When you’re applying for a job, the temptation is focus all your energy on your CV and to leave the cover letter as an afterthought. Don’t!
The three stages of recruitment
Your CV is definitely the more important of the two documents, but let’s consider the first three stages in the recruitment process, when employers look at your CV and cover letter.
First comes the quick scan through, where you are one of 30 or more applicants. A recruiter will glance at your work experience and academics for perhaps 10 seconds to see if you appear to meet the basic criteria. They will not read all 30+ résumés and cover letters in detail. At the first glance, your cover letter does not matter that much.
Stage 2 is the detailed review that comes after the recruiter has been convinced that you have met the minimum application criteria. This stage is where your cover letter is almost as important as your résumé. A recruiter will read your cover letter carefully, because this is where you directly persuade them to interview you. Your résumé is more fact-based.
The third stage is when you are sitting in the interview room – at this stage, again, you can expect the cover letter to be read in detail, and you can expect the recruiter to ask you questions about its content.
The special purpose of the cover letter
The main purpose of your cover letter is to persuade a recruiter why you are right for this particular job.
Cover letters absolutely must be customised for the particular business area or position, or you are probably wasting your time because they will simply reiterate what you have said on your résumé. If you do not customise your cover letter, why bother using one at all?
The cover letter addresses the point “Why am I right for this particular position, at this particular firm, out of all those other equally well-qualified applicants?”
The three things you must include
Your cover letter will wilt without three crucial things.
1) Academics – you must make sure that they sound as impressive as they possibly can. Everyone wants to hire smart people
2) Technical detail – you have to demonstrate that you really understand how this business area works, and to convince the reader that you have the appropriate technical knowledge.
3) An explanation of why you are unique and have things that other candidates do not have.
An ideal cover letter should be between 500 and 750 words, and should appear on one page only. Brevity is generally best, so in theory shorter cover letters are better and more likely to be read (companies such as Goldman Sachs follow this principle rigorously – they insist that all cover letters meet a 300-word limit).
However the shorter you make it, the less information you will be able to include in your cover letter in order to sell yourself effectively. The right balance is around 500 to 750 words. This will allow you to say a lot about yourself, but it is still likely to get read if (a) each point you make is succinct and adds value and (b) the recruiter sees from the outset that you meet the basic criteria for applying.
The ideal structure
Because you’re tailoring them to each role and organisation, no two cover letters will be the same. However, they can all follow the same structure.
The first 20 or so words should summarise who you are and why you are applying. The next paragraph should convince the recruiter that you have researched the business area and the company, and all the remaining paragraphs should focus on either why you are an outstanding applicant, or should demonstrate technical knowledge which shows that you are more likely to be able to do the job.
Claire Crichton , RésuméRebrand