Writing Your Covering Letter

When you apply for a job, you normally send two documents to the employer:

Some employers also ask candidates to complete a questionnaire. This will have questions about the role that you have applied for, to help the employer better understand how suitable you are for the role.

You might be asked to fill out an application form as well, but it’s rare in our industry to be asked to provide an application form instead of a CV.

What Is A Covering Letter?

A covering letter is a letter from you to the employer. It is your sales pitch to the employer, explaining to the employer exactly why you are the right person for the job. You should create a brand new covering letter for each job that you apply for, because no two jobs are ever identical.

A CV, on the other hand, is a record of your career and employment to date. It is both a summary and a list, and it is the nature of a CV to be very terse. It’s extremely hard to get across your strengths for a role in a CV, although as you’ll see in the next chapter, there are things that you can do to help. CVs are there to tell employers what you have done. That isn’t the same as telling an employer what you can do.

Do I Always Need To Submit A Covering Letter?

Yes. Your covering letter is just as important as your CV at this stage.

CVs can be very dry to read, and it can be very difficult to tell two candidates apart just by reading their CVs. If the employer has read an interesting covering letter first, then they’ll be paying closer attention to the accompanying CV. They’ll also be reading the CV in a more positive manner. Psychologists call this the halo effect, and it is a very powerful tool to use.

If the employer doesn’t explicitly ask you for a covering letter, submit one anyway. You don’t want to give up the opportunity to get through to the interview stage simply because you weren’t asked for a covering letter. It also shows an employer that you’re willing to make an effort, which always catches an employer’s eye!

If you’re submitting online, and there’s only space to submit your CV, just put your covering letter as the first page of your CV and upload the combined document. Make sure that the fonts and other styles match first though; poor presentation might mean that your efforts go into the bin unread.

If the employer gives you no opportunity to submit a CV, that’s more problematic, and you’ll have to be more creative. Maybe you’ll be able to point the employer at your online portfolio? If so, make sure your portfolio includes your covering letter. There’s normally some way to put a covering letter somewhere for the employer to read it.

Finally, be aware that some employers (and I’m one of them) expect all applications to include a covering letter, and will bin any application that doesn’t include one. That might seem harsh, but it’s a great way for an employer to filter out anyone who doesn’t pay enough attention to detail, hasn’t read the job advert closely enough, and so missed the paragraph stating that all applications must include a covering letter. Attention to detail is very important in our industry.

How Do I Plan My Covering Letter?

As a general rule, you’ve got one side of A4 (two at the very most) to sell yourself effectively. Before you start writing the letter, you need to plan what you’re going to say, and what order to say things in.

Take the job description and a highlighter pen. Use the pen to highlight everything that the employer is looking for. Don’t highlight the whole thing! Pick out the key words that are in the job description, and highlight those. Turn the highlighted words into a list. Each item on your list is a requirement for the job. These are the things that you need to talk about in your letter.

For each requirement in the list that you’ve made, think about why you meet that requirement. You need to come up with a brief example of why you do. For the more important requirements, it helps to have two examples that you can share with the employer. Put these examples down into a separate list - this is the list of your strengths.

If you don’t meet a requirement, all is not necessarily lost. Maybe you’ve done something similar that you can mention instead? Or maybe it’s something that you’ve come across and seen, but not necessarily done yourself? These are examples that you can use too. It’s perfectly acceptable to be creative here, as long as you don’t exaggerate or lie.

Finally, take the list of requirements and the list of your strengths. Re-order the lists so that the most important requirements that you are strongest at meeting are at the top of the list. This is the order that you’re going to use when you write your covering letter. You want to put your strongest arguments about the employer’s most important requirements first to give yourself the best possible chance of making it through to interview.

At this point, it’s always a good idea to take a break, and review the lists that you’ve drawn up: the list of requirements and the list of your strengths for this role. Are there any other examples that you can add to your list of strengths, examples that you didn’t think of first time round perhaps?

Am I Suitable For The Role?

When you have finished compiling the lists, it’s time to look at how well you match the job’s requirements. These lists do not lie. When an employer reads your finished covering letter, they will reconstruct these lists from the letter, and use them to decide whether you make it through the CV sift or not.

If you’ve got good examples for the most important requirements, then you’ve got a chance of making it through to interview. On the other hand, if you’ve struggled to come up with examples, then your chances are slim, and you need to decide whether it’s worth spending further time on this application, or whether you’d be better off applying elsewhere instead.

Be honest with yourself, without being too hard on yourself.

If you decide that you don’t match the job requirements enough, but it is the kind of job that you’d love to have, then use this as a positive. You’ve now got new information: a list of requirements that you need to be able to satisfy in the future. Use that information. Make that list your new TODO list, and seek out things that you can go and do to gain the skills and / or experience that you need to successfully apply for a job like this in the future.

If you decide to continue with your application, it’s time to turn these lists into a covering letter.

Key Things In Your Covering Letter

There’s a single guiding principle behind everything that you put into your covering letter: you’re trying to make it as easy as possible for the employer to see why they should interview you.

  • Make sure that your name and contact details are on the covering letter. Your covering letter may get separated from your CV, and if an employer likes what he reads but doesn’t know who to contact to interview, he can’t interview you.

  • Make sure it’s clear what role you have applied for. The employer may be recruiting for multiple roles, and you want to make sure that you’re considered for the correct role.

  • Make sure you front-load the letter with your explanations of why you meet the key requirements of the role. The most important requirements might merit a whole paragraph each, with the remaining requirements relegated to a sentence each afterwards.

  • If you have any other relevant strengths to mention (conference speaker, book author, and so on), make sure that you add these to the covering letter too.

The Importance Of Spelling And Grammar

A covering letter is a letter - it is prose, not a collection of lists like a CV. It is normally written in professional conversational English. If you had the employer in front of you, imagine what you would say to them, and write that down. Avoid the sort of language you’d use in the pub, and for goodness’ sake avoid slang and text speak!

The employer is going to be looking at the arguments you make in your letter, and he will also be looking at the quality of your English. A letter that is full of spelling mistakes will go straight in the bin. There’s just no excuse for a badly-spelled letter these days, as every word processor and text editor includes a spell checker. Bad spelling tells an employer that you’re either too lazy or too stupid to use a spell checker, and no employer chooses to hire lazy or stupid people.

If you’re dyslexic, the employer will only learn that if you tell him in the letter. If you do tell him, tell him at the start of the letter, so that he can understand that he needs to pay less attention to your spelling (employers aren’t allowed to discriminate on the grounds of disability).

Dyslexic or not, it’s always a good idea to ask someone else to check your spelling before you send off the covering letter. Just make sure that you ask someone who can spell!

If English is not your first language, it’s a good idea to ask a native English speaker to proof-read your letter before you send it. Employers are quite tolerant of letters written in somewhat broken English, but you need to make sure that the arguments you’ve made in your letter do come through clearly to anyone who reads it.

Grammar matters too, but not as much as spelling. Employers today are somewhat resigned to the fact that many young people don’t seem to know how to use apostrophes correctly, nor (for example) the difference between their and they’re. A letter that contains a few mistakes might be acceptable, but a letter that is littered with such mistakes could well go in the bin. It all depends on the employer’s feelings about such things.

Avoid The Worst Mistakes Of All

Most candidates never take the trouble to write a covering letter at all, even when the job advert asks them to include one with their application. Don’t make this mistake yourself.

Many applicants use their covering letter to tell the employer how much they want the job, and why having the job would be good for them. So many applicants do this that I’m assuming that this is common advice from some book, blog, or careers advisor. My advice is to never do this. When an employer reads one of these letters, all he sees is someone saying ‘me, me, me,’ the entire time. The employer wants to know why you’re the best candidate for the job. Anything else just comes across that maybe you’re too self-centred for your own good.

Many applicants haven’t written many covering letters (or letters of any kind!), and it shows, especially in failing to address the job’s key requirements at the top of the letter. The best way to avoid this mistake is to practice. Your university will have a Careers Service, and it will offer you opportunities to practice your letter writing. Get in as much practice as you can. Only through practice will you get better.

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