How to write a killer cover letter for a job application

How to write a killer cover letter for a job application

Ed Palmer

Ed Palmer
2nd January 2019

It’s stressful looking for a job. But hiring managers deserve a little sympathy, too.

They have to sift through hundreds of applications to find just a few promising candidates – and they usually start by reading hundreds of near-identical cover letters.

So if you can make their life a little easier (and hopefully impress them while doing it), you’ve got a good chance of getting your foot in the door.

This guide will take you through the basics – helping them find the right information, speaking in their language, crafting a compelling story, and thinking from their perspective.

Create a signposted structure that’s easy to digest

It’s easy to start rambling when you fire off a letter in one session.

But if you don’t pay attention to what goes where, an employer won’t have an easy time making sense of it.

Here’s a tried-and-tested formula to help give your cover letter a clear structure, as well as some examples of the signposting phrases you can use to start each section.

Make sure you include:

  • An opening one-liner, which specifies the role you’re applying for and the place where you found it.

                                                “I’m writing to you to apply for…as advertised in…”

  • A snappy elevator pitch, giving your reader a first-glance overview of who you are and why they should be interested.

                                                “With over two years’ experience in…”

  • A very brief history of a few of the relevant skills and experiences you’ve gathered up to this point, including any notable bits of education, or previous jobs or placements.

                                                “From my time as a Sales Rep, I gained…”

  • A confident (but not arrogant) speculation of your potential in the new job, where you can show your understanding of the position – and highlight how your skills would be useful.

                                                “If selected for the role, I would use these skills to…”

  • A personal statement to round things off – your ambitions, your work ethic, and your motivation to bring your valuable traits into their company.

                                                “Throughout my career, I’ve proven myself to be a…”

  • The closing formalities – with a gentle implication that you expect an interview.

                                                “I look forward to hearing from you, and to discussing my suitability with you in person.”

Choose the right tone of voice for your reader

Believe it or not, every hiring manager is a real human being.

They don’t all want to wade through a thick glue of business jargon to get a glimpse of who you are and how you’re a good fit for the job. It’s exhausting.

But unfortunately, lots of students and job-seekers tend to hide behind the terminology they think businesses want to hear.

They say they ‘facilitated’ when they really just ‘helped’. They say they ‘demonstrated their advanced interpersonal skills’ when they really just ‘kept their customers happy’.

You might think that these overly formal expressions and phrases are bolstering your professional image.

But when your cover letter is overflowing with them, they can make you look inexperienced, insecure, and lacking in confidence.

Instead, try to imagine the reader of your letter as a normal person who’s acting professionally between the hours of 9 and 5.

After all, that’s exactly what we all are.

You can show that you’re capable of using business language when you want to. But it’s also important to show that you’re capable of communicating directly on a personal level, without using complicated jargon as a crutch.

Before you start to write your cover letter, think about how you can tailor your tone of voice to match:

  • The type of industry. A law firm will expect someone who’s comfortable using formal language – but a call centre might prefer someone who can get difficult ideas across in a simple and friendly way.
  • The tone of voice the company already uses. Have a browse through the company’s website, their social media posts and the job advert you’re responding to. Are the messages colloquial or stiff? Creative or regimented? Conversational or academic? Once you see how they like to present themselves, you’ll have a better idea of how they expect their employees to present themselves.
  • The particular person you’re writing to. Are they the Head of HR or the local branch manager? Are they approaching retirement or a recent graduate? Are they wearing a suit and tie in their corporate photo, or an open-collared flower-print shirt? These small clues – while obviously just generalisations – can give you an idea of the sort of communication that might go down best.

Weave in a narrative for a sense of progression and flow

Your CV has all the hard details: dates, locations and qualifications.

But your cover letter is an overview of who you are and what you can do for your next employer. If you use it to show a continual journey of improvement, learning and success (and a positive, confident attitude), you’ll create the sense that this promising journey is set to continue in their company.

The easiest way to do this is to focus less on the what and where, and focus more on the how and why.

By talking about how you discovered what you’re good at, why you switched jobs in the past, how you improved a process or got a good result, and why you volunteered for an extra training course, you’re automatically creating links between each step in the story that led you to apply for this new position.

You’re not just reiterating what’s on your CV, or rattling off a dry list of achievements and job roles. You’re giving the reader clues to help them understand the way you think, the way you work, and the motivations for your decisions.

And just like any other story, it needs to feel real. So don’t be afraid to tell it in a way that’s:

  • Simple. ‘I helped to design a new company logo’, not ‘I assisted in the conceptualisation of a distinct new branding initiative’.
  • Specific. You weren’t just ‘finding new business leads’ – you ‘secured a leading high-street retailer who became a regular client worth £50k a year to the business’.
  • Personal and enthusiastic. ‘I was inspired and fascinated by what I learned’, rather than ‘I developed an understanding of the role’.
  • Honest. If something was challenging, then say so. Just make sure you can put a positive spin on everything: you need to show that you were able to overcome these challenges and solve any problems along the way.

Remember: it’s not really about you

Whatever you’re writing in business – a newsletter, a customer email, or a sales pitch – you should always keep things focused on the reader.

That might seem a little confusing when you’re writing a cover letter. It’s supposed to be about you, and how you’re the right person for the job you’ve applied for.

But really, you’re just the subject matter. The whole point of the cover letter is to convince the person reading that they should want to interview you.

That means that almost everything you write in your cover letter should be contributing towards answering the prime question that’s hanging in every employer’s mind: What’s in it for me?

It’s easy to slip into a self-centred mindset when you’re writing about yourself. So here are a few common examples of what your gut tells you to write – followed by how you can twist it around into a benefit for your employer:

  • ‘I’m looking for a role where I can gain valuable sales experience.’
    • I’m looking for a role where I can improve my skills in finding new leads, generating sales and maximising profits.’
  • ‘I hope to improve my accounting skills.’
    • ‘I hope to bring my growing accounting skills to your team.’
  • ‘These organisational skills would make me an ideal Project Manager.’
    • ‘These organisational skills put me in an ideal position to help you reduce the time and money your team spends on their projects.’
  • ‘Over the years, I’ve demonstrated my leadership abilities.’
    • ‘Over the years, I’ve been delighted to share my expertise and knowledge with the people around me, as well as supporting and guiding the teams I’m in as they hit and exceed their targets.’

Creating a killer cover letter can get you over the first hurdle. But there’s a lot more to getting hired than making a good impression on paper.

For more useful tips and advice – on things like CVs, social media and interview techniques – you can have a look through some of our other articles and guides to employment. And above all, good luck with your job search!