Cover yourself with glory: Writing a cover letter
By The Good Jobs Team, 17 May 2016
Most job application formats make it hard to really spread yourself. They're broken up into so many sections, and there are so many points you have to cover, and it's all so disjointed. It's as if you were B. B. King or Jimi Hendrix up on stage in front of a small group of people holding clipboards, and someone's off to the side demanding, "Play six chords in G. Now one in F. Please put down the guitar and do a little percussion on the guitar case. Do you get on well with record company executives?" It makes it hard to really hit the heights.
In a job application, your cover letter is your chance to get a memorable riff going. You can tell a coherent story of why you're their dream come true. It's your big chance to make an impression.
Use it to open up the area - don't just repeat the facts from your CV, or go over what they ask for on the form. Repetition is both wasteful and off-putting. This is your chance to tell a story that might stick in their minds - something that marks you out from the rest of the herd. But don't overdo it. You've only got three or four paragraphs, maximum; you can't run over the page. It's not quite tweet length, but it's not an essay, either.
Your cover letter needs to push your good points, which makes it difficult to remember that it's not about you. The people on the other end don't know you, and they certainly don't like you - you're a nuisance complicating their lives by forcing them to set aside time in a busy day to make a difficult choice.
Don't just say how wonderful you are; show how wonderful you'll be for them, fixing their problems, driving their issues, meeting their needs. Relate your experience to their future. Look around for some material on the organisation - their last few annual reports, a quick Google search. Mention a few of their top priorities. Talk the talk, if you can.
All of this means that you can't use a standard format, one-size-fits-all letter for every job application. At best, it'll be a poor fit that misses out on showing exactly why you're the right piece for this particular jigsaw; at worst, people are going to recognise the tell-tale signs of a generic letter and be offended that you're flipping them off.
Above all, get someone else to proofread the letter before you send it. Any errors in grammar or spelling are going to stand out like a beacon. The committee is looking for any excuse to cut down the field before the hard work starts, and carelessness or ignorance throws up a great big red flag.
There is a risk, of course, that all your eloquence will go no further than the person whose job it is to take the applications out of their envelopes. If your prospective employer takes their application form seriously they may have a rule that cover letters aren't circulated to the selection committee, on the grounds that the information on the form addresses everything that's relevant. Spending time on a great cover letter is a risk worth taking, though - sometimes they do make it through.
Think of the cover letter as your elevator pitch. Imagine yourself in a lift with the CEO; you've got a minute and a half to give your spiel, and you have to close the deal before they reach their floor. Make it sing.