1. The importance of a cover letter
A COVER letter is a short one page sales letter that accompanies your resume as part of your job application. The cover letter is important because it creates a first impression of you with your potential employer.
The main purpose of a cover letter is to obtain an interview, not to tell a lengthy story. A cover letter needs to capture the employer’s interest, indicate why you are writing, show how you will benefit the company, express interest in the position and, most importantly, convince the employer to give you an interview.
Writing a cover letter is like creating a work of art. While there are some general rules that you should follow, each cover letter you write should be distinctive.
2. Personalise your cover letter
One of the most important things about a cover letter is that it differentiates you from all the other applicants. To do this a cover letter should connect with the employer, and reflect your unique personality and the requirements of the job. Here are some points to bear in mind:
2.1 Address a specific person
You should not address your cover letter “to whom it may concern”, this is lazy. If you are unsure who to address your application to, call the company and ask. Make sure you get the person’s title and the correct spelling of their name.
2.2 Own your achievements
You should use the active voice, i.e. you should avoid expressions like “this experience gave me the opportunity to…” or, “these goals were met by me.” You don’t want to sound like everything happened to you or was done by someone else.
2.3 Tailor your story
Tailor your story to the job requirements. You should adapt your cover letter so that you mention the specific skills that the employer is interested in.
2.4 Establish rapport
You need to establish a connection between you and the employer. Mention a mutual contact you might have, explain why you like the company, its culture, or why you have a particular interest in some area of the company’s business.
2.5 Mirror their wording
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If the employer uses specific terms or industry specific language in the job advertisement, mirror this language in your cover letter.
2.6 Be positive
Sell your skills in a positive way. Never complain about past employers, or grumble about any past experiences.
3. Structure your cover letter
It is important that your cover letter follows the right structure. The body of your cover letter should be broken up into four paragraphs.
3.1 Paragraph 1 – Why are you writing?
In the first paragraph you should briefly explain why you are writing to the company in a way that engages the reader. Name the position you are applying for. If you heard about the position through a mutual contact, this is worth mentioning. You may also allude to your career goals in this first paragraph.
3.2 Paragraph 2 – Why are you interested in consulting, and the company?
Explain why you would like to work in consulting, and demonstrate that you would like to work for the company by showing that you have researched the position. Companies want to know that you’re interested in them and understand what they do. For example, you might want to explain specific reasons why the position fulfills your career aspirations and is consistent with your ambitions for the future. You may apply for hundreds of different jobs but you need to make each prospective employer think that their job is the one you want.
3.3 Paragraph 3 – What do you have to offer?
Explain why you are qualified for the position. Use your most important qualifications and skills to show that you have the experience and skill to perform the tasks and fulfil the responsibilities of the position. If you are responding to a job ad that lists selection criteria, you should say how your skills and experience meet each of the criteria they’re looking for. Make sure that it’s clear how your education and skills are transferable, and thus relevant, to the position that you are applying for.
3.4 Paragraph 4 – Suggest the next steps
Direct the employer to your enclosed resume. Provide your contact information (phone number and e-mail address) and welcome them to get in touch. Indicate your availability for an interview and, if you want to be assertive, state when you will contact the company to set up a meeting. If you are merely enquiring about possible job openings, indicate when you will phone to follow up on your enquiry (ten business days is a pretty good guide). It’s important to finish off by thanking the employer for their time and consideration.
3.5 Signing off
Conclude your cover letter with an appropriate sign-off like “Yours sincerely”, and leave four blank lines to allow space for you to sign your name. You should use blue ink instead of black ink to sign your name because black ink may look like a photocopy.
4. Polish your cover letter
In addition to personalising and structuring your cover letter, you also need to make sure that your cover letter is polished and professional. Here are some things to keep in mind:
4.1 Be concise
Keep the length of your cover letter to one page. Don’t use more words than you need to. Use short sentences and simple language. It might be a good idea to use bullet points to list your key skills.
4.2 Be informative
Don’t just summarise your resume. Consider the job description and highlight the skills and experiences from your resume that fit the employer’s requirements.
4.3 Keep it relevant
Keep your message relevant and to the point. The purpose of your cover letter is to highlight your resume and obtain an interview, not to tell them everything you’ve ever done.
4.4 Be professional
Don’t be too colloquial, for example, break down contractions like “I’ve” and “I’m” to “I have” and “I am”. Your cover letter should never be hand written. Also, make sure you include your contact details on the cover letter.
4.5 Proofreading is important
There are likely to be lots of mistakes in your cover letter after you have written the first draft. You should get friends and/or family members to proof read your cover letter. It is important to have at least one set of fresh eyes look at the document before you send it out.
4.6 Check your spelling and punctuation
Use spell check, it’s not that hard. Spelling mistakes make a bad first impression and are easily fixed by running a final spell check before sending the cover letter. Also, be careful when using words like “there/their/they’re”, “your/you’re”, “effect/affect”, “its/it’s”, etc.
4.7 Adapt your cover letter for online
If you are submitting your application by email, you should indicate the position you are applying for in the subject line of your email. Before emailing your application, send it to yourself first to make sure there are no formatting errors. You should attach your cover letter and resume as a single document; if you were sending an application by post you wouldn’t send your cover letter and resume in two separate envelopes.
5. Samples and Templates
We invite you to download our Guidebook on “How to create a Killer Cover Letter” which includes FREE access to the current version of our sample and template cover letters (to access the download, you will need to sign up for a member account).