POSTED Tuesday 13-07-21
How to write an effective cover letter
You probably already have it hammered into you how to write and structure a CV, but there are fewer resources out there on how to write an effective and engaging cover letter. As someone who works in recruiting, it definitely shows. There are many common mistakes, irrelevancies, and general faux pas applicants make, and their structure tends to be erratic. But fear not, hopeful applicant: together we’re going to go through how best to structure a cover letter as well as the key elements to include in each of the three sections: introduction, main body, and conclusion.
Before you even begin writing, however, you MUST research the company or organisation you’re applying to. Find out what they do, any current or past projects they’re working on, new business plans, their clients, and what kind of values they promote. This is not only for your own benefit, learning more about the company before you begin, but also so that when it comes to writing your cover letter, you can lay out exactly how you would fit into their team and what you can provide for them. It is a huge mistake not to be tailoring your cover letter to the company you’re applying for, because it could convey a lack of interest and a template approach to your employment endeavours. With companies now having such an online presence (websites, social media, etc.), it’s easier than ever for you to research what they do and what they value – so don’t skip this step!
Furthermore, find out who you’re actually addressing your cover letter to; ‘Dear Sir/Madame’ comes across as template-y and impersonal, while ‘To Whom It May Concern’ (an opening I see a surprising amount) sounds like the beginning of a passive aggressive letter from a neighbour or the council. Find out who / what team will be reading your cover letter and address them appropriately (e.g. ‘Dear So-and-So’, ‘Dear Such-And-Such Team’). When applying to larger corporate organisations I appreciate the hiring managers name is not always provided but do your best to find out.
Section 1: Introduction
Now that you’ve researched and addressed the correct person, we can move on to your introduction. The point of the intro is not to give your life story, but rather be direct: explain why you’re applying specifically to this company, where you fit in, and what you can offer. I would even go as far to suggest not beginning your paragraphs with ‘I’ or ‘I am’; the focus should not be on yourself, but on your place in the wider team / company. Focus on, for instance, the values you both share: employers often care more about whether you will fit into the company culture more than your individual skills. If there are no shared values between you and the company, it can really uproot a team, and potentially disrupt entire projects. It also shows that you’ve thought: ‘what is my personal mission?’ You might be in an industry where renewables are an important development: stress why you care about this and emphasise you and the company’s shared beliefs and mission statements. Not only does it show that you’ve done your research, it suggests that your position on the team has longevity as you’ve proven to be a good cultural fit. This is essential if your role is strategic, though if your role is more technical, then you can afford to talk more about your specific skills and how they fit the role advertised.
If you’re moving from one career or sector to another, then acknowledge it in your intro and explain the change. Talk about the kinds of opportunities you think the company can provide you that you didn’t have access to before and be honest about your motivations. Without addressing the change, you leave much ambiguity around your motives.
Section 2: Main Body
Next, in your main body, you’ll want to provide specific examples of your experience and successes, what you achieved and overcame. And when I say specific, I mean specific: talk about exactly how many people you managed, and what the precise outcomes were of the project you’re talking about. Anyone can say they managed a ‘large’ team, that’s too vague to tell your reader very much. But not everyone can say they managed a team of 30 people with such-and-such outcomes and successes. This will really set you apart from other applicants if you can be clear and precise about what you’ve achieved.
This leads me to stress, and it’s a bit strange that I have to, but do not, I repeat DO NOT refer to yourself in the third person in your cover letter. I have seen this with my very eyes, and I suspect it happens because if you frame yourself in the third person (e.g. ‘Mike has excellent organisational skills’), then it feels like a third-party endorsement that doesn’t need further justification. But your reader will know that this was written by you, so all you’ve done is miss out the crucial part of your main body: the specific examples of your experiences and successes.
Along these lines, it’s important in your main body to always consider your reader: will they, for instance, understand technical terms and phrases? This is especially common in finance, but the chief executive of a finance company is not necessarily going to understand all the technical jargon that comes with certain financial roles. Don’t feel the need to make yourself look ‘impressive’ with technical language; your reader will be more ingratiated to you if you write clearly, concisely, and coherently. By doing so, you’re making it easier for them to actually read and understand your cover letter.
And finally, the 4th tip for the main body; you must ensure that you connect with some of the key essentials on the person specification and if possible, align your example achievements with the organisations business plan, direction or its general mission. The reader should learn about your achievements and experience in the context of how it could benefit their business.
Section 3: Conclusion
This is probably the shortest and easiest section to write, and is likely to be only one or two sentences long. Here you want to reiterate your interest, close off by thanking your reader for their consideration in taking you on, and sign off with name at the bottom. The only real way to go wrong here is by waffling and writing too much. Keep it short and sweet as you’ve already written down all the important aspects of cover letter in the previous sections.
Lastly, some general pointers:
Make sure to format your cover letter consistently, meaning using one consistent font (including the same size and colour throughout), as well as consistent spacing. Use a spellchecker or have someone proofread your letter for any typos or grammatical errors. It sounds obvious but not everyone does this, and it can come across as haphazard and unpolished. By having a consistent format throughout, you’ve shown that you’ve put thought and effort into curating your letter. You want to leave a good impression, and this is a really easy way to do that.
Try to keep your letter to one or two pages AT MOST. This is generally a sign you’ve been able to be concise and specific. Your letter will read better and will therefore keep the readers’ interest. The only exceptions may be for academic roles which will require more in-depth discussion of research and experience, or the hiring company may give you specific guidance on the formatting and information required, but for everything else, no more than two pages is best.
And there you have it: an effective structure for writing a cover letter. If you follow this advice, the result will be a specifically tailored, engaging, collaboration-focused, and personable letter that will grab the reader’s attention. It’s not always easy to have to talk about yourself and your role in a company, but hopefully, this guide will help you through the process.
Best of luck!