The importance of covering letters

25 April 2016

covering letters for job applications

You may have noticed that job adverts generally ask for your application to include both your CV and a covering letter, but do you really know what a covering letter is supposed to say?

As recruitment consultants, we receive many applications for the jobs we advertise for our clients, and we see covering letters that range from empty emails with nothing but a signature, to meandering essays that pretty much cover someone’s entire life story. So, how should a covering letter be presented? There are a range of roles you could be applying for, and every application heads to a different employer or agency, but there are some simple rules to follow that can help make your covering letter readable, punchy, and persuasive.


Use your covering letter to do what your CV does not


The main purpose of a covering letter is to explain what your CV does not. A covering letter is not just a greeting to add to the email you are attaching your CV to, rather it is a letter that underlines the reason for your application.

Your CV is a summary of your work experience, your skills and achievements, and your education and training. It may also contain a personal statement that stresses your interest in a particular career path. Your CV does not usually refer specifically to the job you are applying for, the company you are contacting, or the reason this new opportunity has caught your interest.

Rather than re-writing your entire CV for every application, you can complement your existing CV with a well-written covering letter instead. Remember that your covering letter is likely to be the first thing a prospective employer or recruitment consultant will read on your application, so think about first impressions.


Don’t write a whole essay, but write enough to constitute a letter


A simple ‘please accept my attached CV in application for the role of XYZ, yours…’ does not constitute a covering letter, even if you have been asked to supply something brief. At the very least, it should contain that greeting plus a short explanation of why you want that job, and why that company should want you. It should be possible to get all of that into one paragraph, or just a few sentences.

The jobs you’re applying for may have had a lot of interest, and the employer may have many applications to read through. If you write a letter that is long, and one that buries your key points in a whole page of waffle, employers may be put off reading it due to time constraints.

To save space, don’t worry about repeating what is already contained in your CV, but do point employers in the right direction, and refer to skills or attributes you have gained from a particular role or training course, so they can skim straight to that part of your CV.


Have the confidence to shout about your achievements


It will work to your advantage if you can be confident and highlight your greatest skills, attributes and achievements in a covering letter, but stick to the facts and don’t be boastful. There is no need to embellish the details of your successes or the positive aspects of your character, but you should use them to your advantage, and tell prospective employers about them.


Don’t be negative


You may be very keen to leave your current workplace if you don’t get on with your employer or your colleagues, if you feel you’re underpaid, or if your journey to work is too long. While these are all plausible reasons for wanting a new job, just be careful with your wording when writing to a prospective employer.

Being negative about employers or colleagues could suggest that you’re difficult to manage, or not a team-worker, and moaning about how much you earn does nothing to explain why you are worth more. Try putting a positive spin on things. For example, if you’re looking for an opportunity to earn more commission, don’t say ‘I’m very experienced and I’m not getting paid enough’, instead try something more subtle, such as ‘I’m an experienced aesthetician and a great sales person, and I would like to have the chance to capitalise on my skills, and increase custom for your clinic’.


Get the details right


This may be an obvious point to make, but make sure you check your spelling before sending your covering letter, as a letter full of errors won’t be the best introduction. Spelling mistakes look particularly careless when they’re sent in an email program or Word file that underlines your mistakes, and gives you the option to correct them. If your spelling isn’t perfect, use spell-check!

We’ve also seen other careless mistakes on applications that could easily be avoided. Check if the advert contains a name to address your letter to, the exact job title used on the advert, and the company name. Make sure you get these bits right, as if you don’t, it could appear that you haven’t read the advert properly. We’ve seen some covering letters that contain a completely different job title to the role advertised. This suggests to us that the applicant has been applying for many jobs, and has not taken the care to edit the job title before sending another application. Needless to say, this doesn’t look great.


Applying direct vs via an agency


You may notice that some job adverts are posted by recruitment consultants, not the company hiring. Recruitment consultants don’t simply forward CVs, they read covering letters and CVs thoroughly and filter out the weakest candidates. If you’re applying via an agency, your covering letter should be exactly the same as the one you would send directly to an employer.

Company owners or hiring managers only read covering letters and CVs when their company is hiring for a particular role. Recruitment consultants read a range of covering letters and CVs almost every day, so they will have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, and will quickly spot the signs of a great applicant. If you want to catch the attention of a recruitment consultant, it’s a wise idea to put some effort into your covering letter.


Show some enthusiasm


It may seem that submitting an application is enough to tell an employer that you want that job. After all, you wouldn’t apply for a job you didn’t want, right? Well, not exactly. Many job seekers apply for roles they are not that bothered about, especially when they’re desperate to get a new job. Employers and agencies are aware of that fact, so demonstrating that you genuinely want to work for that company in that role will help you stand out from a sea of indifferent applications.

Employers are likely to see enthusiasm as a good thing when thinking about which applicants may be a positive new addition to the team, and which ones may turn into loyal employees. Stating your active interest in a role is a good idea, and so is showing your respect for a company. A bit of flattery doesn’t usually hurt, but don’t go overboard. A long letter about how much you idolise the company owner, and have to work for them or your life will be in ruins, may not look entirely professional.


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