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Career Advice

Writing a cover letter – what to include and mistakes to avoid

coverletterIt’s a major problem when sending off CV’s and applications…the cover letter. It may not sound particularly intimidating, but don’t let its simple name fool you…the cover letter has the power to make or break your application.

Ironically it can do this simply through its own absence… most employers expect a cover letter to accompany your application and its non-appearance could make an irreversible negative first impression. Many people purposefully neglect to create one because they aren’t sure of what to include…or in many cases understand what its purpose is.  So to demystify the whole thing a little bit we’ve created this quick guide on the things to include and the common mistakes to avoid, but before we get to that, what exactly is the purpose of a cover letter?

The purpose of a cover letter

A cover letter is a letter that you send along with your CV or application which is in support of the information that you have provided.  It is intended to elaborate upon the skills and experiences that you have listed in your CV which are directly appropriate for the job to which you are applying. It should not simply reiterate what you have stated in your CV or application but describe why you as a candidate warrant being moved on to the next stage of the recruitment process.

What to include in your cover letter

Formal letter structure – It should be structured in the style of a formal letter with your address in the top right section of the page, the recipient’s address in the top left section, a proper greeting “Dear …” (if you do not know the person’s name say “Dear Sir/Madam”) and a correct sign off “Yours Sincerely” (if you know the person’s name) or “Yours faithfully” (if you do not) and remember to sign your letter before you send it off.  These things may seem pedantic, but remember that your cover letter is the first impression that a potential employer will get of you and small details like using the correct letter structure will help to make this first impression a positive one.

An introduction –  This should be brief, to-the-point and contain some key elements which set the scene for the main body of the letter.  You should:

  • Introduce yourself

  • Explain why you are writing to them

  • Make a reference to the job you are applying for

  • Indicate where you you came accross the role

  • Make a reference to your CV

A very basic example of an introduction for a cover letter would be:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to you today in response to the request for applications for the role of _____ which was recently featured in the _______ newspaper.  Please find enclosed my CV for your consideration.

The main body of letter-This is the point at which many cover letters take a steep nose dive towards the waste paper bin. Whilst there is no ‘tried-and-tested’ method for writing the perfect cover letter, you may find it useful to divide the main body of the letter into individual paragraphs, with each one being dedicated to a different “topic”.  These “topics” might include;

  • A brief summary of your previous (relevant) education and work experience. To avoid simply repeating what you have stated in your CV, you should make reference to it at some point with a sentence like “As you will see in my CV I have …” You should ensure that all of the skills and experience which you describe have been specifically requested by the employer within the advertisement or job specification.  Describe briefly how these experiences relate to the essential and desirable criteria as detailed by the employer. If you are lacking in a particular area but have experience in another which you think is relevant you should indicate it at this point.

  • An outline of what you specifically could bring to this role (be careful not to fall into the trap of only describing how this job would be of benefit to you).  An employer will want you to tell them why you are potentially the right person for the job. You should research the company and the role carefully and use this information to make a short outline of how your specific skill set and experience would be an asset to them.  Take this opportunity to expand upon the most relevant information in your CV or application.

  • The last paragraph of your cover letter should thank the employer for their consideration and indicate your desire to be interviewed for the role at their convenience.

writing letterMistakes to avoid

When writing a cover letter it can sometimes feel like you are treading a tightrope… in constant danger of including the wrong thing and losing the attention of the reader. To make it a little bit easier to get through, here are a few common mistakes to avoid.

  • Do not create a generic cover letter and then merely alter it to fit specific job roles.  It is a good idea to have a basic structure which you can make reference to, but creating a comprehensive template will mean that you are more likely to include irrelevant and unnecessary material which may suggest a lack of engagement with the job specification.

  • Do not waffle. You must ensure that each and every sentence within the letter progresses your argument that you are a candidate who is worthy of being invited to interview.  Making statements which are only loosely connected to the role could quickly lose the interest of the reader.

  • Don’t overdo it – When writing a cover letter, the temptation can be to simply regurgitate everything that is in your CV or application, but doing so is completely pointless because the employer already has your CV and can see the information within it.  Remember that your cover letter should support your CV and not simply be an annotated version of it.

  • Don’t try to convince the employer that you are the perfect person for the role.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but at this stage of the recruitment process the employer is simply trying to select those people who he/she thinks are worth inviting to meet in person. You will have plenty of opportunities to impress the employer during an interview so do not over-elaborate and risk losing their attention or confusing them with too much information.

  • Avoid making yourself sound overly confident. Yes, this is your opportunity to outline your suitability, but that doesn’t mean that you need to pretend you have succeeded in everything you have ever tried – it could come across as pompous.

  • Avoid the use of tired clichés like “I have excellent interpersonal skills” and “I work well as a member of a team and as an individual”.  Your cover letter should add a bit of colour and personality to your application and stock sentences such as these do neither.

  • Do not make any spelling or grammar mistakes. These could suggest a haphazard attitude towards the application form and therefore a haphazard attitude towards the role.

  • Never send your cover letter separate to your CV- the two should be joined with a paper clip with the letter placed at the front.

Hopefully this has made the murky waters of the job application cover letter a little easier to wade through! Don’t forget to go exploring and check out some of our other great application and interview tips and advice posts.

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