The Covering Letter
Rachel Bishop-Firth is a Personnel Manager with long experience of recruiting managers and professionals to a wide variety of senior roles.
WHAT YOUR LETTER NEEDS TO ACHIEVE
CVs and application forms should always be sent off with a covering letter or email. This is partly as a courtesy to the reader. It lets them know why you are writing in, and which vacancy you are applying for. However, your covering letter should be much more than a kind of compliments slip. The covering letter should:
- introduce you to the recruiter
- give them brief details of what you have to offer
- persuade the recruiter to read your CV
- give a great first impression.
Your covering letter or email will be the first thing from you that the employer sees, and will often be the deciding factor in whether or not the recruiter reads your CV. It is worth investing time in getting your covering letter right.
Question and answer session
‘Some recruiters must get hundreds of CVs every day. Do they really read the covering letters?’
Not all recruiters read covering letters particularly now that most CVs are emailed. However, many recruiters do, and they may decide whether or not to look at the CV itself on the basis of your letter. This is particularly true for speculative CVs. Always take the time to create a professional covering letter.
‘Do I still need to use covering letters now that I send all my CVs by email?’
Your CV should be sent out as an electronic attachment to an email which contains the same information that your covering letter used to. Because email is a relatively informal medium it may be appropriate for your covering email to be shorter and less formal than your covering letter used to be. It is usually best not to attach the covering letter as a separate document, as it is much less likely to be read.
What your covering letter should contain
Like your CV, the covering letter should be short and to the point. If it is sent on paper, it should easily be contained on one side of A4 and if it is emailed it should be even shorter. It will usually consist of three paragraphs containing the following information:
- why you are writing to the recruiter
- how the employer would benefit from taking you on
- a closing paragraph stating your wish to meet with the recruiter and an indication of when you could attend an interview.
Where your covering letter is an email to which your CV is attached, this information can be compressed into less than three paragraphs.
PARAGRAPH 1: INTRODUCING YOURSELF TO THE EMPLOYER
The first paragraph of the covering letter:
- greets the reader
- tells them why you are writing in.
Getting the introductions right
Applications should ideally be sent to a named individual, especially if you are sending in a speculative CV. A manager is more likely to read something that is addressed to them personally, and they are much more likely to read it if you have spoken to them about it first (see Chapter 1).
However, many companies with automated electronic systems for processing CVs no longer publish the name of an individual that applications should be sent to. Where an organisation does not name an individual in their advertisement or recruitment information, it is perfectly acceptable to email your CV into the central address provided with no reference to an individual.
Grabbing the reader’s attention
The first paragraph needs to let the reader know why you are writing to them. If you are sending in a CV in response to an advertisement, you need to:
- identify exactly which vacancy you are interested in (there may be several)
- give the title and date of the publication in which the advertisement appeared
- quote any reference number given in the advertisement.
If you are making a speculative application, the first paragraph should say what kind of work you are looking for.
This, however, is just the bare minimum of information that any job hunter should give as a courtesy. Senior people need to go further. You need to use this opportunity to get the reader’s attention and sell yourself to them. In this paragraph you should:
- remind them of any contact you have had in the past (this makes it much more likely they will read on)
- express your great interest in working for them.
If you have spoken to the recruiter about the possibility of working with them, refer back to the conversation and thank them for taking the time to speak to you.
It was good to meet you last week at the Software Engineering conference. I was very interested by what you had to say about the possibility of contract work with Megaco...
Dear Miss Smith,
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me yesterday about your vacancy for a Store Manager in your Reading outlet...
Showing a real interest
The next step is to demonstrate both that you have a knowledge of what the company needs and your interest in working for them. For example:
- have watched your recent rapid expansion in the insurance market with great interest...
- As an experienced software engineer, I was very interested to hear that your company is diversifying into the production of software packages for the small business market...
Your interest must sound genuine, so don’t go over the top. If you tell the employer that your life’s ambition has been to gain a job in the accounts department of Consolidated Widgets, they are unlikely to believe you. Don’t use identical phrases on all the letters that you send out. You will need to find out the real issues facing the company if you are to establish any credibility.
Question and answer session
‘I am very busy in my current job and simply don’t have time to do research into each company that I apply to. What should I say in this section?’
If you don’t have the time to do some real research, then don’t try to guess the challenges of the company. Remember that you will be talking to the experts in that particular field! You could simply say ‘I was very interested by your advertisement for a Marketing Manager in ‘The Daily Echo’...’ However, the more you can show that you know about the company, the greater your chances of being called for interview. And the more senior you are, the more you will be expected to know if you are going to stand a chance of being selected.
Remembering the employer’s interests
Remember that employers will be interested in how you could help them – not in how they could further your career. The reason you are telling the recruiter how interested you are is because employers benefit from taking on people who are enthusiastic about the job on offer. Avoid using the following approaches:
- I feel that I would be able to gain valuable experience with your company...
- Having gained several years of experience in business law, I am now keen to develop my career further in a large partnership such as yours...
- This is an area in which I have always wanted to develop my skills...
PARAGRAPH 2: SAYING WHAT YOU HAVE TO OFFER
In the second paragraph, tell the employer how they would benefit from taking you on. It is this paragraph that is going to be of most interest to the recruiter and will make them decide whether or not they are going to read your CV. Draw the recruiter’s attention to two or three of your key selling points that will be of most interest to them. Keep this brief – if you try to rewrite everything on your CV, the important points will be lost in a mass of detail.
Presenting your skills and experience
Avoid empty hype. Give concrete information on the skills and experience that you have and perhaps some information on one of your major achievements – something to get the reader’s attention and make them look at your CV to find out more about you. For example:
- During my three years as production manager with Able Engineering, I reduced product defects by 30% ...
- As you can see from my CV, I have worked in retailing for five years...
- I am a seasoned petroleum engineer, with experience of working in North Africa and the Middle East...
Choose points that will be of particular interest to the company, perhaps because you have specific skills which that company needs, or because in your work for another organisation you have solved a problem that the recruiter now faces. The more senior the post, the more you will need to show that you understand the opportunities and challenges facing the new organisation.
While you want to show awareness of the challenges that the recruiting company is facing, avoid saying straight out that you understand that they have a problem. Managers will know only too well the problems that they face and will not enjoy being told outright that (for example) their organisation is overstaffed and customer complaints are going through the roof. This is especially true if these areas are their responsibility. Keep your statements neutral. For example:
- While at Zedco Limited, I reduced staff costs by 25% ...
- / have extensive experience in improving customer service in a competitive marketplace...
Avoid lecturing the employer on how to run their business. All too many covering letters include statements such as ‘reducing overheads is important to the efficient running of a business or improving customer service will be vital if your business is to succeed...’. You can assume that the employer already knows this!
Making sure your CV backs your letter up
Your covering letter will be telling the employer about your extensive experience, skills and achievements. To maintain your credibility, make sure that all the claims you make are backed up with evidence in your CV.
PARAGRAPH 3: SETTING THE SCENE FOR THE NEXT STAGE
Don’t let your letter or email tail off with a lame ‘yours sincerely’. Close with a strong positive phrase setting the scene for the next stage – the recruiter asking you to attend an interview. For example:
- / would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further. I will be on leave in the UK between 1st and 14th June and could attend an interview at any time during this fortnight.
- / look forward to meeting you and could attend an interview at short notice.
Question and answer session
‘I read an American book which suggested that you should tell the employer that you look forward to meeting them and will be contacting them shortly to make the arrangements. This guarantees you an interview and shows them how dynamic and proactive you are. Do you think this is a good idea?’
What looks proactive in the USA is unacceptably pushy here. Unless you’re looking for a post in cold-call sales, the recruiter is likely to decide that you just aren’t their type. Always leave it up to the recruiter to decide if they would like to see you. You could, however, follow up the speculative CV with a call to check that the employer has received your CV and to ask politely if they would like to see you.
Where you are sending a paper covering letter, the ending should be ‘Yours sincerely’ if you are writing to a named individual. If you have written to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, then the ending is ‘Yours faithfully’. Beneath this should come your signature (preferably in ink, which conveys a more professional image than biro) and then your name typed or printed in full.
Emails can be less formal. Where you have already spoken to the recruiter, it may be appropriate to end your email with ‘Best Regards’ and your name and contact details.
PRODUCING YOUR COVERING LETTER
If you are sending your covering letters out on paper, they should be produced using a word processor and high quality printer, using the same paper and font as the CV. Like your CV, your covering letter should be well laid-out, clear and easy to read. The paper should be white or cream. Never used lined paper or stationery from your existing employer.
Sue’s first attempt at a covering email is shown in Figure 10.
There is a number of areas where it could be improved:
- A letter addressed to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ is much less likely to be read than one addressed to a named individual, and the email subject is very vague.
- A covering letter should not say that you feel that you haven’t got all the skills and experience needed for the role. It should deal with your strengths.
- Sue has given one of her selling points – that she has eleven years’ experience of maintenance management. But by stating that she is a maintenance manager she is reinforcing the point that she hasn’t got experience as a. facilities manager.
- As Sue has just said that she has not worked as a facilities manager, saying that she feels she is ideally suited to the role sounds a bit presumptuous.
- Sue says that she has the right skills and background for the job but she doesn’t give any details. As this is a speculative CV, the employer may well not read further and find out what she has to offer.
- A covering letter or email should concentrate not on what the company can offer you but on what you can offer them. This is what a recruiter is interested in!
Sue’s final covering email (see Figure 11) has a very much higher chance of success:
- Sue has found out which company is going to occupy a new office complex being built in her area, identified the property manager within that company and spoken to him to ascertain that he will need a facilities manager. Her CV is going to the right person and there is a very good chance that it will be read. The subject of the email is stated clearly which will make it easy for it to be identified.
- Sue has set the right tone by thanking Alan Green for taking the time to speak to her. The reader is also tactfully reminded of what their discussion was about.
- Sue shows that she can offer the skills that Pizza Place needs in getting the new head office up and running and expresses enthusiasm for the job.
- The email finishes in a positive manner, and points the way for Alan Green to invite her for interview.
- Have you identified who or where to send your CV to?
- Does your letter/email express enthusiasm at the idea of working for the employer?
- Does your letter/email show a genuine understanding of the needs of the business?
- Have you shown the employer what you can offer them?
- Does your letter/email have a strong positive ending?
POINTS TO CONSIDER
- 1If you were a recruiter, what would you want to see on a covering letterror email?
- 2What would get your attention and make you read further?
- 3What would make you delete the email or throw away the letter with the CV unread?