Let’s get a show of hands: Have you ever sent the same generic cover letter to multiple employers?
I’ll confess: I’m guilty. (And this is despite being a professional writer.)
I’d be surprised if most people haven’t done this at some point out of desperation, boredom or sheer exhaustion.
The reality is, when you’re trudging through the job search process (particularly while still working 9 to 5), the last thing you feel like doing when you get home is to bang out cover letter after cover letter, trying to sell yourself to someone who’s never even met you.
Surely your resume and your qualifications are enough?
You probably don't need me to tell you – they’re not.
An exceptional cover letter, however, tailored to the job at hand, is a surefire way to stand out from other candidates, getting you one step closer to landing the job.
Hiring managers wade through hundreds of generic applications, and your cover letter is your chance to grab their attention and shout from the rooftops that you are the perfect fit for the role. If you do that, it's impossible for them to ignore you.
But if you’re not a writer (or even if you are!) a standout cover letter can be hellishly difficult to write. A cover letter template might get you started, but it’s not something you can just copy verbatim. As a starting point, it's great, but you still have to chip away at it until it’s unrecognisable from the original, and polish it enough to make your words fly off the page.
But how? You ask.
Don't stress - I'm here to help!
Having looked through hundreds of cover letters over my career, I've learned what works and what doesn't.
How do you squeeze all this onto one page?
My formula will help you nail every cover letter, every time. I’ve added a few great examples as inspiration – don’t copy and paste them, of course! – the idea is to be original and find what works for you.
When you start your cover letter like this:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing to apply for the Marketing Coordinator position, as advertised on SEEK.
You’re pretty much saying this:
I know I need to submit a cover letter so here it is. I couldn’t be bothered customising it to fit this job because I’m not sure it’s worth the time. I’ll do my research once you invite me for an interview.
And we don't want that, do we?
Let’s be honest – if you’re bored while you're writing your letter, you can bet that your prospective employer is going to be bored reading it – right before tossing it in the bin.
You need to start with a bang – get them hooked and wanting to read more. The first few sentences of your cover letter are the most valuable real estate on that page – so don’t squander them! Here’s an opening that distils the essence of the job:
It’s clear that you require somebody who can not only write extremely well but also speak persuasively – somebody who is confident, charismatic, and communicative. I believe I am just the person you need.
Once you’ve got them reading, you can convince your potential employer that your background and skills are perfect for the role.
Newsflash: when hiring managers are knee deep in recruitment, they don’t have every detail of the job description memorised. Use this to your advantage, and mirror the language of the advertisement as much as possible to show how your skills and experience align with the role at hand. So even if your previous job referred to article production as ‘copywriting’, if the new job description calls it 'blogging' – guess what? – you should call it blogging too.
Let’s say the job description calls for someone who is naturally organised and can manage the calendar of 2 senior business executives, your cover letter could say:
The Personal Assistant role is right up my alley as I have over 12 years of experience assisting senior business executives, and nothing brings me greater satisfaction than a well-organised calendar.
Obviously you shouldn’t overdo this, but where possible, show that you’re a perfect match by using keywords and phrases that marry up with the skills outlined in the job description. This will resonate with the hiring manager, and also force you to think about (and provide examples of) where you can offer the most value.
Companies hire people, not skills. If your cover letter is conversational and friendly, it demonstrates that you’re not a robot – and that in fact you’re an awesome person that people will actually want to work with. This simple tweak will make your cover letter shine.
Here’s an example of what NOT to do:
I possess an excellent understanding of customer service. I am adept at training staff in retention and customer satisfaction to achieve company objectives. I am very confident in planning and delivering on targets.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the above example, it lacks pizzazz. How about tweaking it to show some personality and flair?
If you’re looking for someone that comes in promptly at 9, puts their head down and doesn’t lift it until the end of the workday, I’m probably not your guy. But if you need someone who can shake things up and infect people with their passion for customer success, I can help.
Similarly, for companies with tongue-in-cheek branding like Compare the Market/Meerkat, you could try something a little more cheeky like this:
I was absolutely devastated when I heard that you weren’t looking for meerkat sitters, and I’d never get to meet Sergei in person. So when I saw the Assistant Accountant position open up at comparethemeerkat.com.au, I jumped at the opportunity. I know I’m perfect for this job because I love numbers almost as much as I love meerkats. Simples!
The key to a great cover letter is to demonstrate your passion for the role – ideally without using the word ‘passion’. I can promise you that this is among the most overused words out there – and can seem disingenuous. (While you’re at it, you might want to nix ‘hard worker’, ‘fast learner’, ‘team player’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ too.) Here’s a typical example of this:
I am passionate about data entry and reaching my KPIs.
That’s clearly not true. Are you really passionate about either of those things?
I like to think of passion as something you’d happily do for free – and probably do anyway in your spare time. Wherever possible, show – don’t tell. Let’s try this again:
I’ve been the unofficial wedding planner for every single one of my married friends. When I saw the stylist role at Bridal Magazine, I realised that not only would I be doing something I love, for a brand I admire – but I would be getting paid for it.
The key to a stellar cover letter is to make the hiring manager’s job a little less boring. Remember: if a job is worth applying for, it’s worth a tailored and thoughtful cover letter. It will help you stand out in a sea of mediocrity, and convince the company that getting you in for an interview asap is a no-brainer.
Best of luck - you can do it!