How to Write a Winning Cover Letter

A cover letter is your 60-second chance to promote yourself. Write a poor cover letter and your resume lands in the rejection pile. Craft a compelling cover letter, however, and you land the coveted interview. Here are five keys to writing a great cover letter.

write a cover letter

Picture this scene. A recruiter at a popular company arrives to work Monday morning to look over applications that have come in over the weekend. These applications are for good opportunities available with her employer. And she has a very busy job sorting through them all.

She receives dozens or even hundreds of applications for each job opening. So how does our recruiter decide which applications she reviews carefully and which will receive an immediate rejection letter?

Many businesses automate some of the processes. A computer program often screens resumes and applications in the first instance for the basic role requirements. This process may knock a few resumes out of the running–mainly where people have hit ‘apply’ to jobs for which they don’t have the required skill set.

The remainder land on our recruiter’s (virtual) desk, and she needs to narrow the field to a smaller shortlist for interviews. This is where your cover letter comes in. Chances are all the resumes that have made it this far are from candidates who can perform the basic functions of the job. But our recruiter wants more. She wants to know you really care about this job. You’re interested in the company and what they stand for. And you’re going to stick around, do a good job, and grow with the business.

Here’s how to grab her attention.

Show some personality

Your cover letter is the best possible way to get your ‘foot in the door’ for a new job. Your resume will contain all the substance that shows why you’re able to perform the job. It’s your cover letter, however, that makes the recruiter actually want to invest time in reviewing your resume. Don’t forget: yours will be one among many. A hiring manager may not even see a many of the resumes submitted for popular jobs. A below par cover letter sees them heading straight for the trash!

The first key to writing a knock out cover letter is to understand that people want to work with people. Producing a cover letter that could have been written by a robot won’t make you stand out in the crowd. You need to show a little spark. That might be telling the reader a little about your (relevant) personal interests, demonstrating your passion for a particular product the company makes, or simply writing in a catchy tone.

It’s a good idea to start your letter with an introduction that sparkles. Of course, precisely what will work depends entirely on the circumstances. You can often get away with a very informal note, with a good dollop of humor, if you’re applying for a creative role or applying to a startup or small business. If you’re looking for a job with a more traditional institution, like a bank, you might want to hold the humor. You can still show a spark elsewhere. Consider these two possible cover letter openers:

“I’m an experienced customer service professional, and have worked in banks and finance for the last ten years”

Or

“I’m passionate about working in customer service. After ten years of looking after my bank’s clients, I still like nothing more than seeing a smile, as I turn a disgruntled customer into a delighted one”

I would rather talk to the person behind the second one! Wouldn’t you?

Connect with the brand

You’ve managed to persuade the reader you’re a real person. You’ve connected on a human level. The next priority is to show that you connect with the brand of the company.

This is really important to recruiters. They’re looking for someone with longevity in the business. If you truly love the company, chances are you’ll stay on for a good length of time. You may even seek internal promotions and professional growth within the business. A good recruiter thinks about not only the job you’ve applied for, but also about more senior positions you might be suited to with a bit of experience under your belt.

Show you connect with the brand by talking a little about the product, service, or mission of the business. How to do this might be obvious. Maybe you’re applying to a company that makes a product you love. Or perhaps you regularly use the company’s services, and as a loyal customer, you’re excited by the chance to work for a brand you love.

Of course, it might not be so obvious–especially if you’re looking to work with a business that does something more abstract or everyday. Think about how you could make this connection if you’re applying for a role with a utility provider, for example. In this case, it’s better to show a connection to the mission of the company–what they stand for rather than what they do. Take, for example, the largest energy company in the USA, PGE. You could say:

“I’d love to work for an energy company”

Or you might go with the following, to reflect their mission statement, and show a degree of excitement about the job:

“I’d love to work for a company that contributes so much to the lives of 15 million Californians. Building a better California is an ambitious mission, and one I’d love to get behind.”

Meet the brief

If you’re writing your cover letter from scratch, then you’ll probably include the first two key points above in the opening paragraph. Introduce yourself and why you’re applying up front, with a nod to your passion for the business.

Then you need to move to the substance of the cover letter. Here you show you meet the requirements of the role being advertised. Don’t forget; your cover letter isn’t a repeat of your resume. But it’s a smart plan to pick out a few key skills and experiences to showcase here. These will motivate the reader to properly review your resume. You’ll also want to make sure it’s built strongly and tailored to the role in hand.

You should focus on the job listing. The skills or experiences that are listed as ‘key’ here are the ones to focus your attention on. Think about how you concisely show you’re able to deliver on these, either through your experiences to date or your qualifications.

If you can, pick a mixture of behavioral and technical competencies to feature. Most roles ask for a skillset which is a mix of these, so you need to be able to use Excel or write reports (technical skills). But you also have to be organized and willing to work in a variety of teams (behavioral skills). By highlighting a couple from each category, you show yourself to be a well-rounded individual–exactly what our recruiter is after.

Sum up your USP

We’re arriving at the last paragraph or so of your cover letter now. You’re aiming to pique the interest of the reader and make sure they actually move onto reviewing your resume. To do this, you have to sum up what’s unique about your personal mix of skills and experience. You’re marketing yourself here, and in marketing talk, this is your USP–unique selling point.

You might need to invest some time thinking about what your USP really is. It should be just a sentence or two, describing what you think you really add to any role you take on.

For ideas, think about the things you have done to drive your own personal development. They don’t have to be strictly work related. Maybe you have contributed your time to an important cause or taken on extra responsibilities while you’re still in school. If the skills and experiences you gained are relevant to the job, you can use them.

It’s safe here to expand your thinking a little to cover the ‘desirable’ skills and experiences which are listed in the job ad. You will have already shown how you meet the core requirements of the role in the paragraphs above, so this is your chance to emphasize the added value you can bring to the business.

End positively

You should round off your letter with a positive note. As an example, ‘I look forward to hearing from you soon’, or a more proactive ‘I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the position in more detail’.

Whatever else you do now, you must proofread your cover letter. Make sure that details (like the name of the person you’re addressing it to) are correct. Even small errors can be costly when a recruiter has only a few seconds to scan each letter.

Your cover letter is an important document. It’s your shop window. It’s the first thing that the recruiter will read about you, and it will help them form their decision about whether or not to read on. No matter how good your resume is, if the reader is put off by a poor cover letter, the work you’ve put into your CV or resume will be wasted.

Often the most difficult thing about writing your cover letter, though, is getting started. Staring at a blank sheet of paper is daunting, but now is no time to procrastinate. Follow these pointers and capture the key messages the recruiter needs to see.

Get writing, and good luck!

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