is your story? Tell it, and good luck!
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