It’s time to talk about the dreaded cover letter. It’s unreal how much importance this (preferably) one piece of A4 sized paper has – it could be the difference between you being offered the chance to shine at an interview for your dream job or having your chances slashed, with your application tossed into the bin along with all the other bog-standard attempts.
However, according to Ruth Scott, a careers advisor at Skills Development Scotland, writing the ‘perfect’ cover letter isn’t as difficult as many believe. She said it should be “unique, structured, relevant and personal” adding: “Be sure that the covering letter relates directly to the job and company you’re applying to. This is often the first impression that a company will have of you, so keep it professional and highlight key skills and pieces of information that are likely to gain their interest, so that they go on to read your CV.”
Job hunters often struggle with cover letters and feel stumped right at the start, unsure of how to begin, but as Ruth points out, it has a structure as simple as most other pieces of writing – a beginning, middle and end. “Begin by reading with the job description. Be sure that your covering letter and CV demonstrate your suitability for the job,” she said.
- Make sure it has a beginning. Ask yourself why are you sending the application? What do you want the application to achieve? And answer these right at the start.
- It should then lead on to the middle section. Think about why you have you chosen
to apply to this company for this job? What skills and experience do you have that are of particular relevance to this role?
- Finish with a conclusion. Detail exactly what makes you a suitable candidate for the position.
Ruth adds that the cover letter is: “A chance to expand upon what is in your CV; perhaps to give some context to a certain example or to highlight key points. Don’t copy word for word, but also Mmake sure that the covering letter enhances your CV rather than containing totally different content.”
According to Ruth, a CV should also be no longer than two pages. “Employers regularly state that they don’t want any more than this. Think about it from their perspective, an employer may receive 100 applications for one job, that’s a lot of time spent sifting through applications and reading CVs,” she said.
“If a CV doesn’t immediately catch their attention and showcase why that applicant is worthwhile exploring further, they are unlikely to move your CV to the desired “yes” pile. Use the space you have to showcase relevant skills and experience. You don’t need to include every single job you’ve ever had – think about how you’ve developed the skills required to do the job you’re applying for and demonstrate this.”
When asked if it is as essential to address the cover letter to the person in charge of recruitment as university careers advisers often stress, Ruth said: “I think it can certainly help, as it shows that you’ve researched the company and have put effort into your application. If you don’t know the name at first, you could call the company and ask who the position will report into (this person will often be interviewing the candidates too). If you still can’t find their name, then use their job title, which is often found in the job description.”
Although the cover letter structure seems fairly straightforward, Ruth has encountered many people who make basic mistakes in this stage of a job application. She said the most common errors are usually when people under-sell themselves and don’t make the most of their experience or skills and spelling mistakes, adding that these are, “the most infuriating as they’re often such an easy fix”.
Ruth also advises job hunters to avoid cliches. It’s easy enough to say ‘I’m a great team player and also work well on my own’ but it’s important to actually demonstrate this to an employer. “Give examples of times when you’ve contributed to the success of a team project, or when you’ve worked independently to a high standard. It’s also important that youD don’t use jargon – just because you know what an acronym means, doesn’t mean that the person reading the job applications will know this,” she said, adding that the HR department often do the initial rounds of application sifting.
Applying for jobs straight out of university can be daunting because you’ve spent the large majority of your life learning. You might have a few weeks of work experience or part-time jobs but when it comes to the desired experience listed on the job advert you often fall short.
However, despite this Ruth still advises aiming high and embracing your education in the application. She said: “First of all, don’t be afraid to say that you’re a recent graduate. Your skills and experience will be different to that of someone who has been in the job for a number of years, but you have a lot that you can bring to an organisation too.
“Think about the job you’re applying for and what relevant experience you have, then link the two together – and don’t be afraid to say that you’re willing to learn. As a graduate, employers won’t be expecting you to know the ins and outs of exactly how the business works.”
A 2014 survey found that, on average, employers received 39.2 applications per graduate vacancy (although some industries are much higher, such as the media which receives 86.6). With this much competition, it’s no wonder graduates are feeling the pressure to stand out in their applications.
However, although Ruth mentioned underselling yourself as a major error, she is also keen to point out that you also shouldn’t oversell or lie about your experience in the cover letter: “Just be honest. Any discrepancies will come out, and there can be serious consequences for mistruths that are told on CV’s – including losing your job. Keep in mind the big picture. Absolutely promote the best version of yourself, but be realistic and honest.”
For any recent graduates, or those who have been searching for their dream job for some time, Ruth said: “Keep going! Job seeking is a bit like completing an obstacle course. There will be times when you have to overcome hurdles; when you’re overtaken by someone in better shape; when you feel battered and bruised, when you’re knocked down and don’t feel you have the strength to pick yourself up and carry on.
“Surround yourself with your best supporters – people who will continue to encourage you even when the going’s tough. And you will make it to the end, there will be scenes of elation and joy, and it will all be worth it. After successfully making it to the end, you might even find yourself considering going for another shot at it .. but not immediately!”
Ruth’s Top Cover Letter Tips:
- Proof read and spell check your application before you submit it. I recommend that you ask at least 2 other people to help with this; ideally one of these people shouldn’t know you too well.
- Don’t be afraid of white space on your application – it’s ok to have areas without text.
- Play about with the borders of the page to make the most of the space.
- Use text boxes (without borders) so you can move content around easier.
- Don’t use times new roman or comic sans, equally don’t use a ‘fancy font’ – you want people to be able to read your words.
- Also, choose your words wisely – try to mirror the ethos and language style of the company. It’s really important that your CV and Covering letter are tailored to the job (and company) you are applying to.
- Above all, be honest and let your personality shine through your words.