We asked a panel of career advisers how graduates can ensure their covering letter survives an employer's cursory glance and spells out why they are perfect for them.
Jo Moyle is a careers adviser at Oxford Brookes University
Draw out all the reasons you're suitable for the job and wave them under the employer's nose: It's not uncommon for graduates to worry that referring in a covering letter to experience and achievements mentioned on the CV will be repetitive and unnecessary as the recruiter will get to the CV eventually. The result can be a letter with bland, unsupported statements creating a distinctly underwhelming first impression that is anything but a good advert for the CV. A good covering letter should whet the employer's appetite to read your CV – and ultimately to meet you – by drawing their attention to your experiences and achievements which most convincingly showcase your skills and suitability for the role. No one is saying that doing this succinctly is easy – Mark Twain's famous remark "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead," says it all. But unsubstantiated, subjective claims are more likely to annoy than impress – so work out what the key pieces of evidence for your credibility are and use the covering letter to wave them under the employer's nose.
Hannah Clements is a careers guidance specialist at the University of the Arts London
Think of your covering letter as a love letter, setting out why you and the employer are perfect for each other: Make sure it is relevant to who you are writing to and what you are writing for. Generic covering letters do not work as they do not focus and give concrete examples, or enable a prospective employer to see how you fit with them. One HR professional actually suggested to me that students and graduates should be approaching employers with a covering letter that reads like a love letter. He meant that you should be writing and telling them why you are for them and why they are for you – why you are the perfect match. If you are applying for a specific role, make sure you look at their criteria and match this to your skills and experience, giving examples of where you have developed these skills. Your examples can include previous employment, course projects, volunteering, and so on. The way you present your covering letter will make a big difference as to whether it is read or not.
Phil Marsland is a careers adviser at Leeds Metropolitan University
If a letter reads well, looks and feels good then it is likely that the recruiter will identify those qualities with the candidate: Consider providing a follow-up opportunity or action "I will telephone you on the morning of…" or "I am available for interview…" Keep your letter clear and concise – preferably on one side of plain A4 paper. Remember KISS (keep it short and simple). And finally, use good quality paper and a high quality printer. If a letter reads well, looks and feels good then it is likely that the recruiter will identify those qualities with the candidate. A good covering letter will not get you a job alone but it might encourage an employer to single out your application in preference to others.
Lesley Hassall is careers information and guidance manager at the University of Wolverhampton
An uninspiring covering letter increases the risk of your CV not being read: Your covering letter is the packaging for your CV, just as the design of a bottle represents the perfume inside or the picture on a box represents the chocolates it contains. You need to take care that your letter is consistent with the style, presentation and quality of your CV, and makes the employer wants to open the packaging to find out more about you. Sadly, many people underestimate both the importance of the covering letter and the skill involved in writing a good one; this increases the risk that the employer never reads your CV at all.
Alexandra Hemingway is a careers adviser at the University of Surrey
If you don't ask, you don't get...so don't be afraid of speculative letters: Everybody hates cold calls and junk mail. Knowing how they make us feel probably explains why writing speculative job seeking letters can feel intimidating. But direct marketing is obviously worthwhile, or else companies wouldn't invest the time and money. Similarly, contacting employers gives you a good chance to get noticed, so you just have to grin and bear the potential embarrassment of putting yourself forward uninvited. Planning carefully will make your application more welcome.
Even without an advert to work from, you should be as specific as possible and tailor your approach carefully. The trick is to do your research into the target role and organisation, just like marketers do, so you give the impression of knowing your customer. This will make the reader take you seriously. Try using the company website and talking to employees, check what's been in the news and look up annual reports. Another tip to help the employer understand where you're coming from is to mention what prompted you to write, just as you'd normally state where you've seen an advert. Maybe your interest was sparked by a personal contact or a company representative who visited your university? If so, name the person and indicate their role – it's not name dropping, it's showing that you care enough to follow up on information and ideas. Anddon't be embarrassed. Receiving a well-crafted, carefully considered speculative application will probably make the recruiter's day and, after all, if you don't ask, you don't get.
Philippa Hardie is a careers adviser at the University of Chester
It is essential that you tailor your covering letter to the organisation you're applying for: A generic letter that you send out to any company advertising a suitable vacancy just won't get you anywhere except the bin. It really is worth doing your research and devoting a paragraph of your letter to why you want that job in that company. It's very easy these days to find out information about any organisation by doing your research on the internet. See if the company has a mission statement or an operational strategy. If it runs a graduate scheme, try to find out what the current trainees say about their jobs. There are usually quotes on the website. Don't regurgitate what you read in your letter as that will be spotted straight away, but you can pick out salient points so that the employer knows you've bothered to find out what they do in more detail. Make sure you mention the name of the company at least once and, if relevant, say something about the location of the job and why that is important to you. Employers can't fail to be impressed by your level of research.
Lizzie Dove is head of careers and employment at the University of West London
How to survive an employer's cursory glance at your cover letter…
- Time spent on making your cover letter look good visually is bound to enhance your chances of getting your letter read. Use standard business letter layout and don't forget to use 'Yours sincerely' and 'Yours faithfully' correctly.
- Address your covering letter to the right person as failure to do so has the potential to annoy the reader. It could also cast a doubt about your attention to detail or indeed your failure to find out how the company operates and who exactly is hiring you. Use of a title such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr and so on is usually most appropriate in the first instance.
- Make it clear which position you are applying for and make reference to how you heard about the job, as this helps with a company's marketing and it may be a small plus for you that you mentioned it.
- If you are asked to attach your CV and covering letter to an email, it is important to remember that your email is the first impression you make. That includes your email address, so it is best to avoid anything quirky in your address which may cause hilarity but won't get you the job. Keep the communication formal as in your covering letter and don't be tempted to use "hi" and "bye" and other casual English just because you're writing an email.
- Finally, before sending do a final check to make sure your letter will survive all aspects of the 'first impression' test, giving you the best chance of success in the rest of the recruitment process.