A cover letter: when & how to write one

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A cover letter is perhaps the most baffling part of the recruitment process. Your motivation seems straightforward – you need to earn money. So what is the point of writing a separate letter about this? And yet everybody seem to expect it. What to do?

I’ll focus today on why and when a cover letter is necessary, how to write one and what the most common mistakes are when drafting it

Letter from the past

Let us start by investigating the origin of the cover letter idea. Nowadays, it seems to be a totally unnecessary step, but cover letters start to make sense if you go back 10-15 years. In those ancient times, candidates had to physically post their applications, not e-mail them like now. Their CV in hard copy was put into an envelope and had to be accompanied by a letter that explained its purpose, the position they were interested in and why they were sending these documents. A cover letter, to be precise.

Today, CVs in Europe are sent mainly as attachments to e-mails or through automated applications systems on company websites or job ad boards. Such systems automatically insert, for example, the required reference number in the subject field, so there is no need to give this separately in a letter.

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Emails and automated systems have now taken over the main function of cover letters, leaving them to focus on an applicant’s self presentation. The formal cover letter, with header, address and other details, is a relic of the past, then. Despite this, companies still expect to receive one, and continue to regard it as part of the recruitment process. It’s good to know, though, that, apart from some clearly marked situations, the function of a cover letter can be fulfilled by a well-written email. No need to send a separate, attached document.

To write or not to write?

The answer can be Yes and No. It all depends on the circumstances. Below I explain when, in my view, it is necessary to send a cover letter, and when not.

YES. A cover letter is a necessity when you apply to a company without an advertised vacancy. (see this post for more details) You don’t know if they are planning to hire anyone in the next few weeks or months. They may be very surprised to receive your application (especially if they are a small company). A well written cover letter is therefore crucial to explain your goal, gain their interest and open the right door. You will need to say why you have approached them, which position you are interested in, and precisely why you want to work for them.

NO. When you are approached about the job. For me as a headhunter, the most important document in the recruitment process is the CV. A well written one will include information about a candidates’ past experience, completed projects, achievements – everything to persuade a company that this is a person with relevant skills for the job. But I am aware that I am in a comfortable position: I search for a candidate for a specific role and the challenge of making them interested in the job lies entirely with me. So the situation is convenient for both parties: the candidate doesn’t need to write a letter, and I don’t have to read it! A well written CV and a detailed interview provide enough information for me.

MAYBE. It is worth considering writing a cover letter when you have found the vacancy of your dreams. That one that suits you perfectly, in a company you have been observing for years. But your CV doesn’t show precisely that you are their dream candidate. Maybe you have been in different profession for the last few years. Or maybe you are straight from school and don’t yet have enough/any experience.
A cover letter can help immensely here, by weaving all the individual strands of past experience into one cohesive story about your skills and competencies. Additionally, it will also reflect your interest in the firm and show your motivation. It’s not enough by itself to secure the job for you, but it will definitely help, so it is worth spending some time drafting it.

So, as you can see, it is not always necessary (in my view) to produce and send a cover letter. However, there will be many job ads which state that “applications consisting of CV and a cover letter are expected”. But even here, is it necessary to send a letter?  Again, I think it depends.

When does it make sense to send a cover letter:

It makes most sense to send a letter when you have something interesting and tailor-made to put in it. When you genuinely and deeply want to work at that particular place or in this particular position. When you manage to write a cover letter that reflects those feelings, it will stand out from the competition and attract attention. Such letters are memorable and rare. I myself have written such letter only twice in my life so far. And have read one maybe a dozen times, no more – so don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t produce one every time you apply for a job.

When it is necessary:

Sending a cover letter is essential if we participate in a highly formalized recruitment process (e.g. for a position in a public institution).  In such cases there is usually a list of required documents to submit and a cover letter is one of them. By not including one, we risk being rejected from the process by failing to meet the formal requirements. Let’s not debate, then, and instead draft a cover letter using the basic guidelines given below.

When you can skip it:

If your situation doesn’t fall into one of the above-mentioned situations, I think you can skip the cover letter, even if it is mentioned in the advertisement. Use this time to fine-tune your CV so that it shows your profile in the best possible way.

Ok, let’s now move on to the practical part and see what should be included in a cover letter, and what to do when you have no idea what to write.

In addition to the formal letter format with date, sender and recipients’ address or position, the main part of the document has to answer three questions:

  • Why this role? ( why are you interested in working in this particular position, how does it sit with your motivation, ambitions and skills?)
  • Why this company? (why do you want to work for this company, or – if you are unfamiliar with them – in this market sector or industry? Try to be as specific as possible narrowing your focus if needed)
  • Why this candidate? (which elements from your past experience, knowledge and character make you a the right person for the job)

If you feel uninspired but are required to send a letter, do this: take the above-mentioned three questions. Write two to three sentences answering each of them. Read it to someone you can trust to give you an honest opinion. Implement any suggested changes and send it off together with your CV.

Common mistakes

The most common mistakes in writing cover letters include:

  1. Coping straight from the internet:

The worst solution (but also the one most often used by candidates) is to take a sample letter from any random website, fill it with your own details and send it off. These letters usually use puffed-up, empty words, as they need to be universal enough to appeal to a wide range of users. But that means they don’t say anything about your skills or motivation for the job you are applying for. Such letters add nothing new to the recruiters’ knowledge of the applicant and are just a waste of time for both parties.

  1. The same content as the CV but written in full sentences

This is my ’favourite’ mistake. Candidates simply rewrite their CV – only this time expanding it using connecting words and prepositions. e.g. “In 1997-2006, I worked in company X at position Y, where I was responsible for abcd. In this work, my achievement was efg.” The saddest thing is that such a letter is an original text and its author worked hard to create it. The problem is that it doesn’t add anything to the recruitment process, as all of this information is already in the CV. Wasted time, wasted effort.

  1. Details of the previous recipient.

This one does not require much comment. Yes, I still receive letters where the header has not been changed. In a way it is interesting as I can see where this candidate has applied in the past, but at the same time it is a great pity – a wasted opportunity to make a good first impression.

As you see, my approach is that unless the situation clearly requires a cover letter, or when you don’t have anything attention-grabbing to write, don’t send one.

Use that time to edit your CV, tailoring it to the job requirements.

What are your experiences with cover letters? Do you also treat them as a hated necessity or a relic of the past? How do you handle them?

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