Career Testing
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Career Testing
COVER LETTERS / OCT. 31, 2016
version 15, draft 15

Cover Letters: The Essential Guide to Standing Out as a Jobseeker

Cover letters and typewriter

As a jobseeker, there are only so many things you can do to get the hiring manager’s attention, and seeing how stalking them will more than likely land you in prison rather than a job, you need to make the recruitment process as effective as you can with all the tools you have at your disposal.

Branding yourself and building an online profile that highlights your best traits can only help you during your job search, but what is perhaps the most important part of any successful search is having a killer application.

A job application consists of two things: a CV and a cover letter. Some companies will also ask you to fill in an online form to show your interest in the position, but it’s quickly going out of fashion, so make sure that you concentrate your efforts on these two essential components.

CVs basically tell the hiring manager who you are and what you’ve done so far. They are essentially a map to your accomplishments and achievements, but the problem often is that their format is so restrictive than you can’t expand as much as you’d like to on some areas. They also rarely allow a conversational style, no matter how creative you are, which means that engaging your reader is nearly impossible. Cover letters, on the other hand, are more customisable, and they allow you to talk about anything you couldn’t fit in your CV as well as highlight skills or qualifications that you think are essential in the particular position. As such, no job application should be considered complete without both of these components.

 

Why You Need a Cover Letter

why cover letter

The reason why career advisers insist that you write a cover letter is because it can be the key to getting you the job you are after. It allows you to not only highlight your best skills but to also make them directly relevant to the position available. And this is precisely why you should take the time and undergo the effort of writing a new one every time you apply for a job rather than using a cover letter sample, even if you aren’t certain that it will be read by the recruiter.

Most Recruiters Don't Read Them, So Why Bother?

Many jobseekers mistakingly assume that since recruiters generally admit to not reading these letters, they shouldn’t bother with writing one either at all. But the problem with this hypothesis is that it makes a gross generalisation for all recruiters. Even if it has been statistically proven that recruiters never bother with them, you shouldn’t let statistics influence you in this decision. According to Jobvite’s 2015 Recruiter Nation Survey, for example, 63 per cent of recruiters think that cover letters are unimportant, but that doesn’t mean that your job application should cater to that 63 per cent alone. In fact, it’s highly advisable that you ensure that the remaining 37 per cent remains satisfied, as well, and this means sending a letter, regardless of what statistics tell you.

Knowing ahead whether the recruiter to whom you are sending the application reads cover letters or not is impossible. As such, you shouldn’t take the chance and not send one. A recruiter who expects a but does not receive one will not hesitate to throw your application in the bin.

And, of course, it’s not just recruiters that you need to worry about. Many companies never hire one, anyway. What they do have, though, are human resources personnel who like to be very thorough about who they hire as their decision will directly affect them. According to Ambra Benjamin, an engineering recruiter at Facebook, recruiters might not read cover letters but the same does not go for hiring managers.

What Do Cover Letters Tell Hiring Managers?

People within the company who are responsible for the hiring process, especially those who work for small to medium-sized companies, are interested in getting to know a candidate well before they even meet them in an interview. As most companies understand that hiring someone new is a huge investment, they find it essential to be thorough. Estimates show that a bad hire can cost a company more than £40,000, and hiring managers are well aware of this fact. As such, they want to prevent turnover by ensuring that a candidate is a right fit as well as skilled and passionate about working for them. This essentially means that they will scrutinise each and every job application that comes across their desk, and this includes reading your cover letter.

Moreover, as times are changing and the world is becoming more fast-paced, it may be natural for people to want to avoid wasting their time going through a cover letter that’s long and complicated, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t skim through a short and straightforward one that tells them why they need to hire you in just a few lines.

The Benefits of Including a Cover Letter In Your Job Application

There are many benefits you should consider when including a cover letter in your application. First and foremost is the fact that they tell the person reading them how you stand apart from the crowd. Keep in mind that whereas two CVs can be identical, a cover letter is always unique, and this is exactly why it can help you stand out.

Apart from being unique and thus helping you stand out, cover letters are also essentially supplementary to your CV. They enhance it and they demonstrate how your experience applies to a company’s needs. Ultimately, this letter works as an interpreter; it explains what your CV is trying to argue and it helps you cater to the needs of your target audience more.

Not including one in your job application will only make you seem sloppy and lazy, so if you are trying to promote yourself as a highly energetic and passionate professional, then you need to make the most of this marketing tool available to you.

 

Writing a Cover Letter

writing a cover letter

While it’s crucial to actually deliver one with your job application, it’s also important to make it as effective as possible, and this means that there are a few dos and don’ts you should pay attention to while crafting your cover letter.

For example, just like with CVs, it’s important that you keep it short. You don’t want it to go over a page as people have short attention spans, and hiring managers have hundreds of job applications to review and very little time to do so. It goes without saying that the longer your letter is, the fewer chances there are of it getting read.

But length isn’t the only thing you should pay attention to. There are also other factors to consider, such as what to include and how to arrange it in order to communicate your message in the best way possible.

The Strategy

In order to make your cover letter as effective as possible, you are going to need a strong tactic, and this means that you need to have a purpose for writing a cover letter.

Obviously, your goal is to get hired, but that does not mean that you need to beg for the job. Instead, your goal should be to present yourself as the solution to the company’s problem. If you rationalise the recruitment process, you’ll understand that there’s a reason behind looking for someone new to hire, and that reason or the needs they have are what we call the problem.

By identifying what it is, you will be able to deliver a cover letter that’s focused and targeted. In order to do that, you’ll need to use your logic as well as do some research on the company.

Identifying it is not as hard as you’d expect. Say, for example, that you are applying for a position in digital marketing and your research has proven that the company’s online presence is rather weak. It stands to reason, then, that they are looking to hire someone because they hope that that person will help them maximise their potential.

The key is not only to identify the problem but to also make yourself relevant to the position. In other words, you need to make yourself the solution to their problem. To do that, you need to think which of your qualities would be able to help you succeed in this role – perhaps it’s your extensive work experience or your dedication to getting things done, for example. However, don’t choose a skill that could hypothetically help the company; choose a skill that has helped you get results in the past and make sure to refer to those past results.

This tactic won’t only help you tailor your cover letter to perfection but it will also help you get more callbacks than any other job search strategy you’ve ever used. According to Liz Ryan, one of the most important figures in the HR world, pain letters (which address the hiring manager’s problem) result in callbacks about 25 per cent of the time.

Putting It Together

In order to make it as effective as possible, it’s essential that you keep it short and to the point. Ensure that you break the letter into short and concise paragraphs and that it flows naturally. It should also follow a linear progression that starts from pointing out the problem to talking about why you are the solution and walking the hiring manager through the various reasons why you are the right person for the job (skills, work experience, passion, etc).

Ideally, your cover letter shouldn’t exceed three paragraphs.

  • First Paragraph: The first paragraph should blatantly point out the issue and discuss how you are the answer to their prayers.
  • Second Paragraph: The second paragraph should explore your achievements more in depth. Ensure that everything you mention relates to the issue at hand. Meanwhile, if you have any gaps on your CV, you should exploit this opportunity to address them.
  • Third Paragraph: The third paragraph should be all about why you want to work for them. Talk about your passion and motivation, and close with how you are interested in helping the company achieve its goals and ask what you can do to help.

Tips to Make Your Cover Letter Compelling

  • Address It Appropriately:Cover letters which are not addressed correctly look sloppy, so it’s important to find who to address them to before you even start writing your letter. Finding the right person to send it to will also make your letter seem more targeted and this will help make you look more professional. If no specifics are mentioned in the job listing, dig around the company’s website and find out who the hiring manager is. If you are applying for a position that has not been advertised, then you should send and address it to the manager of the department you are interested in.
  • Tailor It to Fit the Job Description:Just like it’s essential to tailoring your CV, you also need to ensure that your letter is customised to the job listing, too. Make sure that you are addressing the same skills and responsibilities discussed in the description. If you are applying for a position that’s not available, do your research and see if you can identify any problems. Also, make sure to extend your research to other companies that have openings for the position you want to apply for and make your cover letter a compilation of the results from your research.
  • Provide Numbers:It’s critical to make your achievements quantifiable, as this makes you seem more credible and professional, while it also provides the hiring manager with a more precise reflection of what you can do.
  • Proofread:It’s essential that everything in your job application – including your cover letter – is thoroughly proofread to ensure that no mistakes have been made. According to Michael Mager, Grammarly’s marketing analyst, ‘Typos and grammatical errors can signal a lack of attention to detail and spoil a job seeker’s chance at making a good first impression’. And since the whole idea behind writing a letter for your application is to stand out, you want that impression to be positive.
  • Add Keywords:Keywords are necessary as they will essentially pop up as the reader scans through your document, and this will help your application to get noticed.
  • Highlight Areas You Couldn’t in Your CV: Your cover letter shouldn’t be a duplication of your CV as no one wants to read the same things twice. Instead, you should try to address and highlight areas which you couldn’t before due to the restrictive format of your CV. Don’t include any new or irrelevant information; simply elaborate on areas you believe are critical to the position.
  • Focus on Skills: Your academic achievements are definitely important but as these are included on your CV and there’s only so much you can say about them, it’s best to elaborate on your skills and how they apply in this context.
  • Make It a Compelling Narrative: A cover letter should read like a story in the sense that it should convince the reader that you are the right person for the job. So, make sure that the way you shape and structure your sentences reflects that purpose.
  • Use a Conversational Tone: There was a time when job applications had to be very formal, but those days are long gone, and in order to engage your reader, you need to use a more conversational tone as it will make them more at ease with you.
  • Add It to Your Email’s Body: Attaching it instead of inserting it in the body will get you nowhere. There are slim chances that the person receiving the email will actually bother with opening two attachments, so ensure that it’s somewhere that they can’t miss.

How to Actually Write a Cover Letter

The truth is that writing a cover letter can be time-consuming. Researching a company in order to identify its issues could take more time than you’d expect, but so long as you send your application within the allocated time, there’s no question as to whether your research will yield results. Take the time needed to write a compelling letter and I guarantee that you will not regret it.

Lots of people are now beginning to understand that writing a cover letter that makes them more relevant to the position is critical and many who have actually tried this strategy have found that it has yielded results.

The step-by-step guide below will help you write yours as effectively as possible but bear in mind that this process is very specific to each position, so some of the things mentioned here might not apply to your particular situation. If you find yourself struggling, feel free to leave a question in the comments section below.

Step 1: Do Your Research

As we’ve discussed earlier, a successful pain letter targets a struggle that the company is facing and addresses that issue. To find that struggle, you will need to do some research on the corporation and the hiring manager.

Start by looking at the company’s website and social media pages, and see if there are any notable changes. If, for example, you see that they are trying to open up to a new audience, it might mean that they are looking to expand, so you can take that as their ‘pain’.

You should also read reviews on different websites as you might find something of value in other people’s comments. It’s critical to be thorough about your research, so don’t shy away from looking up some of the managers on LinkedIn.

Of course, the job description will also help you figure out what the company is looking for, so read between the lines and figure out what they hope to achieve with the new addition to their team.

For example, if the vacancy is for a content writer, look at any changes in the company’s blog. If the number of articles being published has dropped, it could be that they’ve lost an employee and they are looking to replace them. If, on the other hand, you see that content on new topics is being written, it could be because they are looking to expand to new markets.

Each scenario will require a different response, so ensure that you have zeroed in on a specific problem before you start thinking about your pain hypothesis.

Step 2: Figure Out What You Can Do

The key to a successful cover letter is to explicitly tell the hiring manager what you can do to help. This means that the skills you use should all relate to the problem at hand and they should also be able to testify your past successes.

Therefore, you need to identify some of your most important achievements that relate to the issue you want to solve. So if, for example, your hypothesis is that they are dealing with reduced content, you can discuss your ability to write quality content at a fast pace. If, on the other hand, you believe that the company is trying to expand into a new market, you could talk about your extensive background in that specific field.

Step 3: Decide on the Voice You Will Use

As critical as it is to make your skills relatable to your hypothesis, it’s just as important to find the appropriate voice. You don’t want to come off as too aggressive or as too subtle if that is not the voice the company identifies with, so do your research and try to find what they are like.

Social media will help point you in the right direction. Look for posts that betray company culture as hiring managers will be interested in hiring people who fit.

Also, have a look at things that people within in the company post on social media and try to make your cover letter’s voice resemble those articles.

Identifying the correct voice can be tricky, but the key is to find out if they are more formal than informal or the other way round. Being able to speak to them as an insider will definitely win you points, but ensure that you are not too casual, either. A level of professionalism is always expected from applicants.

Step 4: Addressing the Cover Letter

Much like with your CV, it’s important to directly address the hiring manager. This will make them feel more engaged but it will also help portray you as a dedicated professional. Not finding the right person to address will make you look lazy and you definitely want to avoid that.

Generally speaking, the job description will tell you who to contact, but if there’s nothing on the listing to betray who’s in charge of the hiring process, dig around on the internet for a name. Usually, hiring managers who are looking for people have a ‘we are hiring’ next to their name on LinkedIn, so this could help point you in the right direction. Also, make sure to look for information about the team on the company’s website. If all else fails, simply send your cover letter to the person listed as the human resources manager.

If you are applying for a job that has not been advertised, then you should target the manager of the department in which you are applying because they are more likely to pay attention to your specific skillset.

Step 4: Put Pen to Paper

Remember to keep it short and simple and to make it as straightforward as possible. Avoid complex sentence structures as they’ll only confuse the reader, and stick to the point.

The cover letter sample below addresses the problem and focuses only on that one issue throughout. It’s effective as it refers to actual results and it also refers to specific solutions.

Pain Letter Sample

Dear Hiring Manager,

 

If you're looking for someone who can help you rank better on Google, then look no further. My extensive background in SEO is guaranteed to bring your website to the first two pages of Google’s results.

 

As a digital marketing analyst, I am dedicated to making websites more visible. My deep understanding of various SEO strategies – like keywords, for example – has managed to take Company ABC’s  website from X to Y monthly unique visitors.

 

I intend to help Company XYZ reach its full potential by putting my creative ideas forth and by suggesting radical strategies that will help the company maximise its online presence.

 

I’d love to learn more about your specific marketing needs and how I can help!

 

Sincerely,
John Smith
020 7946 0496
john.smith@example.com

 

Mistakes to Avoid

cover letter mistakes

The reason why many jobseekers are intimidated by cover letters is because they can be extremely personal. Finding the right voice to write to a stranger about your accomplishments is hard. If you are self-conscious, you might even find that talking about what your skills are can prove to be a nightmare, but the key is to keep to your strategy and remember that in order to get the job you want, you must fight for it.

The problem that many people face, however, is that even with a clear strategy, they don’t get the results they want. In order to ensure that you’ll get callbacks, avoid committing these common mistakes.

#1 Coming Across as Too Pompous

Although the idea behind a cover letter is to explain how you stand apart from the competition, there is such a thing as being too confident, and you should avoid being characterised as suc at all costs. Try to balance humility and self-confidence as much as possible by talking about facts rather just adding adjectives to describe yourself.

#2 Simply Tailoring It to the Job Requirements

As we’ve discussed extensively, customising your letter to the job requirements and to the hiring manager’s needs is essential, but that does not mean that you should stop there.

Lack of experience, career changes, etc raise concerns in CVs and it is, therefore, advisable to utilise your cover letter to address those concerns. Therefore, if you are a new graduate, don’t ignore your lack of experience; rather, address it and point out how it’s not an issue. If, on the other hand, you are changing careers, you should also address the issue. Explain briefly why you are switching careers and what makes you interested in this new career; don’t go into specifics, but do try to make it relevant to how you are providing a solution to the company’s problem.

#3 Writing About Yourself in the Third Person

Talking about yourself in the third person might seem like the easy solution out if you are feeling conscious when writing about yourself, but the truth is that it’s very off-putting and it could easily cost you the job. Stick to the first person and make your tone is as conversational as possible; remember that your goal is to engage the reader.

#4 Focusing on What the Company Can Do for You

Opt out of discussing what the position can do for you and how it can assist your professional growth. The hiring manager is well aware of what career opportunities the position will open for the successful candidate. It’s critical to focus on their needs; you are, after all, branding yourself as the ultimate solution to their problem.

#5 Lying

Lying might seem like a great idea at first, especially if you don’t have any quantifiable results to present, but the truth is that lying on your job application is always a bad idea.

If you don’t have any results to present, focus on discussing your ideas, instead. Talk about your target goals and make them quantifiable – this will win over the hiring manager.

 

Although most recruiters do not read cover letters, they still remain an important part of the job application. You never know when you might stumble upon one who does read them and if you ensure that it’s located in the email’s body rather than as an attachment, you increase the chances of it being read.

A great cover letter will convince the hiring manager that you are everything they are looking for, so do take the time to research the company’s needs before you address them in your email. Remember to keep it short and simple, and it won’t be long before you start getting callbacks.

Do you have any other tips for jobseekers currently writing their cover letter? If you do, let us know in the comments section below.

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