Effective cover letters: convincing an employer that you’re right for the job

hiring-1977803_960_720A cover letter is your opportunity to explain to an employer why you are applying to them, and how your skills, knowledge and experiences fit the role and organisation.

You should communicate effectively to the reader:

  • why you want to work in their organisation
  • why you want to work in that particular role
  • why your strengths, skills and experience make you the right candidate

Ideally your cover letter and your CV will be read together but you can never be sure, so try to make sure they can each stand alone.  That means your cover letter should refer to key facts from the CV but should amplify rather than duplicate.  Your CV should present more detailed evidence to back up the points you make in the cover letter.

Structure and content

There is no ‘magic formula’ for cover letters, but the following outline can provide a helpful structure. Think of sections rather than paragraphs, since some aspects may require two paragraphs. These sections may appear in different orders for different applications. Keep it to one side of A4.

Greeting

Always try to find a name, rather than a job title, as it demonstrates that you researched the organisation. ‘Dear Ms Smith’ is much better than ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ (avoid ‘To whom it may concern’).  Remember the signing off rule of ‘yours sincerely’ if it is addressed to a named person and ‘yours faithfully’ if not.

Introduction

Include who you are, your degree subject, university and situation – recently graduated, about to graduate, penultimate year.   Explain why you are writing (to apply for X position/looking for work experience) and where you saw the position advertised or, if it’s a speculative application, where you heard about the organisation.

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Common cover letter mistakes

Application Adviser Emily takes us through some of the common mistakes students make when it comes to cover letters. Remember, you can book a 1-2-1 appointment for feedback on your cover letter, CV or application.

  • Misunderstanding what a cover letter is: A cover letter can be a confusing document and so it’s important to understand its purpose. The most crucial function of a cover letter is to convince the employer of your motivation. When writing it, you have the opportunity to address some topics which won’t feature in your CV at all: why you want to work for the company and why you want that particular job/internship.
  • Prioritising CVs and forgetting about cover letters: Sometimes students I meet in the Careers and Enterprise Centre ask whether cover letters or CVs are more important to recruiters. It is difficult to give a definitive answer because different employers treat applications differently – some might spend time focusing on the cover letter, while others focus primarily on the CV; some might weight both equally. But if you are asked for both documents, you should write your CV and cover letter in such a way that they work together to present an overall impression of you as a well-qualified candidate. Students often fear repetition – they don’t want to bore employers by talking about the same experience on their CV and in their cover letter. While you certainly shouldn’t repeat exact sentences or phrases, you can mention a particular project or period of work experience on both your CV and cover letter. The key difference it is that while both CV and cover letter should be tailored to the job description, explicitly showing how your previous experience has given you the skills required by the position you’re applying for, the CV will be a record of your relevant skills across your education, work experience and voluntary activities. In the cover letter, on the other hand, you can highlight the particular projects or work experiences you most want the employer to notice, and highlight your most impressive accomplishments, your most relevant skills and your key selling points.

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The Basics: Cover letters

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter (sometimes called a covering letter or supporting statement) allows you to personalise your job application and explain your CV, explaining your motivation for the job, your enthusiasm for the particular role and, most importantly your understanding of the organisation that you are applying to. You should always send a cover letter with your CV unless you are told otherwise. 

  • It’s a single page letter, which is a tailor-made personal statement for a particular job and organisation.
  • A cover letter is not just a repeat of your CV.
  • The advice below is also applicable when completing an application form and responding to: ‘Please use the space below to indicate why you feel that you are suitable for this post, including details of relevant skills and experience’ (but this will not be addressed to a named individual).

How do I write a cover letter?

Your cover letter should have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Beginning:

  • Address your cover letter to a named contact whenever possible to show you have sent it to them personally. You will usually find these details in the application pack – make sure you have spelt them correctly!
  • A clear introduction – explain who you are (e.g. a recent QMUL graduate), what position you are applying for, and how you heard about the role.

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Application advice – Covering Letters for Science Students

As an Application Adviser who works primarily with the School of Engineering and Materials Science at QMUL, I meet a lot of students who are writing covering letters for jobs and internships. The problems these students encounter are by no means specific to SEMS, nor even to science subjects in general, but there are some specific challenges that science students face when writing covering letters.

One of the main difficulties is finding a balance between technical detail and marketing your more general skills and competencies. Many jobs in engineering require, as you might expect, a high level of technical knowledge and expertise. If this is the case then you need to demonstrate that you have these skills in your covering letter by detailing relevant experience. The trap that some students fall into, however, is to spend most of the covering letter describing, in precise technical detail, the projects they have worked on.

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About to write a Covering Letter? Read this first!

How do you make your skills stand out in a covering letter (CL)? (N.B. These tips also apply to ‘statements’ which are often required in online applications.) Since a CL is only one page long, you can’t use it to detail all of your experience. Furthermore, that’s not what employers are looking for. While your CV can be used to list most, if not all, of your valuable experience, in a CL you’re really looking to draw on just a handful of examples that you deem to be most relevant to the job you’re applying for.

The issue of relevance is very important. You should read the job specifications carefully before writing your CL (and, incidentally, it’s important that you make some effort to rewrite your CL for every job you apply for – employers can spot a ‘boilerplate’ CL that hasn’t been tailored to their job profile a mile off, and may well reject your application out of hand as a result). Think about how your experience matches what they’re looking for. You should start with the skills which then lead you to the experiences, not the other way around. For instance, if the job profile places a high emphasis on communication skills, problem-solving and teamwork, you should make these core skills the basis of your CL. This makes things much clearer to the person reading your CL than simply running through your work experience, with a few references to the skills thrown in as an afterthought.

Let’s say you were to begin with communication skills. You could start with something along the lines of ‘I have excellent communication skills, as demonstrated by…’ and then give one or two examples of experiences where you have used your communication skills. Don’t let that be enough though. You should also provide some concrete evidence of your skills, for example, if you’ve worked as a barista in a coffee shop, you could say how many customers you had to deal with on a daily basis, the types of things you had to talk to them about, or the types of questions they asked you. How did you communicate with these customers? How did you deal with their problems? This detail is what makes the difference between a candidate with a provable track record and one who looks like he or she is simply repeating what’s been stated in the job profile. ‘I have excellent communication skills’ or even ‘I have excellent communication skills, as shown by my experience working in a coffee shop’ is simply not enough to impress your prospective employer.

Having said all this, a CL can only be so long, and if the job profile has mentioned quite a few skills, you don’t have to refer to all of them in your CL. Target the ones you think are the most important, and the rest you can highlight in your CV.

Once again, if you’re unsure about your CL, you can book an appointment with the Careers & Enterprise Centre. We’d be very happy to help you!

Tips for Covering Letters, Part 1

So you need to write a covering letter but have never had to do one before and have no idea where to start. Well take a look at our advice to help you write the type of covering letter that will make an employer really want to interview you!

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Where do I start?

Covering letters are generally no more than one page long, and even then, employers do not want to see a ‘maxed out’ page with narrow margins and a tiny font size.

So, while you need to get as many of your skills and competencies across as you can, you also need to do it in a way that isn’t over-wordy, rambling or vague.

One of the biggest problems students encounter when writing covering letters is how to express their desire to work for a particular company and in a particular position.

Many students have a tendency to either:

  • Give generic reasons as to why they want a career in, say, finance, without tailoring it to the specific company they’re applying to
  • Simply regurgitate material about the company they’re applying to (e.g. ‘Morgan Stanley is a world leader in the finance sector’) without stating why they want to work for them

The first mistake demonstrates a lack of knowledge about the company. There are plenty of ways of finding this information. You can check the company’s website (the ‘News’ or ‘About Us’ or ‘Company Ethos’ sections are particularly useful here), but you can also find news articles about the company elsewhere on the web (so long as they’re not negative!) to see what they’ve been up to recently.

To avoid the second mistake you need to think about why you want to work for this company. Be honest with yourself. Jot down some reasons. Read them through and ask yourself, if you replaced that company’s name with another company’s name, would it still make sense? If it would, you need to be more specific.

Try to relate your desire to work for a particular company (and why you’re the right candidate for that particular position) with specific, relevant information about them. For example: ‘As a representative of Queen Mary’s environmental society, Morgan Stanley’s commitment to sustainable investment particularly appeals to me’.

In the next part of this blog, I’m going to look at how you can make the most of your skills in a cover letter, and also relate them specifically to what’s been asked for in the job profile.

Of course, if you’re unsure about your covering letter, or any other aspect of a job or placement application, feel free to book an appointment with the Careers & Enterprise Centre. We’d be more than happy to help!

The Basics: Cover Letters

A cover letter is the opportunity for you to stand out from the crowd and impress an employer. It is the place to explain your motivation to do the job, your enthusiasm for the particular role and, most importantly, demonstrate a clear understanding of the organisation that you are applying to.

‘Little things are infinitely the most important.’ according to Sherlock Holmes. This is the key to an effective cover letter. Always include specific and relevant information about yourself to make you stand out.

QM Careers can guide you through this but you will need to create a draft version before booking a cover letter check with a Careers Consultant. Always remember to bring the original job description to each appointment.

What is it?

A cover letter is not just a repeat of your CV.

It is a single page letter, never longer than an A4 page, which is a tailor-made personal statement for a particular job and organisation.

A well written cover letter must always convey a competent and professional attitude.

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How do I write a Cover letter?

Clue A: Why them?

Always research the company before you start writing. Identify what it is that makes you a good fit for the organisation and use hard factual evidence to illustrate this. Avoid any blatant flattery or vague statements.

Clue B: Why you?

Impress the employer that you have the skills, experience and personal attributes for this role. Illustrate your unique selling points with three or four concrete examples rather than try to cover everything. Make yourself memorable – employers often read up to 1000 cover letters at a time which means that you need to include evidence that will make you stand out.

Clue C: Be professional

Your cover letter is a professional business document. It must be well presented and contain zero spelling errors. Always make sure you get someone with a good eye for detail to proofread your letter.

Clue D: Gaps in your CV?

Deal positively with any gaps or weaknesses in your CV. Explain the reasons you may have taken longer to finish your degree by using positive language ie this demonstrates resilience when faced with challenging situations.

More help?

Take a look at these websites to ensure that you understand the importance of a well written cover letter before you start to write your own version.

http://www.careerstagged.co.uk//files/pdf/Cover_Covering%20Letter.pdf

http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cover_letters.htm