How to… write the perfect CV cover letter

Job hunting is an uncertain activity at the best of times, and when faced
with a high volume of applications, a recruiter will look for any reason to
reduce the pile – which is why you need a covering letter that works hard for
you.

Properly constructed, it can be an attention-grabbing document that
introduces you to a prospective employer as interesting, enthusiastic, suitable
for the job and spurs them to look at your CV. They can, however, be
challenging to write and it’s easy to go off-beam.

The guidelines outlined below will help make your cover letters more
targeted and effective.

Structure and content

Cover letters should be concise and consist of no more than four paragraphs
and should incorporate:

First paragraph: Specify the job you are applying for and where you heard of
it. If it was a referral, mention the person’s name.

Middle paragraph(s): This forms the hub of your pitch to the recruiter and
needs to summarise the key aspects of your CV in an original and clever way.

Open with a positive statement – you want them to stay awake, don’t you?
Explain how your skills, education and experience qualify you for the
advertised role.

Demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched the company and understand
its dealings. The trade and business press is a handy way of finding out more
about the trends and issues in a particular sector. In the unlikely event that
you are unable to track down relevant information, request background
information from the company – it will make you seem genuine and add to your
credibility.

Quantify accomplishments in figures and percentages – if you have reduced
attrition rates by 7 per cent, then say so.

Bullet-point them if there are three or more points. Resist the temptation to
exaggerate facts, as you are likely come unstuck at interview. Steer clear of
adjectives and unsupported value judgements such as: "I am an energetic
and motivated team player". They don’t mean anything and won’t help your
case.

Final paragraph: Reaffirm your interest and suitability for the position in
a few well-chosen words. Conclude the letter politely and indicate how you
intend to follow up.

Presentation and style

Unless a handwritten letter is requested, use a word processor and a clear,
legible font such as Times New Roman – it looks more professional.

Keep your letter to one side of A4 and ensure the paper stock is white and
of high quality – some organisations are scanning cover letters and CVs into
their databases so clean typefaces and sharp printing are essential to minimise
the risk of it being misread. Make sure the layout is clear and uncluttered so
easily legible.

Make it easy for the reader to get in touch by prominently featuring your
contact details. Include telephone, mobile and e-mail details in addition to
your address. This will also provide a useful back-up should your letter and CV
become separated.

If it is a speculative letter, customise it so the reader knows you are not
sending their company the same one you have sent to10 other employers.

The tone should be formal, but be yourself – you want to sound natural, not
as though you’ve copied a template from a careers website. Write concisely and
restrict the number of sentences in each paragraph to four or five and vary the
length of sentences to alter the tempo but, generally, keep them short.

Finally, don’t blow it

Applications are frequently rejected for spelling and grammatical errors. So
never rely on your own proof-reading capabilities – ask a friend or colleague
to cast an eye over your letter. They can also act as a sounding board for its
ability to knock ’em dead.

Where can I get more info?

Books

– 175 High Impact Cover Letters, Richard H Beatty, John Wiley & Sons,
£11.50, ISBN 0471210846

– Dynamic Cover Letters: How to Write the Letter That Gets You the Job,
Katherine Hansen, Randall S Hansen, Ten Speed Press, £10.99, ISBN 1580082270

– Winning Cover Letters, Robin Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, £9.95, ISBN
0471190632

Articles

– How to…manage your career www.personneltoday.com/goto/17691

– How to…improve your market value www.personneltoday.com/goto/18892

If you only do five things…

1 Present key aspects of your CV
succinctly

2 Keep to one side of A4

3 Limit the number of paragraphs to no more than four

4 Support accomplishments with figures

5 Avoid adjectives and adverbs that are not quantifiable

Expert’t view: Paul de Zulueta on writing a good cover letter

Paul de Zulueta is a partner at training and development consultancy MaST
International, which provides courses in communication skills and business
writing.

What is the most convincing cover letter you have received and why?

It is the one that demonstrates the candidate has a genuine interest in the
company, and has done some additional research. Obtaining current information
about the target company, for example, will give you a greater understanding,
and enable you to explain how your skills and experience can fully support the
organisation’s goals or how you are compatible with the company’s values.

Do HR professionals make good cover letter writers? Do they figure in the
ranks of the great?

HR professionals are probably not much better than anyone else. Most
professionals fall into the trap of using their industry’s jargon rather than
plain English in their covering letters. This is particularly disadvantageous
when applying for a job in a different sector.

There are a lot of career sites that offer standard templates for cover
letter writing – are any of them worthwhile?

Career sites that offer standard templates for writing cover letters can be
useful in focusing you on the sort of information that you need to provide to a
prospective employer. However, covering letters should always be tailored to a
particular job, and therefore, sending a generic covering letter will not
enable you to demonstrate that you can actually meet the requirements of a
specific role and/or company.

What are common mistakes when writing a covering letter?

The most common mistakes include spelling and grammatical errors and
long-winded sentences. Unsupported assertions such as ‘I am dedicated team
player with enormous drive’, add little value as they are unsubstantiated.

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