Before you read this chapter, try the CV Tips cover letter test. We'll send you a result, so you can check your current ideas about cover letters.
The cover letter is more than a ritual of the job application process. It's one of the few flexible elements in that process.
The problem for job applicants with the standardized formats is that everything tends to look very much the same. The opportunity to make your application stand out is restricted.
A cover letter allows you to add value to your application. You can provide information above and beyond the restrictions of the advertisement, and show enthusiasm and actual initiative.
You're painting a picture of yourself for the employer. You need to paint an interesting picture, something people want to look at, on its own merits.
You're also self-advertising.
What makes an ad interesting?
Content, and how it's expressed. People edit out things they think useless or unnecessary. The forget things that look average, and they react negatively to anything of poor quality.
So stick to the point, but make yourself clear. Make it obvious that you've done your homework, and put in some genuine effort in your application.
Content and expression
The most basic function of a cover letter is to say:
'I have the qualifications, skills, and experience you want. I'm good at my work, and I can prove it.'
You have a reason for wanting this particular job:
I have career goals in mind which this job can provide.
Now you add some category killers, to give your competition a standard to live up to:
'I'm a real contributor, and I can prove that, too. I add value to my job. I really care about the quality of my work. I'm not only a team player, I'm a team builder. I can show how I handle relationships in the workplace, and with clients.'
Remember, you're not doing this entirely for the mental exercise, and neither is the employer.
This is pure hard sell.
It's covering a lot of angles, and it does matter that you get your message across as clearly as possible.
The lines above can be adapted to most jobs. Just say 'I can demonstrate/show from previous experience/ …'.
Don't re-use the same expressions, if at all possible.
Enthusiasm, personal qualities, and initiative
This part of the letter is basically setting up the employer for your CV and your accomplishments.
Also known as 'interest in the job', you relate your work to yourself, your personal hobbies, skills, and previous work.
It's not 'just a job', it's something you value.
(So does the employer. Remember that. Employers don't need apathy.)
If you work in any industry, you do have some relationship with the industry. You may be an association member, an amateur in the field, a tradesman or a professional. As a worker, you also have preferences, and it sometimes helps a lot, to emphasize your preferred area of work.
Note: If you've got a low end job, you may not be able to get too worked up about being a janitor or a waiter, but you can show enthusiasm for going upscale, and that you have the skills to do it. This also covers your interest in the position.
This is extremely important.
Many jobs emphasize 'work ethic', 'personal integrity and strong ethical standards', and other personal characteristics, like honesty. Some also refer to responsibilities, meaning the personal view of those responsibilities.
Think about that.
Partly because they feel the need to add qualifiers to a job description which legally binds them to a situation when they employ someone.
However, there's a far more plausible reason.
Self defence. Some jobs are dependent on being able to trust people. The employer needs to be able to exercise judgment, and you can assume that anyone who can't handle the ethics issues probably isn't good enough for the job, by definition.
The requirement for ethical standards allow them to make the rules. It gives them a lot of discretion about how they handle applicants.
Legally, if a dispute arises about an application, it's up to them what those ethical standards are, and any other characteristics.
As far as the job application is concerned, it's a very important qualifier.
It can also mean, 'We're not kidding.'
In terms of cover letters, it also means 'We'll trash any application which doesn't address ethical standards and prove to us the applicant knows what we're talking about.'
You do need to consider personal qualities to be as important as essential criteria, which they sometimes are.
Don't ever underestimate the importance of personal qualities, when they're mentioned in a job advertisement.
Most people do.
When addressing these issues, do more than one line, and provide some depth and meaning to your response.
The (very) basic approach is that 'I work according to my personal values/religious values/professional standards.'
Add to that your own personal beliefs and feelings on the subject. You have your own ethics, obviously. People do set standards for themselves and others.
You can say 'My personal ethics are the standards by which I work and live', or 'My personal integrity in the workplace can be demonstrated by… (give examples of positions where you've been entrusted with personal responsibility.)
Initiative was mentioned in the preceding chapters regarding the CV. It also needs to be evident in your cover letter.
In the advertising trade, it's called a 'teaser'. It's a direct setup for your CV, and you need here to mention some actual achievements where your initiative can be shown, in context with the position, and your career goals.
We said earlier that your reasons for wanting the job are important to the employer, and you need to stay with that logical path.
You have the skills, the experience, the qualifications, the ethics and the career goals which this job will help you to realize, and you've done something worth advertising to the employer.
Use a case directly or closely and clearly related to the position you're applying for, and in a couple of lines add your example.
After stating how the position suits your career needs, you say:
'In my current/previous position describe role, use job title) at (wherever, it refers to info on the CV) I won top salesman/increased profit by 200%/staved off bankruptcy. I found the work very rewarding and enjoyable, and am hoping to develop my career further with this position.'
So your CV isn't going to get dull, either. The employer now has a very good reason to look at it closely.
Try it for yourself.
Write up a cover letter according to this outline, and compare it with your others. Bit different? Interesting? Clearer? Worth reading? Happier about sending it to an employer? Take the test again, see how you do.
The Golden Rule of Cover Letters.
If it's not good, useful, information, don't put it in a cover letter.