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Covering letters: making your application sparkle

career guides

2to3days

Creating a cover letter can feel like a stab in the dark. How do you know what employers really want to hear?

At 2to3days we spend a lot of time speaking to employers and recruiters about what makes a great application. To take the heartache out of it, we’ve worked with a range of industry experts who recruit women through our site – from professional cover letter writers to recruiters, in-house talent acquisition professionals and small business owners – to create our guide to writing a stellar cover letter. 

All our advertised roles are with businesses actively seeking brilliant women on a flexible basis, including those returning from a career break. Be confident in your abilities and use our guide to rise above the competition.

Knowing when it counts

Not everyone bothers to read a cover letter… the rule of thumb is that recruiters tend not to but business owners do!

“Cover letters are becoming obsolete because of the online application process – you fill out a form and send it specifically for that role,” says Emma Heerah, Head of Talent Acquisition for global design firm Arcadis. As the first line of her company’s talent acquisition process, she would only forward the CV to the hiring manager, not the covering letter. “I would speak to the candidate first and then explain to the hiring manager what’s good about them.” This is also true for recruitment agencies. Recruiters don’t tend to read cover letters as they are quickly going to the meat of the CV.

On the flip side, employers often value them very highly. Barns Morison is Co-Founder of wedding literature agency Pineneedle. He always requests a cover letter. “If there is no letter I would think it is a scattergun approach,” he says. “I want it to be specific to us. The letter can be eight lines long but if it does the job that’s fine.”

Juliet Turnbull, Founder and CEO of 2to3days, always reads the covering letter first and if this doesn’t pass muster then the CV doesn’t get a look in. “What I am looking for in the covering letter is the women’s explanation as to why she can do the job we are hiring for really well. That has to be a given,” says Juliet. “The next thing is typos and grammatical errors. If she can’t take the time and trouble to write the letter properly it sends a clear message that she won’t do well for our brand. There is so much sloppiness out there that it really doesn’t take much to shine!” 

Targeted and tailored

Victoria McLean, Founder and CEO of leading international career consultancy City CV, agrees that cover letters can be important in direct applications. “For employers, particularly of small organisations, a cover letter can be really valuable to give a sense of someone’s enthusiasm for a role. If the role asks for a cover letter then you DO need to do one. If they ask for it, they will use it as part of their decision-making process.”

Regina von Schuckmann, Head of Talent for stakeholder communications business Black Sun, says those who provide a well thought through, beautifully structured and written cover letter that addresses why they are interested in the company and the position, go to the top of the list. “The beauty of the cover letter is that it is specific to the role,” she says. “I would spend seconds on a CV and the same with a cover letter, however if the cover letter is really good and catches my attention I will stop and read it.”

Stand out from the crowd

So, assuming you are going to need a cover letter for some applications, how do you ensure yours stands out for all the right reasons? It’s not about repeating your CV, says Victoria. It’s about demonstrating your passion and commitment to the role and how your skills fit that. Explain WHY you want this particular role and the unique value you can bring to it. Talk about what you can do for them and what you can do in that role. Sending off a generic letter that could apply to any company is a fast route to your CV being discarded. Take heart from the fact that most companies are used to seeing boring, generic CVs and cover letters that have clearly been sent out to lots of their peers. With a little effort and consideration, you can produce something that catches a weary recruiter or business owner’s attention and snags you an interview. Pay close attention to the job advert and address the key points it raises in your letter. If they want someone who is tenacious give an example of your tenacity, or if they have asked for specific skills or experience give them direct examples. Doing this not only demonstrates your capability for the role, but that you have read and understood the job advert. This kind of thought and preparation shines through. 

Ideally your cover letter will have two to three pithy paragraphs, ensuring the whole document fits on a single page. Stephanie Dillon, Founder and Director of Inclusivity Partners, suggests you choose three important messages you want to convey, tailoring them to the specific role and your interest in the company. 

Make sure you include: 

➔ What caught your attention about the role

➔ Why you are interested in the company – demonstrate that you know something about their business and their needs. It’s not hard to use the internet to find this information but few people bother. Set yourself apart.

➔ A brief mention of why you think you’d be right for it

Crucially…

➔ Find out who to address your letter to – call the company if you need to. This kind of effort impresses employers. Amazingly, few people bother.

➔ Spell everything correctly. Most hirers have been sent mis-spelled letters or documents with another firm’s name left in. Ouch.

➔ Take time over it. A poorly written letter will damage your chances.

➔ Don’t send a standard impersonal covering letter - you might as well not bother.

➔ The language you use is important – take care not to come over as too confident or cocky when selling your skills. Perhaps read it aloud or have a friend look at it to ensure the tone is coming across in the way you intended. 

➔ If you have a complex situation you need to detail the cover letter is a good place to do that (for example, working in the Middle East and planning a return to the UK).

When they count, cover letters really count. It is worth taking your time to get it right. Professional cover letter writers may take four hours to produce a cover letter and they have honed their skills. Give some thought to why you would be the perfect person for the role and do some research on the company. It’s surprising how many terrible CVs and cover letters there are out there. If you’re putting in the time and effort it will show. Demonstrate thought, effort and quality and you’ll shine through. 

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