How to write a stand-out cover letter
To write a cover letter or to not write a cover letter? That is the question.
You've probably heard about the horror stories of cover letters and how most aren't read. Whilst we can neither confirm nor deny this when employers consider cover letters, they can be the silver bullet to getting you noticed and in the door. So they should always be taken seriously.
But what is a cover letter?
A cover letter is an introductory note you send to recruiters and employers. Job seekers regularly ask us whether they should write a cover letter and what to include if they do. So below you can see some of our recommendations that we believe will help you stand out.
When to write a cover letter?
If you are excited about the role, I believe there's only one situation where you shouldn't write a cover letter.
When applying for a job, sometimes companies ask for additional answers alongside a CV (e.g. "What excites you about our company?"). In this case, I don't believe you need to write a cover letter. They've helped give you a clear opportunity to stand out and told you explicitly what they want - there's no need to go above and beyond what they've asked.
In all other cases, you should consider writing a cover letter. I say this because we advocate for making fewer, better applications. I know it's hard to spend more time on an individual application, especially when job searching feels like a numbers game. But our data has shown time and time again that writing a quality application is a better strategy for securing a great role. If others are sending their CV and nothing else, and you're writing a well-crafted cover letter, you are more likely to stand out!
What do I write in a cover letter?
To structure the cover letter, imagine you're being asked these two questions and use one paragraph to answer each. Your cover letter should be brief (1 page).
1 - What excites you about company X?
The best way to stand out is to demonstrate you have put time and thought into understanding the company. There are simple things you can do that will instantly elevate you above candidates who haven't put additional effort in:
Refer to an article/blog that talks about the company
Talk about how you've tried the product and what you like
Write why you like the mission or show an understanding of the problem being solved
Once you've written this paragraph, ask yourself, "If I replaced company X with another company, for example, a competitor, would the cover letter still make sense?". If the answer is yes, you probably need to add more insight and detail specific to the company you're applying to. The aim is to avoid seeming generic.
I often see cover letters with sentences like "I want to join Clu as you are changing recruiting", and this isn't enough insight to help you stand out. Sometimes it can work against you, as you've tried to write a cover letter but haven't taken the time to write in-depth!
2 - Why do you want this role?
Your CV tells the hiring manager about your previous experience, but it doesn't say anything about your motivations. A cover letter is an excellent opportunity to tell more of your story.
Here are some example questions that you may want to answer in this paragraph:
What is it about this role that you like? (Look carefully at the job description and the areas that excite you)
If you're applying for a more senior role, why is now the right time?
If you're moving from a corporate to a startup, why are you confident that a fast-growth environment is right for you? (I've written an article about the qualities startups look for when hiring)
If you're making a career shift (e.g. strategy to marketing), what is your reasoning? What have you done to make yourself confident this is the right move for you?
What do you want to achieve in your next role?
Where do you want to be in 3-5 years, and how will this role help you?
What's essential in your next role?
You don't need to tell your whole story (e.g. why you decided to start your career as a software engineer). Ideally, you'll find a few exciting areas where the hiring manager will think, "yes, that's exactly what we need!" This will elevate you above other candidates.
Don't make your cover letter an extension of your CV
When reading cover letters, I make this comment about 50% of the time.
Many candidates use a cover letter to write their CV in more detail. Either by writing more achievements, including deeper detail about projects, or repeating selling points from the CV.
From what we see, a hiring manager will use the CV to judge your experience and suitability. They're looking to the cover letter to find something else to excite them. My advice (explaining your excitement about the company, your journey and what makes you unique and why you want the role) will help you stand out more.
If you find yourself using a cover letter to write more detail, I recommend going back to your CV and making edits to include those details concisely.
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