Why am I writing this?
I am a recruitment consultant: my job is find talented people who are looking for work and convince my clients to hire them. The ability to write a good cover letter is therefore pretty important, more so because it is the one area in which my applicants continually struggle irrespective of their experience, intelligence, or communications skills.
Why should you read it?
I won’t lie – this will take you a couple of minutes to read and digest, but it will enable you to write shorter, better cover letters in less time, and with ever increasing ease each time you write one.
What’s the problem?
- Not everyone understands what the purpose of writing a cover letter is (more on that below).
- Too many of the cover letters I read come across as vanity exercises designed to make the author look amazing rather than speak to the needs of the reader.
- The people I recruit are busy professionals. Few of them have the time to painstakingly put together the perfect cover letter: they need to be able to do it quickly.
So, what is the purpose of a cover letter?
First of all, let me tell you what it is not. It is not just a summary of your CV. It is a letter to your prospective employer, persuading them that the contents of your CV are authentic and relevant to the job you are applying for. This is not always self-evident, especially when you are relying on transferable skills rather than experience to get you hired.
What makes a cover letter persuasive?
This is where most cover letter guides hit a brick wall by telling you what you need to do, but failing to provide a workable system for actually doing it. So, here’s the system I use when applying for jobs.
- Pick 3 points to prove
Before you start typing, work out what you plan to prove in your letter. The rule of thumb in recruitment is that employers judge CVs and cover letters against the top two items in the person specification, so your first two points will be proving you meet these criteria. Finally, they will need to know why you want the job, which will be your third point.
- Explain why they matter
In short, how do your skills and experience help the organisation you want to work for do what it was set up to do? The facts and figures backing up your achievements will only prove you’re talented. Explaining why they matter will prove you are useful. Also, what motivates and interests you and why does that make you want to work for them?
- The nutshell test
If you truly understand your argument (in this case why you are right for the job), you should be able to summarise it in a single paragraph. This is true whether your letter is one page long or 100 pages. This is a particularly useful technique as the best cover letters are also the shortest and boil down the most important points into just one or two paragraphs.
- The Jeopardy test
Just as the gameshow Jeopardy requires contestants to guess the question by looking at the answer, give your cover letter to someone who doesn’t know what job you’re applying for and see if they can guess what it is. If they guess your current job (and the job you’re applying for is different) then you need to have another stab at it.
Begin by saying how you found out about the job and what you intend to prove. The next two paragraphs should focus on what you can offer the organisation (points 1 and 2) and why you want to work there and why now (point 3). The order you put these in is up to you. If you have an extra selling point that wouldn’t normally be enough to include in your top three points – such as relevant voluntary work – you may want to add an extra paragraph. The final paragraph should simply tell the reader where they can find your CV and how soon you can be available.
How will this make writing a cover letter quicker?
First, it will be shorter at just 4-5 paragraphs and most definitely no longer than one page. Second, by basing it around the three most important points you plan to make, you only really have to sit down and think about how to write a couple of paragraphs as opposed to a whole letter.
How will this lead to a better cover letter?
By focusing on quality not quantity and putting the employer at the centre of your pitch rather than yourself. More importantly, a cover letter written with such clarity and concision just makes the hiring manager’s life easier and if you make life easier for others, then that makes you useful.
What does a persuasive cover letter written in 15 minutes look like?
This is a cover letter I wrote myself when applying for a job with a charity a couple of years ago. The way I know it made an impact on the hiring manager is that I asked her at my interview why she wanted to meet me and she specifically cited this cover letter.
It’s by no means perfect – for instance, I really shouldn’t start paragraphs with questions and several of my sentences are too long – but it worked and I have stuck to much the same structure ever since, securing several interviews in the process up until landing my current job.
Sample Cover letter:
I saw this position advertised today on w4mp.org and I instantly had to apply. Allow me to explain how I would contribute to Free the Children’s incredible work and why I would love to be part of it. You will also find my CV enclosed for details of my skills and career history.
First, a confession: I was not aware of Free the Children before I saw this position advertised, so I will not pretend otherwise. However, it only took a single reading of your website to get excited about this position as I have spent the last year embarking on near identical projects already and cannot think of a better way to put my experience and knowledge to good use.
Me in a nutshell: I am a public speaking and debate trainer; I divide my time between running my own business and working part time as a recruitment consultant; I volunteer in excess of 20 hours a month to my passion on promoting active citizenship; and I have just returned from Rwanda where I led a team of volunteers to deliver a national debate training programme for 140 children from 20 schools across the country.
Why am I applying now? After 1.5 years of doing what I love most through my own business, while working four days a week to sustain myself, I have reached the conclusion that the best way for me to continue on this path is to return to a full time position with a company that shares my values and ambitions and learn from the best.
What can I offer Free the Children? My biggest asset is my connection to the public speaking circuit through which I have been able to organise events in investment banks, schools, universities, and the Houses of Parliament, recruiting an array of different speakers from ambassadors to journalists and MPs. My experience as a public speaking trainer means I am also well placed to qualify potential speakers to ensure they are well matched to their prospective audiences. Finally, in the events I have hosted, I have also been responsible for writing speaker profiles, introducing speakers, and chairing debates and discussions.
If you feel that my skills and experience would be of benefit to your organisation and help you to help others, then please do let me know.
I can be available for telephone or face to face interviews at short notice and I have a four week notice period, which can be negotiated down if necessary.
Thank you for your consideration.
Tony Koutsoumbos is a consultant for I Am Enteprises and specialises in recruiting fundraisers for charities and social enterprises.
If you found this article useful, visit the I Am Enterprises website for more.