Writing a good cover letter is one of the first tests you will face as a graduate, and it can be a tough one for students with little or no experience of the workplace.
So, what’s the best way you can frame your credentials to secure a new job? Here, we talk to some experts about what a cover letter should aim to achieve and how best to go about writing one.
First things first, according to University of Limerick careers adviser Brendan Lally, have you been asked to include a cover letter?
“If yes, then you must include a cover letter with your CV,” he says. “If the answer is no, I’m not saying exclude a cover letter, but what I want graduate applicants to consider is their target audience.
“I continue to see a strong emphasis put on the cover letter. However, I did not see this matched on the other side during my years as an employer. My experience of cover letters when I was in HR was poor.
“Much of the time, I felt that candidates were confused as to what should go into their cover letter. Most of the time I was getting what was on page one of the CV twice written slightly differently in a cover letter.
“For busy recruiters, after a while this gets old. Some HR people started to disregard them completely, while most gave only a cursory glance.
“Before my HR career, I, like most applicants, had this mental picture that, after slaving for hours on my CV and cover letter that the people on the other side would stick on the kettle and sit back and devour every word I had written in fine detail.
Short and to the point
“I soon learned that application reviewers are dealing in volume and under time pressure. They say the average time for the yes, no or maybe decision is between 10 and 30 seconds and at most 90 seconds.”
Not a lot of time, and Lally believes this should inform the applicant, especially with regard to the amount of text and how it is formatted.
“I would say it depends on where the CV and cover letter are going,” he says. “The size of the employer and the amount of openings they might have will give you a yardstick on how much time they might give to reading a cover letter.
“If you have a small owner or manager operation that may have a graduate opening at most once a year with a manageable amount of applications to go through, I would say your cover letter is likely to get the attention it deserves.
“However, if it is an in-demand global multinational with thousands of applications, your cover letter may not receive the same amount of attention.
“There is no hard and fast rule on this: some line managers in large multinationals will tell you that a cover letter is very important to them, so individual preferences come into play as well. One thing is for sure: nobody wants a long cover letter.”
So what, according to Lally, are the rules of thumb? “No less than two paragraphs and certainly no more than four or five paragraphs,” he says.
“Most employers will at least have looked at page one of your CV before they come to your cover letter, so they know the basics. Try not to repeat yourself, give them some information that is not on your CV.
“For example, why do you think you are a good fit. Elaborate your unique selling points and why you applied to their company. Some complimentary language works well here. Go easy on the flowery language; too much flattery can be a turn-off.
“A little mental exercise that should keep you on track is whether you could walk up to them and read your cover letter out loud without getting embarrassed?”
PwC Ireland people partner Emma Scott agrees that keeping things short and to the point are the key things to remember. “Cover letters have become less relevant in recent years with many companies opting to leave this out of the application process,” she says.
“If you are planning to attach a cover letter make sure it is used as a hook to draw the reader in. Think about your key standout point. Keep it short, clear, concise and never duplicate what is on your CV, or indeed what is on the job description word for word.”
Ferdia White, business director at recruitment specialist Hays Ireland, says a good cover letter should complement your CV rather than, as previous speakers have mentioned, rehash it.
“The first piece of advice when writing a cover letter is to resist the temptation of writing a one-size-fits-all cover letter for every role you are applying for,” he says.
Show that you understand the organization
“Recruiters will see through it and pass over your application in favor of another candidate who demonstrates a clearer understanding of their organization and the role at hand. A compelling cover letter should complement your CV, as opposed to repeating it.
“It should demonstrate an understanding of the role and organization you are applying for, followed by a clear explanation of why you are such a good fit for the role, including your skills, experience and cultural fit.”
Paul Vance, head of resourcing at KPMG, believes too much flattery of the company or executives you are addressing should be avoided.
“Bear in mind that cover letters are often in digital format now – so in effect they can be part of an online application process and are often simply a specific box in an online or digital form,” he says. “That said, they are still important.”
“The most important thing is to be authentic and be your true self – it’s one of the first and possibly only opportunities you’ll have for your personality and commitment to the role to shine through.
“So avoid flowery or officious language and paint a brief picture of why you want the job, why you think you are suitable, and how you’d add value to the person or organization hiring you.”
Daniel Corcoran, a vice president at jobs website Indeed, suggests showing prospective employers why you would make for a good hire rather than simply trying to tell them.
“Think of a cover letter as your first impression and a chance to build rapport with those who read it,” he says. “Similar to an in-person conversation, making a strong first impression is important and is formed in mere moments, so keep your cover letter brief but impactful.
“Explaining why you’re a good fit is one of the most important aspects of a cover letter. Don’t go into a lot of details about each of your accomplishments or skills, instead link the highlights with your experience.
“When it comes to your CV and cover letter, the key thing to remember is relevance and keeping it simple. Tailoring your CV so that it is relevant to the role you’re applying for is more likely to catch the attention of an employer.
“Too often, graduates try to get too creative with an unconventional design scheme to stand out. A little creativity is fine, but overdesigning may distract from the message.”
Sinéad D’Arcy, who is the head of Jameson’s international graduate program, says anyone applying for a job who is unsure about how best to approach tasks like this should remember there is help out there from career experts in universities and elsewhere.
“Many recruiters still rely on cover letters to gauge a candidate’s skills, experience and background,” she says. “This may be in the form of a traditional cover letter or through bespoke questions asked in an online application.
“In an increasingly competitive job market, a cover letter is a graduate’s opportunity to grab a recruiter’s attention – it is the equivalent to the first handshake with a recruiter or potential hiring manager.
“As a first step, candidates should ensure to read through the job description provided for the role, taking note of key words and phrases relating to the role. It is important to then build a cover letter around these words and phrases, ideally linking to your relevant experience or passion for these areas.
“It can also be helpful to briefly outline the motivation for applying for the role and the company.
“For students writing a cover letter for the first time, career development centers offer valuable resources on how to structure a cover letter so why not book in an appointment to chat with a careers officer.”