When applying for a job, resume and cover letter are usually the first points of contact applicants will have with a prospective employer. Despite this, good candidates for a position often write themselves out of the frame simply by submitting a low-quality cover letter.
So what makes a cover letter good?
The first imperative is to closely examine the job description. What kind of work or life experience is the employer looking for? How about personal attributes? Are there any particular skills or qualifications the employer wants?
Make a list in two parts, putting ‘desirables’ in one and ‘non-negotiables’ in the other. As an example, “Familiarity with accounting software a plus” is a desirable; “Applicants must have had a minimum three years field experience” is a non-negotiable.
Keep this list handy, because in your cover letter you will work your way through it, showing how your skills, experience, and personal qualities match or exceed those that the employer is looking for.
Keep in mind that there may also be desirables that are not stated openly in the job description. To find out what these might be, it pays to do a little research into the employer and the job. It is also a good idea to discover who will actually read your letter so that you can address this person by name.
Writing the letter.
Begin by saying how you came to hear about the advertised position. If someone within the organization recommended that you apply, say so now. Introduce yourself briefly, stating what you would bring to the job.
Example 1 (Music Tutor):
Dear Mr. Jones,
I would like to register my interest in the job of Music Tutor as advertised in the Daily Sun on March 5th. As a qualified music teacher with three years experience teaching violin and piano, I would love the opportunity to bring my skills and enthusiasm to your school.
Next, refer back to the list you made from the job description and address these points to explain why you are a good fit for the position offered. Note that although you want to put a positive spin on things here, outright lying is not a good idea. You can avoid mentioning that you sometimes get grumpy with slow workmates but do not exaggerate and say you worked a job for two years when your resume shows it was only eight months. Be sensible.
Example 2 (Bar staff, night shift):
Personable, reliable, and easy to get along with, I enjoy being around people. As a student I spent eighteen months waiting tables in a café on weekends and have a solid background in the hospitality industry. I am used to late hours and my martial arts training has given me the skills and confidence to be polite but firm when dealing with intoxicated patrons.
Conclude this section by referring again to something that you would bring to the position. Be concrete if you can.
Example 3 (EFL teacher, young adults):
As an example of my commitment to excellence, the EIKEN program I developed in my current school has seen pass rates among our students increase by more than 15% over the last two years. This is the kind of energy, expertise, and can-do attitude that I would bring to your teaching team.
Following on from this you may occasionally want to briefly mention other relevant information. Perhaps you want to say that you already have a working visa, that you are willing to relocate, that you have licenses, or that the best way to contact you is by email.
Be careful here – what you may think is important could look awkward to a hiring person. This is not the time to say that you will need two smoke breaks an hour or that you have been elected president of the local Gundam appreciation society five years running. Stick to relevant and essential information that will not make you look bad.
Lastly, finish the letter by thanking the reader for the opportunity to submit the application, say that you hope to hear back from him or her soon, and sign off.
Remember that the main purpose of the cover letter is to get you an interview, so it should show why you are a good fit for this particular job. Embrace letter writing: this is a chance to impress the employer with your accuracy, your style, your word choice, and your ability to argue your case.
Finally, remember that it is better to cover inexperience by saying that you are enthusiastic and willing to learn than it is to make dubious claims. Babysitting, for example, does not count as work in early-childhood education, and nor does having once had a home-stay brother or sister qualify as hospitality experience.
Things Do To:
- Write clearly and accurately.
- Use full sentences and correct grammar.
- Be confident, but not arrogant or boastful.
- Keep the length to one page or less if you can.
- Check spelling, and stick to American or British conventions as appropriate.
- Get someone else to read your letter and give you feedback.
- Use appropriate industry jargon if you know it.
- Show that you have done a little extra research around the job.
Things Not To Do:
- Do not use haughty words (heretofore, aforementioned, thusly, etc).
- Do not start every sentence with “I”.
- Do not use contractions (I’m, don’t, he’s, etc.).
- Do not use exclamation marks or try to be overly funny.
- Do not criticize your current or former employers.
- Do not use text-speak.