The Covering Letter is in some ways more important than the CV. It’s your chance to do two things: first of all, to demonstrate that you have thought about the company you are applying to (and the sector it operates in); and secondly, to summarise the reason why you think you would be a good hire.
Let’s look at the second point first. As I mentioned in the section Keep it Relevant, when tying to sell yourself to a prospective employer, you should try to demonstrate either that you have done most of the things which are relevant to the the job which you are applying to, or that you have most of the skills which are relevant (if you are trying to change careers). What you don’t want to do, is to go about skills or experience that are irrelevant to the company you are applying to.
Now, if you were really keen, you would put together a tailored CV for every application, which lists all and only the skills or responsibilities/achievements you have done which are relevant to that job. Buy, hey! this is the real world; and who has the time for that (answer: someone who is unemployed – but let’s assume for now that no one does)? So let’s assume for now that your CV is contains a general mixture of jobs, skills and achievements, some of which are relevant to the job being applied for, and some of which are not.
The covering letter is therefore your chance pithily to summarise and draw attention to the bits from your more general CV which are specifically relevant to this job. In a way, it’s a bit like those short previews you get of films which highlight the best bits, to encourage you to go to the cinema to see the whole thing. In this case, you want the employer to take the time to read your CV.
But there’s nothing more boring to the hiring manager than a covering letter that only talks about the applicant. In order to stand out, you really need to also prove that you have thought a bit about the company you are applying to. That you have done a bit of research, and you’re sure you want to apply for this particular company. It’s a bit like dating. Companies want to feel special. They want to be loved. They don’t like the idea that you would want to hook up with just any old company; they want you to make them like they are the only one.
So, worst of all are the ‘template letters’. The ones you can write in MS Word which go: “Dear [Salutation], I am writing to see if [Company Name] has any openings for a…” and then Word fills in the square brackets with the field values with the contact name and company name for the 150 firms you are mail-merging covering letter to. Aaaargh!
I used to apply what I call “The London Zoo” test to covering letters, when people were applying to my company. The London Zoo test was simply to replace my company name with the name ‘London Zoo’, and then see if the letter still made sense If it did, then they failed the test and went straight in the bin without me even reading the CV. Amazingly, about half the letters I received still made sense once I had substituted ‘London Zoo’, and so they went in the bin.
“That’s a bit shallow” you might think, or “That’s a bit cruel”. But the problem is the hiring manager really needs some reason – any reason – to eliminate applicants, to reduce the list down to a manageable size. So, in the first instance, almost any excuse will do. Even so, I happen to think the London Zoo test is a fair one. Because when someone writes to me for a job, I think they need to give me comfort that they really want this job. That, at the very least, they have done a bit of research, and they would like to work for my company and not, say, one of the big global firms – because we are culturally very different. To put it in dating terms: I don’t want someone who wants to sleep with anyone – I want someone who wants to sleep with me! If they can’t be bothered to write a customised letter to me, or are not bright enough to do so, then in the bin the go. Because there are always some people who pass the test, and that gives me a reasonably-sized short list to begin interviewing.
Richard Bolles (the author of ‘What Color is your Parachute’) apparently confirms this is a widespread view shared by hiring managers, telling a story about ‘a guy who ran a large organisation in Virginia, who said to [him] “I’m so tired of people coming in here saying: Uh, what do you do here? that the next person who comes in here and has done some prior research on us, I’m going to offer a job” He called [Bolles] a week later to say “I kept my word.”‘. I’ll second that emotion, and I know my hiring clients do too.
As Bolles says, hiring managers want to know:
- Do I want him or her to work here?
- Do they have the skills, knowledge, or experience that I really need?
- Do they have an attitude towards work, that I am looking for? and, crucially:
- Will they fit in with my other employees?
The covering letter is your Proxy and it’s your first chance to communicate directly with the hiring manager. So you need to make sure it addresses these concerns. I reckon demonstrating you have researched the company and its culture helps address the last two points; whilst summarising why you think you would like the job helps address the second point. And if you have done that, the hiring manager is more likely to answer ‘Yes’ to the first point.
If all this sounds a bit daunting, because your letter writing skills are a bit daunting, you can check out two summary .pdfs showing examples of actual covering letters that I have received which I thought were poor; and some that I thought were good.
These were from undergraduates applying for internships so none of them is great. So here is a sample of a letter that I would write if I were applying to my own company (and any undergraduate who uses this template in future for an actual application to my company will go straight to the pile for resourcefulness!). Hopefully this will show that it’s not that difficult to stand out from the crowd.
I will cover more detail on the covering letter later, in the section Va va Voom.