How to write great cover letters

1. Purpose of a cover letter

Recruiters don't want to hire someone who just wants a job - they want to hire someone who has a strong interest in their role.

This is important to keep in mind when you're considering whether you should include a cover letter in your next job application.

Don't miss the opportunity to convey your interest and suitability by excluding a cover letter. You don't want to be rejected for your dream job, simply because you failed to include one.

Recruitment is a process, and sending your curriculum vitae (CV) and a cover letter is the first of many steps.

These documents together fulfil one sole mission - to place you on the list of candidates who make it through to the next stage. 

Takeaway - never submit an application without a cover letter.

2. Generic or tailored?

Some applicants use a generic cover letter for all of their applications. Others make slight changes when applying for different roles, but it is still generic.

Including a generic cover letter can have a detrimental impact on how you are judged by the recruiter. It would almost be better to not include a cover letter at all.

Instead, you need to show that you are specifically applying for the job by:

  • Demonstrating you have read the job advertisement;
  • Addressing the top key selection criteria and your ability to meet these;
  • Showing a strong desire for the job (or at least want to discuss it, because it looks like it may be what you are truly after).

Takeaway - you need to tailor your cover letter to every position you apply for.

You should address each key selection criteria from the job advertisement. If you do not have this experience / qualification then say so, as it will come out anyway.

It is perfectly okay to apply for jobs where you don’t meet all the selection criteria.

However, if you do apply for job vacancies where you don’t meet all the selection criteria, you will need to address why you are applying and what might compensate for your lack of experience / qualification.

Your cover letter should not be a copy of what is in your CV. Think of yourself as a sales person. Your CV is a brochure, while your cover letter is an effective tool for highlighting why you should be considered. It tells the recruiter why they should read your CV, and what they should look out for when doing so.

At this stage, your aim is simply to avoid exclusion. Typically, 80% of all applications get rejected at this stage. 10% end up in the “maybe” pile and only 10% make it to the next round. You want to be in the last 10%.

However, you shouldn't write a lot in your cover letter. Keep it short and straight-forward. The recruiter does not want to read a novel.

Takeaway - the purpose of a cover letter is to qualify you for a phone (screening) call.

Another reason why you should write a tailored cover letter is because it makes you consider whether the role is really for you. If you decide it is not, then you will not waste your time by applying.

Don’t just apply for any random jobs you may come across. Most recruiters these days use software that immediately shows all the jobs you have applied for. At 11 Recruitment, we have candidates that have applied for 30, 50, or even more of our roles. It does not look good. The recruiter may think, "if this is the number of applications they sent to just us, how many other jobs have they applied for?"

This could give the impression that you are not a strong applicant. It raises the question, "why are you still on the market after so many applications?" It puts doubt in the recruiter’s mind.

Lastly, try to be consistent with the type of jobs you are applying for. Recruiters can often see which jobs you have applied for in the past, so they will notice if you have a scattergun approach i.e. applying for everything.

For example, if a candidate applies for the following roles, it will imply that they just want a job, and don't care what type of role it is.

  • Funeral Director
  • Bookkeeper
  • Secretary
  • Call Centre Agent
  • Customer Service Officer
  • Sales Representative

3. A separate document?

Many recruiters try to save time by going straight to your CV. If they see what they are looking for, then they will go back and read your cover letter. Not the other way around.

If they don’t find what they are looking for in your CV, they will reject your application before reading your cover letter and your efforts writing it will go to waste.

To ensure that your cover letter is read every time, you should include it as part of your CV. So when the recruiter goes to read the first page of your CV, they will instead read your cover letter.

Takeaway - make your cover letter the first page of your CV and mention that your CV is listed below.

Job hunting tips & advice

4. Cover letter DON'Ts

  • Don't hide your contact details. Include your contact details at the top of your CV, so they are easy for the recruiter to find.
  • Don't include your street address. You don't want recruiters stalking you on Google Earth, so don't include your address in detail.
  • Don't complain about recruitment agencies. Complaining about other recruitment agencies or processes will reflect poorly on your character. Don't include statements like "I have put a lot of time into my cover letter, only to have it ignored."
  • Don't mention your references. Even if you think your references are amazing, you shouldn’t mention them in your cover letter. Is it too early in the process.
  • Don't have any spelling or grammatical mistakes. Always do a spell check and reread your cover letter to make sure it is perfect. Get someone else to read it over too, before you submit your application.
  • Don't badmouth your previous employer. Complaining about your previous employer will only make you look bad. For example, stating “unfortunately, the company's owner allowed a terrible culture within the office” will make you come across as a whinger.
  • Don't state your opinion - stick to the facts. While you may consider yourself “confident” and “adept” this is your opinion, so you shouldn't describe yourself as such in your cover letter. Stick to the facts and let the recruiter form their own opinion.

5. Cover letter DO's

  • Address the person involved in hiring. Sometimes this information is available in the job advert. Alternatively, you can call the company to find out. Otherwise, address the "Hiring Manager of X Company" or "Recruiting Team of X Company."
  • Consider including a photo. If you haven’t included one in your CV, maybe add a professional photo of yourself smiling and looking friendly. This adds a personal touch, and the visual will help you make a good first impression.
  • State the position you're applying for. Not stating this will make your cover letter generic. Make you list the correct position - if you don't, it will demonstrate a lack of attention to detail. For example, you might simply state "I am writing to you regarding the position within your company for Sales Manager."
  • Show proven and qualitative success - what are your "accomplishments"? Recruiters aren't interested in self-praise. Instead, give examples of where you have demonstrated your abilities. Proven, qualitative success is more impactful than stating "I have X years of experience". Starting your cover letter with an accomplishment will also make a great first impression.
  • Apply your accomplishments to your potential employer. Address how your accomplishments can be applied to bring value to your potential employer. For example, "I am confident in my ability to deliver budget forecasting and reporting, variance analysis and streamlined processes to improve efficiency."
  • Be your own salesperson. Having a cover letter that simply states “The enclosed resume will provide you with the information regarding my employment background, training and skills” does not assist the recruiter. Instead, be your own salesman and explain why you are a great fit for the role.
  • Address your capability and interest to succeed. Acknowledge the nature of the job and highlight your capability and interest to succeed in the role. This shows you have taken the time to read the ad. For example, "Having been in my current role as a Client Liaison Manager for 5 years, I'm interested in moving into a field-based position. I believe I possess the knowledge and experience required to perform well."
  • Talk about your interest in the company. Tell the recruiter why you are interested in the company - make them feel special and tell them something unique. For example, "I am passionate about educating others on how a healthy diet can chance the way they feel. The way Company X promotes a healthy body image is something I admire and home to be part of."
  • Explain why you're seeking new employment. Hiring managers will often wonder why you are looking for a new role. Be upfront, especially if it is outside of your control. For example, "The reason for my application is because my most reason employer decided to close the business."
  • State your availability. State your interview availability, and when you can commence work. This will be appreciated, as some roles require an immediate start.
  • Thank the person reading your cover letter. Finally, thank the reader for their time by stating something along the lines of “Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing from you.”