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Who’s on the cover? Or, the sinfulness of cover letters

Recently a colleague asked me for my thoughts on cover letters and what I thought the pitfalls or Big Sins are when drafting one. This phrase struck me as odd because in my mind there is just one sin when it comes to cover letters and that is the mistake of assuming that one size fits all. It doesn’t! Then I thought, why are we approaching this subject so negatively, so instead of talking about bad practice relating to cover letters, and believe me I have seen many examples, let’s instead focus on how to write a good cover letter.

First of all, follow instructions. If you have been asked to write a cover letter to accompany your application are there any more instructions such as ‘explain why you have applied for this job’, or ‘in no more than 30 words …’, or ‘state where you saw the job advertised’? If there aren’t then no problem, but give yourself the best chance of success by following instructions.

Secondly, unless instructed otherwise, keep it to one page. The intention is to demonstrate that you can identify and deliver key information succinctly and effectively, so don’t cheat by reducing the font size and increasing your margins. Make it as easy as possible for the reader to pull out the details they are looking for, so work out what those are likely to be and then trust your judgement, rather than taking a kitchen sink approach.

This leads us to the question, what should I say? Unless instructed to the contrary, it is good practice to pick something like three key dimensions of the job you are applying for then write a separate paragraph summarising (again resist the kitchen sink) your relevant experience. You could do this by giving an example of a situation or a specific achievement highlighting your skills and expertise.

The cover letter is also a good opportunity to demonstrate a little of what you know about the organisation you are applying to, as well as to give a sense of what drives you by explaining briefly why you have applied for the job. For instance ‘I am drawn to working in a training-oriented role within an organisation that values effective user engagement, as your Student Satisfaction Survey suggests you do so well.’ This shows not only that you have done your research (brownie points), but also what a good match you are with the organisation’s broader values.

And that’s it. Don’t get caught up in the detail, write no more extensively than I have done here.

Yours sincerely,
Jeremy Clarke

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