Covering letters. Can there really be just four things you need to write about…?
Whether you call it a “Supporting Statement”, a “Cover Letter” or a “Covering Note”, the thought of writing one fills many job-seekers with dread. In fact, they cause lots of people to just give up. “I’ve already put so much effort into my CV”, you’re thinking, “What can I possibly say in a supporting statement that I haven’t already said in my CV?”. It helps to understand what CVs and cover letters are for, because their purposes are subtly different. Your CV shows a hiring manager that you have the skills and experience to do the job. A cover letter persuades them to hire you.
Make it as easy as possible for a hiring manager to choose you. You have to imagine that it’s Friday afternoon, yours is the 50th covering letter they’ve seen that day, their goldfish just died and they are looking for an excuse to stop looking at your application and go home. If you send them a generic cover letter which is clearly a template – “Dear [INSERT NAME HERE], I wish to apply for the role of [INSERT TITLE HERE] at [INSERT COMPANY HERE] as I truly feel I would be an asset to your company”, followed by a re-hash of your CV – you will probably be thrown straight in the rejected pile along with a stack of identical letters from other candidates. You need to write a personalised letter which you couldn’t write to any other organisation… and which they couldn’t receive from any other candidate. Oh, and it should be about a page in length.
This is a terrifying prospect for most people. We don’t really write letters any more. We write 140-character tweets (sorry, 280 now!), or send e-mails from a company template, or text “heading home now xx” to our family. And we’re asking you to write a personalised and persuasive letter a page long? It’s no wonder so many people despair when they see that a supporting statement is necessary – how much work is this going to take?
Luckily, there is a shortcut to creating a convincing and customised supporting statement. There are just four things you need to write about. The order you mention them isn’t important, and some of them will blur into each other, but if you cover these things you’ll have written a letter which you couldn’t write to anyone else, and which they couldn’t receive from anyone else. Those things are:
- Why you’d be good at the role
- Why you want the role
- Why you’d be good at the organisation
- Why you want to work at the organisation
Why you’d be good at the role
This is the part of the cover letter that most people are quite good at. If you have a generic cover letter that you send to everyone, you’ve probably already made quite a good start on this. To write this part, take a look at the job description and draw out the key themes – what are the main skills and attributes they’re asking you to have? Now talk about how what you’ve done in the past shows that you have those skills. Don’t just repeat your CV – instead, signpost towards it. So say something like “I’ve had extensive experience in training people on new systems”, and leave your CV to explain the details of which systems they were.
Why you want the role
These next three parts are the bits that people tend to leave out. For this particular section, again look at the job description – what is it about the tasks they will ask you to do that appeals to you? Maybe you’ve really enjoyed administrative work in the past, or are keen to develop your skills in project management. Tell the reader what it is that you think you’ll enjoy, learn, and otherwise get out of the job. You could say “I have always enjoyed managing client relationships”, or “I look forward to developing my skills in organisational development under such a prestigious organisation”.
Why you’d be good at the organisation
This section and the next are very similar and you may find they blur into one when you’re writing your letter. Have a look at the organisation’s website, Google, the news, and any other sources that you can find that will tell you what the organisation is like. Find out about their work, their values and their culture. Figure out what it is about those things that are similar to what you’ve done in the past, and tell the reader why you would be a good fit there. Sentences like “Your work with disadvantaged young people is very similar to the work I was supporting at my previous employer”, or “I believe I would be a good fit at your organisation because your reputation as a values-led employer is similar to places I have worked in the past” could work well here.
Why you want to work for the organisation
This final section is very similar to the previous one. You’re still finding out about the organisation’s work, values and culture, but now instead of talking about what you’ve done in the past, talk about what appeals to you about what they do. This could be something like “I enjoyed reading about your organisation’s commitment to diversity, as this is something which is personally incredibly important to me” or “I believe the work your organisation does in the field of patient care is incredibly valuable”.
The beauty of this method is that you will write a letter which is entirely personal to you. Very recently we gave the same advice to two very different candidates. One was a very confident, outspoken young man who produced a letter full of emotion and energy. The other was a more reserved, quiet young woman, who produced a far more measured and instructive letter. Both letters were excellent and showed the writers’ personalities, and they were both offered interviews. If you remember the four points above you will be more likely to create something which catches a hiring manager’s eye, and ensures they don’t just throw your application in the rejected pile straight away.
To find a role to put your new letter-writing skills to the test take a look at our latest jobs.
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