Date posted: 19/01/2018

Cover letter 101: How to make yours compelling

The cover letter is the beating heart of any job application. It gives the hiring manager an executive summary of who you are, what you bring to the table and whether you’re worth interviewing. So it's important you get it right. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Think about tone of voice

Cover letters should reflect the industry they're addressing. For example, in law or accounting, you should adopt a more conservative, standard style. Reference the skills you developed while studying and make use of words and phrases such as 'eye for detail', 'self-motivation', 'initiative' and 'determination'. If you have a relevant anecdote, be sure to include it, but keep it brief.

When applying to a business that doesn't have any vacant positions, you can adjust to a more speculative tone. Enquire about potential jobs and then sell yourself with your skills, experience and references. Be sure to mark off with a "Please keep me in mind for any future vacancies", which will hopefully encourage them to file your letter for the next time they're looking to hire.

Remember, don't cut and paste a cover letter template. Writing a unique letter for every application might seem laborious, but hiring managers can sniff out something you've pulled from Google. Once they get a hint of your penchant for CTRL+C and CTRL+V, they're likely to throw your cover letter and CV in the bin.

Cover letter framework

First, address the hiring manager. If you don't have a name, search LinkedIn for HR business partner and the company name and location to find suitable prospects. If you still can't locate a name, don't stress, just launch into your enthusiasm for the advertised position, and how much you'd love to work at the company and why. Research the organisation and then share something you've learned and why this resonates with you.

Second, outline your strongest skills and where you developed them. Try to communicate your personality through your writing style to show the hiring manager that you would be a good cultural fit for the company.

Third, include a short anecdote about one of your skills, such as your initiative, teamwork or problem-solving skills using an example from a previous line of work or relevant extracurricular activity. If you can add some tangible results from this experience, do. Make sure the skills you're highlighting are ones the employer has mentioned in the job ad. There's no point discussing your advanced Photoshop prowess if the role description makes no mention of it.

Fourth, talk about yourself and your passions. Remember to mention your volunteer work, the work you did on your GAP year, or anything that shows you're prepared to lead, be a self-starter or network effectively. Last, finish strong. Write a short paragraph detailing why you'd like them to consider you, the best way for the hiring manager to contact you and a brief (but sincere) line thanking them for taking the time to read your letter.

And you're done. Your cover letter should only be about two-thirds of a page long; if it's much longer than that, get out the red pen and start editing.

Some tips:

  • Don't just summarise your CV. The cover letter should introduce your personality and interest in the advertised role or company. It should reflect your knowledge of the available job as well as the organisation offering it and how and why you would fit in.
  • Short is better. The cover letter shouldn't be more than two-thirds of a page.
  • Focus on what you'd bring to the company. Don't waste time telling the hiring manager that you'd be a great fit for the position - of course you are - convince them about what you'd bring to the company and what you can deliver, and then your CV will prove it.
  • Be real. Honesty shines through generic, by-the-numbers cover letters. It will set you apart from the pack.
  • Don't mention skills you don't have. Believe in the skills you do have and talk about them. Authenticity is key, and if you're faking it, you will get found out.
  • Send everything as a PDF. Save your document as a PDF before you send it, because this is the preferred way for hiring managers to read cover letters (and CVs). A PDF is accessible by most computers and it's unlikely the hiring manager will convert your text file to read it. Also, there won't be any formatting errors.
  • Share and ask for feedback. Ask a friend or family member to provide you feedback on your first draft. They may spot errors or ways to improve your work.

Following these tips will help you create a cover letter that captures the attention of the right people and gets you a first-round interview. Always remember to call the hiring manager a few days after submitting your CV, and ask questions about the position - this will show your initiative and put you front of mind when they start filtering through the pile of applications.