**Guest post by Anthea Morris, a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Anthea is now the Finance Director of Better2Know, a speaker at Sheffield Hallam University on graduate careers and an advocate of giving young people the opportunity to shine.**
When a job ad states “Please apply with CV and covering letter”, do you read “Please apply with your CV and a letter saying ‘Here is my CV and I look forward to hearing from you'”?
If so, you’re not alone. Many job-hunters (and not just graduates) are still baffled by covering letters. What is the point of them? Are they important? And how can you write one that actually adds to your application, rather than just accompanying your CV?
I have recruited hundreds of placement students and graduates for a variety of different positions over the years. I always start with reading the covering letter, because that is the only opportunity for the applicant to ‘speak’ to me. (CVs are great for delivering information, but they do not speak for you in the same way).
Covering letters are your opportunity to express in your own words why you want the job and why you are going to be the best candidate they hear from. This is also the moment to show your enthusiasm, and how what you have done so far will be a good fit for the organisation you’re applying to work for.
Use your covering letter to show what you have understood what the job is all about, that you can write sensibly and coherently, and that you would be an asset to their team in the long-run. No organisation is expecting a graduate to know everything. It is about being able to demonstrate your potential without being over confident. Here are my top tips for writing brilliant covering letters. Good luck!
DO structure your covering letter properly
Introduce yourself, your degree, why you want this job and state where you saw the advert. Then move onto why you would be good for the job (see next tip on person specification). Finally, state when you are available (or not) for interview and that you look forward to meeting them. If it’s a proper letter (rather than an email or application form box), lay it out formally – with both your and their address, addressed to a person when you can, and “Dear Sir/ Madam” if you do not know the name of the person you are writing to. Use the appropriate ending. It’s “Yours faithfully” for a letter that started “Dear Sir / Madam”, and “Yours sincerely” for a person whose name you know.
DON’T rush it
Trust me – it is far better to write one good letter that is going to get you the job that you want than ten letters which will get glanced at in favour of the letters people who really want the job have made the effort to write perfectly. A good covering letter will take you several hours to write (yes, really), and probably be around one to two sides of A4 in length (although do not stretch out what you have done just for the sake of it!). People who say they apply for several jobs a day are unlikely get any of them as they are not taking the time to think about how to show their skills off for each job. (Remember – not taking the time to do something properly is not a skill an employer wants!). It takes time and effort, but it is a useful skill worth learning as it will be useful in the future, as well as now.
DO scour the person ‘spec’ for clues
Most adverts should have a job description, which tells you what tasks and responsibilities make up this role, and a person specification (or ‘spec’) that tells you what kind of skills and personality they are looking for. For a covering letter, the person specification is especially important. Go through the list and address each point in turn. Use their headings if you can, and give examples. So if the person specification says “Must have good communication skills” give examples of when you have given presentations, written reports, and been able to persuade and influence people. You are likely to have done this as part of your university degree so give these examples. This is the part of the covering letter which should take the longest – which is why few graduates bother to do it properly, missing a key opportunity to impress. Getting this right will make you stand out from many of your fellow applicants.
DO get your story straight
Why are you applying for this job? You may just want a job, any job — but even a whiff of that will make the employer run a mile! Instead, make sure you write in your letter why you want this particular job with this particular employer, and give examples to prove what you’ve have said is true. Make sure you understand your motives for applying so that you can communicate these.
GRADUATE FOG TIP! Never say you’re applying for the job because you want to gain or build your experience. An employer isn’t going to give you a job because you need the experience — they’ll give you the job if they think you can be useful to them!
DON’T stretch the truth
It can be tempting to fib about your achievements but if the employer suspects your covering letter contains any white lies it will make them nervous. (After all, who says you won’t do the same thing once you’re working for them?) If you are applying for a graduate job, no one is expecting you to be able to walk into a manager level job and be able to do it, and no one is expecting you to know it all. I remember one letter I had that said “I have done a degree in business, so I know everything there is to know about businesses”. This applicant thought their degree was the end of their journey, when actually it is really only the start, and having never had an office job they knew very little about business. By all means put your best foot forward, but always make sure your statements are accurate and appropriate.
DON’T use the same covering letter for every job
It stands out a mile when you do (especially when graduates write them with their friends, and the recruiter receives near identical letters from everyone who went to their university!) You need to start every covering letter from scratch. If you are using the same one each time it is a waste of your time applying, as you are unlikely to stand out. Seriously – you may as well put your application in the bin.
DO show that you’ve researched the company
I used to get letters that said “I really want to work for a company such as yours, which has an excellent reputation in its field”. You might think that that is a great sentence — but it isn’t. The problem is that this was clearly a generic comment that the applicant had written on every letter, it was not appropriate to my company. Research what the company is most proud of (their website should make this job easy), and name the company in the letter so they know you have researched them.
DON’T aim too high
Do not apply for jobs that you are not suited or qualified for. Just because you are thinking “I could do that” the £40,000 salary should be a clue that you have missed something big that the employer is looking for. Applying could even damage your chances of landing different job there that’s more suited to your skills, if the employer keeps records of unsuccessful applicants.
DON’T just spellcheck your letter — edit it
Done a quick spelling and grammar check? That’s not enough! You need to reread your letter and make it as perfect as you can. Use the same font throughout, the same margins and do not try to be clever – it needs to look clear and professional. If you have time before the deadline, leave your letter for a day or two and come back to it. You’ll see it with fresh eyes and may have thought of several ways to improve it by then. Oh, and one more thing: don’t abbrev.
DO seek professional advice
Find someone who has done some recruiting and ask them to read your letter. It might be a friend of your parents, your university careers service, or failing that, go to a recruitment agent and ask them. It will become much clearer to you where you are going wrong if someone reads it through and talks through what works and what doesn’t. Write down all their ideas and feedback, so that you can encorporate it into every covering letter you write from now on.
*WHAT DO YOU WRITE IN YOUR COVERING LETTERS?
Do you think they work well? Ever been given any great advice from an employer or careers adviser? What’s the best tip you’ve ever heard? Share your wisdom with other Foggers below!
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