Well rounded is better than thin for a Winning Cover Letter

2 June, 2014

I’ve never liked working on Application Letters in the job application process and I often say that I wish they’d disappear off the face of the Earth.

Two thoughts, though.  Firstly, unfortunately, they’re still with us and unlikely to disappear any time soon.  Secondly, I recently was involved in the recruitment of two roles and I was amazed at the effect the various letters (or lack of letters) had on me as I sat in the Employer seat.

No Letter = No Job

My most negative response was when the applicant did not even write a letter.  I immediately felt insulted, as though they didn’t care enough about the possibility of working for our company to jot down a few words. So, my first advice is to ALWAYS write a letter, even if one is not specifically requested in the job ad.

For once, Fat is better than Thin

My brother Peter’s role has recently been made redundant so of course he approached me to help him write a strong and compelling letter.

If I were being polite, Peter’s first effort was what I call thin.  Because he’s my brother I was much more frank and told him that it read like a stock standard response that he was using to apply for all roles, with a few minor modifications.

In no way did it make me think:

 1. That he was passionately interested in the role

 2. That he was a “star” candidate

The first issue, in my opinion, is the hardest part of the letter to write.  How to sound as though you really connect with the role and the organisation, in a formal letter without sounding over the top or schmaltzy?

Write from the heart

My advice is to first write from the heart.  Put down exactly what it is about the role that appeals to you, in ordinary everyday language.  You can go back later and clean it up, using more formal language if necessary. That way, it should ring true.

In relation to the second issue, I generally find that it you are struggling to fit all of your content onto one page, it’s a good sign that you have covered all key elements of the role. Here, again, it is important to avoid sterile, cold “corporate speak” language.  Once you have painted a compelling picture of why you are the “star” applicant, ask a friend who’s good with English to help you hone the content. Keep the length of the letter to one page.

Are you stretching?

Sometimes, I work with people who do not clearly meet some of the key criteria of the role.  In this instance, we work to ensure that they paint a clear picture of how their transferable skills make them worthy of consideration.  In this way, you have the best chance of persuading the employer and you show that you have self-awareness. If you don’t do this, your application is almost certainly guaranteed to land in the “No” pile.

Other Tips

1. Attach the Letter as a separate document. If the employer receives loads of applications, they may use the presumed lack of a letter as a way of screening out applicants. So, make it is clear to the employer that you have written one.

2. Use the same font and font size as you have in your résumé.

3. Keep your letter to one page only, but don’t “cheat” in relation to layout. You still need normal margins i.e. don’t cram the page full of content so that the letter is unappealing.

4. Use the conventions of a letter e.g. use the full title, name and address of the person to whom you are addressing the letter (Note: it is no longer necessary to include your own name and address and it is also acceptable to use the email address of the recipient, if you are not provided with a “real” address).

5. Keep your paragraphs short. There is a rule of thumb that our attention spans are so short now that no-one will read a paragraph that is longer than two and two thirds lines long.

Clever Follow Up

Finally, follow up the letter with a call.  Continue the sales process by sounding like someone they would like to work with – alert, intelligent and enthusiastic. (Don’t ask about salary!)

Life is tough when you apply for an advertised position. It’s an often quoted statistic that only five percent of people find their next role this way (versus 65% for Networking).  So, it makes sense to start this highly competitive process with a compelling letter that makes the reader think:

“Wow, this one looks great! Can’t wait to read the résumé to find out more…”

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Catherine Cunningham is Adelaide's leading career expert.  She appears regularly in The Weekend Australian Careers section, in The Advertiser's CareerOne, as well as in online publications such as news.com.au, thenewdaily.com.au and womensagenda.com.au

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