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Cover Letter Tips

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Russell Booth
18-Jun-2014
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Writing a cover letter is a difficult task for many people mainly because they are unsure about how useful it really is in the eyes of an employer.  There is no universal agreement.  An employer may read your letter in order to decide whether to even look at your CV, or will ignore your letter altogether and go straight to your CV.  However, if you want to maximise your chances of gaining an interview, it makes sense to always write a good cover letter.

First impressions count

You don't get a second chance to make a first impression so be careful that you don’t spend hours preparing your CV, and leave yourself only minutes for your cover letter.  The recipient of your letter will read it and form judgments about your personality and your suitability for the job within a few words or sentences.  It may sound like common sense, employers comment again and again how many job applicants get cover letters wrong. 

Who is it to?

Cover letters are read by people, so address yours to a person. Try not to start your cover letter with such cliches as “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern.”  Impress and flatter the reader by taking that extra two minutes to call and get their name and the correct spelling. Getting the recipient's name wrong is never a good start.  Incredibly this small point will set you apart from many applicants as employers know you have taken the time to do this. 

Another bugbear of employers is the standard letter – the circular: it's always obvious when the candidate has just changed the name and job details.  This doesn't give an employer much confidence in the person and their enthusiasm for the job.

Length, structure and content

Use just one side of A4, with no more than four paragraphs on it.  Show respect for your reader and demonstrate your ability to prioritise your thoughts and present them concisely.  They often have many letters and CVs to read and they appreciate letters which are brief and to the point.  Keep each paragraph to no more than seven lines, and preferably five or fewer. Vary the sentence length. None of the sentences should be very long, but you don't want a staccato stream of very short sentences.  Where appropriate use bullet points to outline your relevant skills and experience.

One: The Opening.  Outline the position for which you are applying, and where you saw the advertisement.  Some employers advertise several jobs at once often in different departments so make life easy for them (and you).  Don’t get your facts mixed up either by saying you saw the advertisement in the Hawke’s Bay Today when it was actually advertised online.  If you're unsure about anything, check it. 

Two: The Sales Pitch.  This paragraph should outline your skills and experience and is your chance to show what sets you apart from other candidates. Always accentuate the positive and keep it short and relevant.  Without regurgitating what is in your CV, relate points about what you have done to what the employer wants.  If you don’t have the exact skills and experience as a hotel receptionist highlight your customer service experience, your ability to work under pressure and your accuracy for inputting information into a computer system.  All these can be taken from the job advert or job description. 

Three: The FlatteryIn this paragraph, let the employer know that you have done some research on the organization.  Don't go overboard – but make it clear that you didn't just pick them out of the phone book. You know who they are, what they do, and you have chosen them.

Four: Statement of Action.  If you are replying to an advertisement, state that you look forward to the opportunity to discuss the position.  For a speculative letter, outline how you will email or phone the person to ensure that you have further contact with the them. 

Attention to detail

When you've finished your letter, read it carefully several times.  Do you sound like a good, interesting candidate?  Then show it to a trusted friend to check spellings and get helpful comments. To be really thorough, ask them to show it to three people you don’t know. The feedback you get from these strangers will be as important or more so, since they won’t be concerned about hurting your feelings.

Only handwrite cover letters where it is specifically asked for which is very rare these days.  You may not own a computer but there are plenty of public places to access a computer and print out copies of your letter.  Don’t send in a letter that has creases or smudges or errors.

Don’t forget to sign your letter and include your CV with your letter – incredibly common and fatal mistakes!  Unless you are seeking employment as a model or actor, it is not appropriate to send a photograph with your covering letter.  Airlines often ask for photos but other employers will see what you look like, should you reach the interview stage.  Until then, a photo won't help you get a foot in the door and may even give the employer a ready excuse to eliminate you!

And finally, always keep a copy of your letter, your CV and the job description or advert.  This way you can easily review your application before you go to the interview and you won't get caught out.