Cover letters can be confusing. If you are listing all your skills and experience in your resume, you might be wondering what the point of a cover letter is – why say these things twice? In this short article we share some insight on why cover letters matter, and how you can use them to make your application stand out.
Why do cover letters matter?
While your resume offers employers a list of your qualifications, skills, and experiences, it leaves very little room to speak directly about how and why you are uniquely qualified compared to other candidates. Your cover letter is the perfect opportunity to show employers some of your personality, and to explain exactly how your skills and experience would help you succeed in the position you are applying for. In a sense, your cover letter is a way to tell a story about your abilities, and gives you the opportunity to convey different information that isn’t as easy to put into point form.
What should I put in my cover letter?
Your cover letter should be broken down into three main parts, as follows:
- A short introduction which specifies which job you are applying for and who you are. It is important to list the job title and organisation you are applying to here, and in some cases it is also appropriate to include a job code or reference number if it is listed on the job ad.
Overall, this first introduction should be short and to the point, and should give the employer a high level overview of who you are. You can, for example, introduce yourself as an enthusiastic and technically skilled professional with experience in team environments, or as a detail-oriented and self-motivated worker with experience in fast-paced environments.
You can also include some information here about why you want to work with the organisation you are applying for, or some additional information about your career goals. In all, use this space to make an impression, tell the employer who you are and why you are contacting them.
- The second portion of your cover letter is the biggest, and is also the most customizable. You can format this section in a few different ways (eg with or without headers), but you should always aim to keep individual paragraphs relatively short. This will help increase the readability of your cover letter. Here, you should aim to do two main things 1) connect your experience and skills to the job you are applying for, 2) explain why you would be an asset in the role you are applying for.
There are a number of strategies you could take here, including (but not limited to):
- Talking about a specific skill you have, explaining your proficiency using practical examples where you applied or learned this skill.
- Sharing examples of your previous work experience, emphasising how they relate to the job you are applying to.
- Explaining why your particular skills or experience gives you a unique perspective or ability to contribute to the organization in the role you are applying for.
Each paragraph can have a different goal/strategy, but you should always directly relate the content you are sharing to the job you are applying to.
- The last section of your cover letter should be short, 2-3 sentences at most. This section should very briefly summarise the skills and experience you explored in your body paragraphs and let the employer know what your expectations are on next steps. To help explain, here is an example of what this could look like if you were applying for a job as an archival assistant:
I believe my experience in archival research and working with databases, combined with my organisational skills and education would make me an asset to your organization. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about my application, and I look forward to hearing from you.
How should I format my cover letter?
Generally speaking your cover letter should stay short and sweet just like the rest of a resume. Typically, it is best practice to aim for a one page cover letter, but depending on the job you could write up to two pages if needed. Remember, attention spans are short and hiring managers might have dozens of applications to read. Hiring managers are likely to read at least the first paragraph of your cover letter, but after that you need to stay engaging and compelling in order to keep their attention.
Something else that is important to consider is that you don’t need to list everything from your resume in your cover letter. You will leave a stronger impression with one page of highly relevant experience that you elaborate on a little bit more rather than two pages which lists more experience in less detail that is less relevant. The goal of your cover letter is to draw the employer in, and your resume backs up your cover letter with more detail.
Other things to consider
While you want to use your cover letter to give employers a sense of who you are, be mindful of language that is too personal. A great way to avoid this is to think about what your goal is when you are sharing any particular piece of information, and evaluating whether or not each sentence meets that goal. For example, here are two ways to communicate to the employer that you are comfortable working in physically demanding conditions:
- I worked long hours in hot weather, which made me realise how difficult this work can be.
- I have experience working under pressure in adverse conditions, and understand how to prepare myself to overcome the challenges this can present.
In the first example, what is stated is that this individual has experience working in a challenging environment – but the choice of language communicates a personal reflection rather than applicable skills. It doesn’t tell you if you are good at working in hot weather, or even that you are able to work in difficult conditions, it just says that you know the work is harder in hot weather. The second example gives the employer a better understanding of what part of your experience is relevant (that the conditions were adverse) and what skill your experience demonstrates (ability to overcome challenges). The goal of communicating to your employer that you are able to work in physically demanding conditions is better met by the second statement because it identifies clear cause and effect, whereas the first statement shares reflections without connecting it to the skills you bring to the job.
Cover letters are great tools to help you stand out from the crowd, but they can also be difficult to write. Take the time to read some examples from the internet to draw some inspiration. Additionally, while the advice we have shared in this article is a great place to start building your cover letter, don’t be afraid to innovate. You can play with formatting and structure to make yourself stand out, so long as the letter communicates to the employer why you are a great candidate.