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How to write a successful cover letter

The idea of a cover letter might seem rather quaint and archaic, a throwback from the pre-internet days when job applications would be a paper CV, posted alongside an exquisitely crafted (and even, maybe, hand written) cover letter confirming your interest in the specific role. And of course, cover letters these days - despite the name - are seldom posted, being almost exclusively emails or even uploaded via web forms.

Writing a great cover letter is tricky partly because striking the right tone is difficult - whilst a letter implies a formal tone, email lends itself to a more free flowing style. The peculiar demands of the cover letter often lead to hours of staring at a blank page, false starts and frustration, but don't underestimate the power of a good cover letter to hook a recruiter and pique their interest enough to put your CV on the top of the 'yes' pile.

Of course, this is precisely the aim of the cover letter - and the good news is that whilst the format has certainly changed over time, but the purpose and typical structure of a cover letter has not. Understanding these elements is half the battle, so if you're working on perfecting your own cover letter, try these ideas to make sure you grab the recruiting manager's attention.


Step One: Introduce yourself

Naturally, the first step in crafting your cover letter is to introduce yourself. Assuming that you are applying for a job or internship that you have seen advertised, you should also say where and how you saw the position, and why you're particularly interested in it.

If your cover letter is speculative - meaning you have identified this company as a place you'd love to work, but there are no suitable vacancies already advertised, you should say so here too. Simply state that you are looking for a new position, and are especially interested in learning more about any future opportunities.

To give a worked example I will give some suggested wording for an application to the following vacancy for an internship with The Coca-Cola Company:

I was delighted to see an HR Internship position with The Coca-Cola Company advertised on The Coca-Cola Company is an iconic brand, which has always been about much more than soft drinks. The opportunity to be involved in one of the most recognizable and successful companies on the planet; and make a meaningful contribution in a challenging role, excites me.


Step Two: Show how you match the employer's needs

Having introduced yourself, the next natural step is to highlight how you match the needs the employer lists in their advert. You have the job advert in front of you, and in your second paragraph, you need to show that you meet their basic 'essential and desirable' skills and experiences. Of course, this information will be detailed in your CV also, but this section of the cover letter is intended to cherry pick the qualities and experience you have that make you suitable for this specific role.

Don't forget to refer to your skills gained through a breadth of experience both inside and outside of your academic studies. The hiring manager will be looking for potential to shine in a workplace environment, so demonstrating transferable skills gained in internships, from taking part in activities and student clubs, or as a volunteer, will really make you stand out. Make the recruiting manager's life easy by showing how you tick their boxes!

For example, in the case of the HR internship with The Coca-Cola Company, you might pick out the following requirements as key to the role:

I have both the energy and drive, and strong organisational skills needed for this position, which I have honed through my position as captain of my university basketball team. This role has given me the opportunity to liaise with a wide variety of people including players, coaches and funding bodies, and I successfully led my team to their highest placing ever this season, whilst receiving team funding to support our planned trip to compete in Europe. Achieving this required tenacity and determination to balance my love of sport with the academic demands of my course, and an ability to communicate persuasively with a wide range of people, in both written and verbal conversation.

If you are applying speculatively simply use this paragraph to outline the skills and experience you think would be most interesting and relevant to the employer based on your research.


Step Three: Shout about your USP

The first chunk of your cover letter is designed to introduce yourself and build a sort of rapport with your reader. The hiring manager should now feel confident that you're a potential hire, but in a competitive jobs market, you are likely to me in a mental 'maybe' pile with dozens of others. Here, in your third paragraph, is the chance to show how you are unique, and able to bring something really special to the party.

It is highly likely that this section will draw on your ability and experience outside the classroom. For the hiring manager to have read this far, they are happy with your intellectual ability - they need to see your raw talent and drive; and how this can be put to use in their business.

For example, if you were considering an application to the role with The Coca-Cola Company, there is a reference to some 'desirable' experience and specific duties, which would be a great hook to the reader:

I believe that my particular experience in running my college bar and social club, in which I was responsible for recruiting student staff and managing their payroll, along with my exceptional drive to achieve, and creatively resolve people problems, make me a great fit for the role.

In the case of a speculative cover letter, choose the skills and experiences that you're most proud of to highlight. These should be your showstoppers, and may include personal traits, achievements or experiences, from university or working experience.


Step Four: Say thanks (with a follow up if relevant)

To sign off, you should thank the reader for their time, and leave on a positive note. This could be a simple 'I look forward to hearing from you soon', or a more proactive 'I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the position in more detail'

Don't forget to reread your document, and check the spelling and address details before you hit send! Having a trusted friend or relative review your letter can also be a real help.

In the examples I have given, I have been deliberately brief, and you may well find that you have much more to showcase to a prospective employer. Depending on the role and the employer, your tone may be more or less formal, and provided you have covered the key points required, you can also take some time to make sure a little bit of your personality shines through your letter. Build on the ideas in this article, and aim for a letter that is just under one side of paper.

Writing your cover letter can feel challenging, but once you are familiar with the structure most recruiters expect, coming up with a catchy note is much easier. Most importantly, get something down 'on paper'; you can always tweak it, make amendments, or even delete it completely, but there is nothing so dispiriting as an empty page! Good luck, and get writing.


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