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Guide: How to Write a Cover Letter That Stands Out  

A cover letter is your chance to make a good impression with a potential employer. With that in mind, here we offer a complete guide to the best practice with cover letters and how to write one that stands out.

Annette Corbett
Annette Corbett
Annette Corbett is a freelance writer, and contributor to 55 Redefined, Reworked and more recently Raconteur for The Times.

So, you’ve made the decision to change up your career. You might be returning to work after a break, looking to work for a different organisation or maybe try out a completely different industry or role. Whatever the reason, we have you covered!

If you’re ready to start applying for roles, you’ll need an updated CV. Some applications also require a cover letter but it’s entirely possible to apply for most roles without one. But if you want to stand out from other candidates and give your application the best chance of success, it’s critical to have a cover letter in your professional toolkit.

What is a Cover Letter?

Covering letters need no introduction for anyone that remembers the job application process in the world “before digital”. You’d find a job you liked the sound of and send a copy of your CV, together with a letter addressed to the hiring manager, in detail that ranged from “please find attached my CV in respect of the Office Junior role” to a more comprehensive introduction (if you felt so inclined).

The process for applying for a job is now predominantly online and the prompt to include a cover letter can appear to be rather arbitrary.

Why It’s Important to Include a Cover Letter

You wouldn’t email someone you’ve never met without introduction. Sending your CV to a hiring manager without providing a cover letter is like [insert analogy]. And while it may feel like an arbitrary step, given online applications rarely ask for a cover letter (and just provide the opportunity to upload your supporting documents), you will be the candidate that stands out for having gone that extra mile.

Now that we have dealt with the etiquette let’s consider all the reasons your cover letter maybe the difference between securing an interview, or not:

  • Offers an explanation of any career breaks
  • Evidence your skills strengths (particularly important where you aren’t an “obvious fit” for the role) and any transferable skills that may not be clear just from looking at your CV
  • Goals and ambitions relating to the role (for example, a course you have signed on for to give you greater knowledge of a particular area or skill)
  • Why you want to work in this industry/for this organisation
  • Why you stand out from the crowd (any other supporting information that wouldn’t be obvious from your CV

Things to Consider Before You Draft Your Cover Letter

Writing a cover letter isn’t about providing an arbitrary introduction to your application for a role. This isn’t about being polite. This is the supporting evidence for your CV. A hiring manager may first scan your CV, then look to your cover letter for any clarifying detail, for example, if you have applied for a role that is senior to your existing one, have you got any formal qualifications or voluntary experience to support that step up?

And here’s the thing. Hiring managers are pressed for time and will generally scan your CV rather than scrutinise every detail. So that recent qualification or voluntary experience that you outlined waaaay down in the last section of your CV, might not actually register at all. Which means your application for what is effectively a promotion, may appear to be nothing more than a bold leap up the professional ladder. And while a personal statement at the top of your CV is a great idea, and will almost certainly be seen, this shouldn’t look like a chapter from Gone with the Wind. It’s the job of the cover letter to do the heavy lifting.

Knowing what information to include is covered in more detail below, but equally important is reflecting on why you want to apply for the role, to ensure that it adequately translates on paper. For this you might try creating a mind map; a brainstorming process which helps to consolidate information and different threads of thought. Questions to ask yourself might include:

  • What appeals to you about this role? How do you see it fulfilling you (for example: skills, career development, working with or for a respected industry peer)?
  • Is there anything you particularly like about the organisation you’re applying to? Perhaps they invest in training programmes, are committed to sustainability or invest in CSR initiatives.
  • What do you think you will bring to the role from a personal and professional perspective? In case you are exceptionally modest, perhaps think back to positive feedback from your previous managers and team members, to help frame your attributes

You don’t need to add everything you come up with to your cover letter, or any of it for that matter. Just getting everything down on paper will give you a strong jumping off point to help you articulate why you should be offered an interview!

What Should Your Cover Letter Include?

So, after a little mind mapping, you’re ready to apply for your dream role and now need to consider what should go into your cover letter. Remember that each job application will likely require some unique detail to match the role, so let’s start with the standard blurb you would include with every cover letter, for example, if you have been on a career break.

Think of your cover letter as a dry run for your interview. Imagine the questions you might be asked during an interview for this role, the kind that can’t be clarified by looking at your CV. Did you take a few months off to study? If so, what did you study, how do you feel that has helped you professionally? Are you changing lanes, for example, from marketing to business development or from nursery nurse to carer? The idea here is to create complete clarity around your application, explaining any “gaps” or nuances in your backstory with zero room for ambiguity, and, of course, a little pre-interview buzz.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Career breaks
  • Skills strengths and areas you would like to develop
  • Transferable skills
  • Your personal interest in the industry/organisation - why it appeals to you
  • Any voluntary working or qualifications (even if they are not certificated, this shows your desire to self-develop)
  • DBS/security clearance verified

If you don’t feel contextual information is needed, it’s a good idea to express your motivation for applying to the organisation (and a look at their website will give you a reasonable idea of their activity in the community, clients and “recent wins”).

The job description itself can provide guidance on the language you should be using in your cover letter. You will usually come across industry keywords, e.g., projects, auditing, SEO, that you should weave into your experience.

Cover Letter Examples and Suggested Length

A cover letter should ideally fit onto a single A4 page setting out in paragraphs the What, Why, When (if needed) and How:

The What

  • Opening paragraph – your reason for writing to the hiring manager, for example:

“Please find attached my resume in respect of your role for [insert dream job here].”

The Why

  • Paragraph one – your interest in the industry/organisation, for example:

    “As outlined in my resume, I have a strong background in the hospitality industry and really enjoy customer interaction (industry interest). Bert’s Burgers has an impressive track record for service excellence, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss how I can contribute (organisation interest).
  • Paragraph two – brief overview of your skills, education and training, for example:

The When – optional

  • Paragraph three – any career break or gaps between jobs that are longer than three months, for example:

“During the period between 2013-2017 I had a career break, to [raise my children/care for my elderly parents/travel Australia/study Marketing & Communications at Falmouth University]”

The How

  • Paragraph four – conclusion

In the final paragraph you should reiterate your interest in the role, share availability to interview and offer to clarify any details in your application. It may also be worthwhile including your mobile and email contact details for ease of reference, together with your address (which you would include at the top of the cover letter):

“I’m very interested in this role and would welcome the opportunity to discuss further. I am available for online interviews before 9.00am, after 5.00pm and during the hours of 12.00 and 2.00pm. If you are conducting in-person interviews, please could I have a couple of days' notice to organise availability?

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like clarification on any aspect of my application. My contact number is xxx and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Who Should Your Cover Letter be Addressed to?

It’s always preferable to have a name to whom you can address your cover letter and the job description may include the role of the person you will be reporting to (and presumably be interviewed by) - details of which you will be able to find on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is also a great resource to reach out to Talent contacts in the organisation who you may be able to ask for those specific details.

In the event you are do not have an addressee, writing to The Hiring Manager is one option, as explained – along with other advice – in the article, 3 Tips on How to Address a Cover Letter Without a Recipient Name.

Cover Letters and Using Employment Agencies

We’ve covered the kind of detail needed when applying for a role direct to a company and the basis for your cover letter. There is a chance you’ll also use employment agencies to secure a role for which you’ll usually be asked to share a brief overview of your experience and salary expectations. It’s less likely you will use a cover letter when using an agency but it’s important to provide them with those clarifying points.

Remember the importance of tweaking details for every job you apply for, as you want to avoid appearing generic in your application. Also remember to run the spell check and ask a friend or family member to read your letter as it’s always good to have a second opinion.

Then, go get ‘em!

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