In today's digital age, you are more likely to be writing a covering email for your application, rather than a covering letter which can be great for those people who worry about their handwriting, but many of the same problems exist whether the letter is on an email.
If you need convincing of how important a good covering letter can be, one recruiter estimated that for some jobs as many as 70% of the CVs they receive are not even read and that a good covering letter is more likely to get a candidate to the top of the pile than anything else.
If you want to make it into the 30% then getting the covering letter right is key.
Making a good first impression starts here...
You wouldn’t dream of turning up to an interview in a pair of scruffy trainers, so why some candidates still think that it’s OK to send covering letters or emails using odd fonts or with curious backgrounds is a mystery. Presenting your covering letter professionally also includes taking note of spelling, grammar and even the email address you’re sending your application from. Your friends may think firstname.lastname@example.org is funny but a prospective employer almost certainly won’t.
It's a good idea to get some early feed back. Send your letter to at least two friends to check over before you finally hit "Send". The advert should tell you who to address your reply to, if not make a polite phone call to the HR department. Then use "Dear Mr or Mrs X" and "Yours Sincerely" at the end.
Hitting the right tone
If at any point in your covering email you find yourself tempted to use a smiley face or the word "lol" then you are almost certainly missing the right tone. A good covering letter format should give a formal introduction to you as a candidate. Although email encourages informality, if you are over-familiar it can mean you end up being rejected before you begin. Finding the balance between formality and familiarity is crucial.
The other element is that your covering letter is the beginning of your sales pitch. It should convince a recruiter that you have read the job advert closely and that you have thought about how your skills fit the requirements of the job.
Providing the basic information on your Covering letter
Within your covering letter you should say where you saw the advert (which is helpful for HR departments because they know which adverts get the best response) and which job it is you’re applying for. A busy HR department will often be recruiting for several positions at the same time and it’s annoying to have to try and work out which job a candidate wants. Provide contact information in a neat signature (including telephone numbers and alternative email addresses if possible) at the foot of your email. The rest of your email should consist of three or four paragraphs summarising why you are perfect for the job.
Selling yourself and your skills
The main part of your covering letter should comprehensively reassure a recruiter that you have the skills that they are looking for. If you can do this then you will almost certainly get your CV read. Re-read the advert and select the competencies they are asking for. Don’t just repeat phrases from the advert and say "I have these skills". Instead say which experiences and qualifications that you have achieved prove that you have these skills. Personalising your pitch to the company is essential and if you are using a covering letter template it is important to tailor it carefully. Not only should a recruiter feel that you have read about their company but also that you have given thought to the role you are applying for.
If necessary, address the negatives
As your covering letter is a sales pitch you won’t want to bring up any reasons not to recruit you. That said, you may be aware that there is a significant reason that an employer would pass over your application - such as not having a degree in the requested discipline. If this is the case, then a good covering letter should confront why an employer can confidently overlook this fact. For example, a degree in a different discipline might be outweighed by the fact that you have several years of experience in a relevant field, or that you have taken professional qualifications in this area. Don’t just hope an employer won’t notice - they almost certainly will.
"Please state your preferred salary"
A dreaded question - state too high a figure and you might price yourself out of the job but position yourself enticingly low and you might be cutting your own throat. If asked it’s best not to avoid answering the question. First off you need to research your answer. What is an industry average salary for a position like this? See if you can find salary data for the company - do they pay significantly lower than average? You can use this information to settle on a figure or a salary range. Alternatively, you can simply state what your current salary is, as a guide for what you’re looking for. Ultimately, the best option is to be honest with yourself and state what you would be happy to earn. If the company won’t pay that then it would always be an issue for you anyway, so stick to your principles and emphasise there’s always room for negotiation.
A question of length
The old rule used to be that in the case of a physical covering letter, one side of A4 was sufficient; however now it’s all on email it’s difficult to give a precise word count. The fact is that it’s more important that a good covering letter format achieves certain things. Does it introduce you and say which job you’re applying for? Does it give a comprehensive response to the skills mentioned on the job advert? Does it show that you have researched the company and the role and explained why you are a perfect fit for both? Ultimately, you should be able to do all this in around four or five paragraphs.
For speculative applications the covering letter format assumes even more importance, as you’ve got to capture the attention of someone who isn’t even looking for recruits. In this instance you need to ensure that your letter explains in detail why you are approaching this company in particular, and why you feel that you would make an excellent addition to their team. It should be based on your knowledge of the company and the skills and attitudes that they look for. With a sufficiently strong letter you should stick in their minds should any positions arise. It’s important to pre-empt your speculative letter with a phone call explaining that you want to send a letter even though you know there are currently no jobs available.
Clearing the technological hurdles
Clearly, the point of the covering email is to introduce your CV or online profile, so the last thing you want to do is forget to attach it. As basic as this sounds there are thousands of candidates each year who find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to send another email minutes after their first one, so don’t forget to include the URL of where a recruiter can view or download your Jobzooma profile. Not a good start. Another potential hurdle is if you use a strange subject line as it increases the chance that your application will get caught in a spam filter.
The first task is to watch for any delivery failure messages and then try again. If it fails again then try calling to explain that you are having difficulties. Ultimately, a polite phone call just to check your email arrived is perfectly reasonable and demonstrates a professional manner. You can then send an email and ask if any decision has been made yet. If you’ve been unsuccessful then nearly all companies will respond to a request for information about why you were unsuccessful and often the information from a recruiter’s point of view is essential in improving future applications.