An outstanding cover letter can help you stand out from the competition and win you that crucial first interview. Find out how.
By Nazry Bahrawi
You can think of a cover letter as a preface to what you’ve written in your résumé. “A badly written cover letter can spoil that first impression and damage your chances of an interview,” says Shao-Ning, Director of JobsFactory.
“The purpose of a cover letter is to promote your skills and experience as a single package,” continues Shao-Ning. “It should complement and not duplicate your résumé. It should explain your interest in the job or the organisation, and talk about your achievements. It is a chance to let the employer get a feel of your personality.”
This is in sharp contrast to your résumé, which is essentially a concise record of your education and employment information. The cover letter, on the other hand, offers you a chance to describe yourself in slightly greater detail. Let us go through some pointers on how you can write a winning cover letter.
Firstly, if you are sending your job application by old-fashioned snail mail, consider what type of paper to use. Generally, thin, translucent paper looks cheap and unprofessional, so avoid using it. Opt instead for good quality A4-size paper.
Use a standard font type like Times New Roman or Arial as they are easy to read. Use size 12 fonts as far as possible — smaller font sizes will obviously be harder to read.
Make sure that you address the cover letter to the right person. If you know the names, titles and address of the recruitment manager, make sure they are included in the letter. Otherwise, simply address the letter to a “Dear Sir or Madam”.
Words that matter
You should highlight your most outstanding achievements in your cover letter. Your résumé may contain the details, but do not expect the employer to catch the points you most wish to highlight — it’s up to you to bring them to the employer’s attention via the cover letter.
A cover letter should only be one page long and contain a few key paragraphs. The first will be an introductory paragraph, which states your interest in the position and how you heard of it. You may also wish to refer the employer to the relevant job advertisement, by quoting the date for example.
A simple one-liner like, “With reference to your advertisement in JobsCentral on 1 January 2007, I would like to be considered for the position”, will suffice. Alternatively, you could write, “I read with great interest about your search for a highly-qualified professional to fill the position of Marketing Executive.”
The next paragraph should highlight your education background or your working experience. Pick the most outstanding details that would bowl over the reader. For example, you may wish to highlight the fact that you are a straight-A student, or that you made it to the Dean’s List.
Only include achievements that are relevant to the job. For instance, if you are applying for a job that requires you to train people, you might want to write about the training seminars you’ve conducted in the past, or about your experience in mentoring new employees.
Wherever possible, use concrete figures to illustrate your previous achievements. Instead of saying, “I was the top sales representative”, flaunt your results: “I consistently achieved sales targets of over $100,000 every month, and received an award for being the top sales representative of the year.”
Make use of keywords listed in the job advertisement. If the position calls for someone who is “meticulous” and “driven”, repeat these words in the cover letter. Write about the things you have done that demonstrate those personality traits.
Use the last paragraph of the cover letter to conclude your earlier points. This is also the time to re-emphasise your interest in the job and the company. Where possible, also include information about how soon you can start work if you are hired.
The devil in the details
Always proofread. A good cover letter must be free from obvious spelling and typographical errors. Such mistakes will make you look unprofessional, and worse, demonstrate your lack of attention to details.
Be aware that a computerised spell check is not foolproof. The software can easily miss words that were used in the wrong part of a sentence simply because they were spelt correctly, for example.
It is always advisable to get a friend to proofread the cover letter if you are not good at catching minute details. It is also important that you check the grammatical style of your cover letter. Take your pick of either British or American spelling but remember to be consistent.
A common mistake that many jobseekers make is to repeat points from their résumé. They copy and paste bullet points from their résumé to “write” their cover letters. This is a definite “no-no”. You may as well not have bothered with a cover letter.
Always customise a different cover letter for each job application. Remember, every job is different. The companies are different even when the jobs are the same. Therefore, it makes sense to tailor the letter to the job’s specific needs.
“If your cover letter talks about your achievements as a finance manager while you are applying for a supply chain position, it is glaring evidence that you are not really interested in that particular opening,” advises Shao-Ning.
If you have the space, write about what you know about the company and its industry. This shows that you are familiar with the requirements of the job, or better yet, that you bothered to do the necessary research to find out about the job and the company.
In the end, do not treat your cover letter lightly, for it plays an important part in the job application process. Every little bit counts, so give it your best shot, and good luck in getting the job!