Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Some straight talk on Cover Letters

I get a lot of questions at this time of the year about cover letters and what we look for in cover letters. There is an art to writing cover letters, but ultimately there is no right answer. What one recruiter likes, another recruiter might not, and so there is an element of luck to writing in the style that appeals to the person who reads your letter.

The other thing to keep in mind of course is that they might not even get to your letter if you don’t have a good CV, but that's for another blog… Personally, I like a letter that is well-structured, well-worded, to the point and makes an impact with the opening lines.

Remember that the CV and cover letter together are just a key to get in the door for an interview. If the key fits, it opens the door. Once the door is open, it is how you perform at interview/assessment that will get you the job, not the CV.

Physical structure 
Before I get on to talk about the content of the letter, some comments on the physical structure to be careful of:
- 8pt is the absolute minimum size to go to. 10pt is perfect. 12pt is possibly too big - try getting more content onto the CV by using smaller font
- Don’t use a Word header and/or footer for key information, especially not for your personal information. Headers are notoriously troublesome for printing. And worse, when a CV is viewed in outline/normal mode in Word, you can't see the headers at all so recruiters think you forgot to put your name on your CV, which results in an immediate rejection obviously…
- Don’t use logos or emblems from your previous employers/universities. They might make it more eye-catching, but they also show lack of commercial awareness: you're not allowed to use the emblem/logo of a company without their explicit written permission.
- Using PDF. More and more grads are converting their CV to PDF before sending in. This is fine with most recruiters, and indeed is often easier to read/manage than Word. However, a word of caution: if you've made any small spelling mistakes that a recruiter might be willing to forgive if they are in a good mood, they can only correct them on your behalf if they can edit the document (which usually means Word). If they can't edit it, they are unlikely to put you forward to the business because it will a) make them look bad and b) the business are most unlikely to be as forgiving.

1 page or 2 pages? 
Check the website of where you are applying to (look in the FAQ section). If you are applying to one of the major banking or consulting firms for example, the majority request 1 page. If you are applying to somewhere that takes a relative small programme of grads on board, they might be less strict about this criteria. Realistically, the majority of graduates should be able to get their experience onto one page with the right structure and succinct content description. If you do more than 1 page, be sure to number the pages and include your name on both pages incase they get separated.


The cover letter needs to answer the question why are you applying to us, why this particular role, and why should we hire you. I'm sure there is a long, complicated and multi-strand answer that you could provide - life doesn't tend to be very straight-forward when it comes to choosing for our future. However, you need only provide a straight answer - don’t try to give all the background as to why after years of soul searching you've decided that e.g. marketing is for you.

Every sentence needs to form part of the answer to each of the three key questions. Again, they are:- 
- why are you applying to us, 
- why this particular role, 
- why should we hire you

So, let's look at some of the most common lines we see in cover letters. 

"I am a second year student studying management at Bath." 
Does this really contribute to the answers?  In my opinion, it doesn't. It provides background, yes; but it could do more as a sentence to contribute. E.g.
"As a second year management student at Bath, I studied a module in macroeconomics, and became interested in pursuing a career in fundamental econometrics."
This sentence provides the background of your degree and university, but also why both have influenced your applying to this role.

"Having read the description of your Risk Management graduate programme on your website, I believe I am a good match to the skillset that you require."
Again, this sentence is fine, but it doesn’t really contribute towards answering the questions. Try: 
"My modules in financial statistics and corporate finance at Imperial have equipped me with skills which, having reviewed the programme description on your website, I think would make me a good match for your Risk Management graduate programme."
This adds value in that it justifies both your interest in and your suitability to a particular programme.

Grab attention 
The first paragraph of your letter is definitely the most important. First impressions are key when reading a cover letter. If the first paragraph hasn't caught the readers attention, then if it’s a large pile of applications (which is often is), then they might well not even bother with the rest.
Take a step back from everything you know and have learned about writing cover letters. What is the one thing about you that you think gives you the best chance of being chosen for an interview? Whatever that is, you should try to get it into the first paragraph.

There are a few ways to catch someone's attention in the first paragraph. Mention:- Something impressive - a (ideally relevant) scholarship/prize/award that you have won Something different - an overseas semester, an unusual internship, a key position in a society Unusual reason for applying - if you have something to mention that might be different to the usual reasons A contact name - if you met someone at a fair who impressed you and you remember them by name, mention it.

Don’t be obvious 
Definitely no to including any of: "I read the Financial Times every day." "I have always wanted to work for your Firm since I was young." (or any iteration of that)
"My father worked in banking, therefore I want to work in banking."

Don’t finish badly. 
The graduate recruitment process at most major firms is a well-oiled machine. They will process your application as soon as they can, within the bounds of their process. Don’t demean a good letter by appearing needy/arrogant/annoying/presumptuous/over-eager/desperate.  Don’t sound like you assume you will get an interview. Don’t provide a million contact details - put the standard ones on your CV and the top of your cover letter and leave it at that. Some examples of this are:

"Please contact me as soon as possible to discuss further" 
"Please call me at your earliest convenience" 
"Call me asap so we can discuss how I can help your firm." 
"I can be contacted on <this email>, <this mobile>, <this home number>, <this skype name>, <this twitter address>" etc.
"Please call me urgently to arrange an interview." 
"I look forward to speaking with you further at interview to elaborate."

Once you've written your cover letter, share it with some friends/family whose opinions you respect. It can be good to get some feedback from a third party. However, as I mentioned at the start, cover letters are very subjective, so don’t try to incorporate everyone's opinions, or you will end up with a very muddled letter.

And that includes not following all of my advice if it doesn't suit you, or you don’t believe it. That is absolutely fine - this is just my opinion. The next recruiter you talk to might well tell you something completely different.

If you want any help with your cover letter, I'm happy to take a look and provide some feedback. You can email it to this address: gradjobsuk@yahoo.co.uk 
Please let me know in your email any particular concerns you have about it so I can address them...

1 comment:

  1. An important point is a resume and cover letter should be the marketing tools that help candidate to land the position that is perfect for him.Cover Letters