Many potential job hunters focus heavily on their curriculum vitae, but don't give as much thought or effort into writing a concise cover letter that is going to make a great first impression.
It is likely that many employers will look at the cover letter first and your CV second – and it means in some instances, it can make or break whether or not you will be considered for a job in the first place.
These days, many applications are e-mailed in, CV attached and cover letter in the bulk of the e-mail text.
If an employer reads this and isn't impressed, the chances of them looking at the CV narrow, especially if it is a role for which hundreds of applicants are battling.
As part of our Interview Cheat Series, we reveal top tips and sound advice for getting that cover letter as polished as it can be and make a great impression right from the off.
We've revealed plenty of interview tips in the past, including how to answer those tough questions and how to make sure your CV stands out in the first place.
Meanwhile in the first of our Interview Cheat Sheet series, we offered tips on what to ask when an interviewer says 'do you have any questions?' and signs that an interview has gone well.
Jobs guru James Innes, who offers CV services and has written a number of books on all aspects of the employment search, gives This is Money 11 top tips on nailing the cover letter, giving you a better chance of getting your foot in the door.
1. Never underestimate the cover letter
Cover letters are seen by almost 50 per cent of recruiters as being as important as the CV itself, according to a recent survey, although most people spend the least amount of time on them.
This means you should give the cover letter a good deal of thought – and Mr Innes explains what you need to focus on in his next points.
2. Get through to the right person
The best person to address your cover letter is the person who is going to be making the decision whether or not to interview you.
Not only do letters addressed to a specific person achieve better results, but letters that actually reach the decision maker have an even higher chance of making the grade.
This means you need to research exactly who to address the cover letter to - not just put in sir/madam to a generic e-mail address and hope for the best.
3. Communicate clearly and concisely
It is essential for your letter to be easy for the reader to scan quickly and effectively, James says.
Take your time to carefully phrase your thoughts and do not rush yourself. Make sure you get your message across clearly, concisely, engagingly and articulately.
4. Don't lose reader interest with opening words
The primary goal of your opening paragraph is to explain to the reader why it is that you are writing to them - if you don't get this basic right, it could be seen negatively.
Your opening paragraph is vital in capturing the reader's attention. It'll normally be the first – and sometimes only – paragraph they read, so make sure it counts.
5. Tell a good story
Like all the best stories, the best letters have a strong – and clearly defined – beginning, middle and end, James says.
It's important to make sure your letter is structured in a logical fashion.
Capture their attention, make an impact, maintain their interest and finish with a strong closing paragraph.
6. Make your case
While it would definitely be a mistake to arrogantly oversell yourself, it is also a mistake to undersell yourself - you need to get the right balance.
Don't be afraid to blow your own trumpet and show a little self-confidence in what it is that you have to offer a prospective employer.
It's a tight job market out there - especially in sought-after industries.
You need to compete effectively if you're to stand any chance of achieving your career goals.
7. Include a 'call to action'
The key to ending your letter is to make sure you do so in a positive, upbeat manner, says James. This will leave a good lasting impression.
You can't exactly demand a response from the reader, but you need to do everything in your power to encourage one.
8. Don't give the reader 'I-strain'
The word 'I' is often overused in cover letters, James claims.
Unlike a CV, a cover letter should be written in the first person.
However, if you start every sentence with 'I', it can make for pretty tedious reading and it is likely to put a potential employer off.
9. Target/tailor your letter
You should always tailor your letter according to the specific organisation to which you are applying.
A carefully targeted letter can easily mean the difference between success and failure.
Nobody likes being spammed with letters copied and pasted without any flair.
10. Check your spelling and your grammar
It sounds so obvious, James says, but research repeatedly shows that spelling and grammatical errors remain exceptionally common.
Before sending off a cover letter, make sure you have read through it carefully. It's always a good idea to ask someone else to double-check it for you.
There is nothing worse than looking back over a sent cover letter only to find a mistake that may have cost you a crack at an interview.
11. You could use a testimonial
Mr Innes says the best way to stand out from the crowd is by following the 10 tips above - and this alone should put you in the top one per cent of candidates.
More out of the box ideas of applying for a job that is likely to have thousands of applicants include using testimonials or recommendations in there, perhaps one really juicy one to finish, for example from LinkedIn.
Mr Innes concludes: 'Other bright ideas include making the effort to quantify your achievements and other such claims.
'Numbers often speak louder than words.
'A rather out-of-the-box idea is to include ideas within your letter as to what you would like to do or change once in the role - obviously, this depends on the role. In some cases they won't want you to change anything.'
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