The Importance of a Cover Letter
So, you’ve seen a job you really like, you’ve written a strong CV that’s tailored for the role, and now comes that dreaded moment where you are asked to “provide a brief cover letter outlining your experience and suitability for the role”. How on earth do you go about condensing a strong academic record, hands-on expertise in a particular technology field or relevant ‘soft-skills’ into just half a side of A4? And isn’t a strong CV enough to bag you dozens of interviews anyway? Well … not always.
Adding value to your application
Think about it from the point of view of the hiring manager (HM) for a moment. Yes, your CV is strong and lists some relevant experience. Unfortunately, so do the next three CVs in the in-tray. The HM skims through the CVs, but they’re already running late for a team meeting, half their mind is distracted by that upcoming funding application that is due in three days, and they’re preparing a crucial presentation to update a client on a major project they have in the pipeline. A concise cover letter is one of the best ways to ensure that in the few minutes (or less) a HM has to make a decision, it is YOUR details that stand out and lead to an interview.
That’s great! But what do I actually write?
This is where it gets a little complicated. A cover letter is your personal document and should reflect your character, as well as your experience and motivations, so it’s difficult to give a template to follow. Then again, a few general guidelines will go a long way to help you stand out from the crowd.
Tailor each cover letter to the position and company you’re applying for. HMs will sniff out a generic application a mile off and not be impressed. Consider how you feel receiving a letter from a utility company that begins “Dear Valued Customer”…
Keep things to the point. If you can make your case in three lines instead of three paragraphs, the HM will know you’re not someone who will waste their time as an employee.
Give plenty of examples that support or justify the experience you’ve given. “I’m experienced with laboratory techniques and data analysis”. Great! What does that mean you’ve actually done? At what point in your CV?
Spend time researching the company and be able to justify why it is them in particular you are applying to. Show some engagement with the role: either through referencing a case study, an aspect of working culture, or something that shows you’re not making another generic application.
Write nebulous and clichéd statements. “I am a team player, but also confident using my own initiative on projects”. If you want to talk about soft skills, list real examples of when you’ve been a team leader, or what you achieved working with others. “I am an excellent communicator” - an HM will believe that from how you write, not from a bland sentence like that.
Use the opportunity to be negative about your current employer and use this as motivation for making this application. A positive aspect to move towards is far stronger than moving away from a negative one.
Simply use a cover letter as a reworded CV. Make sure you are adding information rather than just rehashing things an HM can already see from your CV.
Talking about your experience
Keep in mind that a busy hiring manager may not necessarily be an expert in your particular area, and won’t have the time to do research. It may be evident to you how the experience in your CV fits the role you’re applying for, but you have the benefit of knowing your background well! Unfortunately this has to be pretty explicit for a hiring manger though. Rather than “My experience at ACME included X, Y, and Z”, a more powerful approach might be: “At ACME, I used my X skills to progress project Y which seems to overlap with your company’s work with Z”.
Be careful not to overload your cover letter with specific technology information that relates to something like a niche PhD project or an aspect of a single component R&D in industry. Most of the time, there isn’t a direct overlap between your experience and the role you’re applying for anyway. Instead provide a description of what you personally have achieved and how this might transfer into what (in your understanding) the HM might be looking for. If you are applying for a more ‘creative’ role, why not consider saving words and attaching a portfolio, or a link to a GitHub account instead?
Teamwork and communication skills
Don’t fall into the trap of “At ACME, I worked in a team that achieved X”. You want to showcase your own achievements, not that of the team in general. What did you contribute that really made a difference? What initiatives did you introduce? This demonstrates you work well in teams and can communicate with others. Far more engaging and informative than simply “I am confident giving presentations to a range of technical audiences”.
Keep it relevant
Whilst some character and personal interests should be present, be careful not to overload the cover letter with unnecessary padding. Whilst it’s great that you have a healthy lifestyle and outside interests, play in a local orchestra, enjoy outdoor walks, run marathons and read science fiction… unless you’re applying for a role where this is directly relevant, don’t spend much time at all in the cover letter. As for absolute cover letter length; three lines won’t cut the mustard, and a page and a half of dense type will quickly bore the reader. A healthy medium of one-half to two-thirds of an A4 side is about right for most applications.
Tailor your language
If you’re applying for a very formal, consultancy or perhaps technical sales role, it’s important your cover letter demonstrates you can communicate formally and concisely. Conversely, if you know you’re applying for a role that is with a dynamic start-up and character and team-fit is important, keep it light and friendly and avoid dry “I was made aware of your vacancy via the Jobs Inc advertisement that you have posted since last Thursday” type phrasing. Try to also address the person reading your cover letter. “Dear sir/madam” looks lazy compared to a cover letter that’s gone to the trouble to look up who might be reviewing CVs for particular role.
Active and positive trumps passive
Make sure you give a clear indication of your ambitions and interests, and ‘active language’ is always far more engaging to read than anything passive. “In this position I was required to do X and Y” is almost off-putting compared to “At ACME, I really enjoyed developing skills X and Y as part of project A, and I’m keen to apply these in the environment B that your company offers”. Closing off, it’s best to keep things positive and try to encourage a dialogue. Rather than simply “Yours sincerely”, a phrase encouraging further discussion and encouraging the HM to get in touch with you will leave a positive note in their mind and they may do just that!
Working with your recruiter
An experienced and worthwhile recruiter will already have a good relationship with a company and know what sort of things will pique the interest of a hiring manager. They will be very well placed to help you tailor your application to a company, advise on what aspects of your cover letter are strong and which ones might need some refocusing. They can point you to links you might not find easily yourself that will give you a wealth of insight into a company and position. If you want to save time, and really make the strongest case possible for your application with constructive feedback that doesn’t blow your one chance with a hiring manager, a good recruiter will get you a long way. Ultimately, it’s in their interest too that you’re represented well!
At ECM, we’re very candidate-focused and are happy to work with you to help you make the strongest case possible in your application. If you like our approach, and are interested in some of our roles, why not get in touch with us and see what we can do to help you today!
If you think we can help, do get in touch with ECM – quote reference #COVERLETTER_ECM, and feel free to send us a CV – we guarantee we hold your details in confidence, and your CV won’t be sent to any company without your express permission.