Cover letters - a thing of the past?

Frank Hutton

When was the last time you wrote a ‘letter’ to accompany a CV? It probably begs another question: when did you last send a hard copy of your CV either as a speculative introduction or in response to an advertisement.

I’m guessing it may have been some time. 

In these days of instant job board applications, emailed CVs and Company recruitment websites with forms, ready for you to attach your carefully crafted career history, you might be forgiven for thinking there’s little point in adding a pleasant and polite letter.

Well, I agree. I can see little value in merely being polite but there still is every advantage in adding weight and focus to your application through an equally carefully crafted letter or cover email.

Most job boards will also accommodate this. I have also visited a number of larger employers' career sites to check prior to writing: some allowed you to attach your CV; others even asked you to paste your CV into a text box on the form (urghh!); one even gave advice as to how best to present yourself.  But all I visited had a section for some covering notes or letter of some kind.

The point is, no matter how frustrated you get with the automation of recruitment systems, there is still very often a chance to shine outside of the main stage of your CV.

As an ex-recruiter, I’ll confess that we very often sped past an introductory letter or email as it often misled rather than helped our assessment. However, if the CV itself looked right, then perhaps we might go back to check what further information might be revealed within.

So what should a great covering letter/email/note do?

The principle you should remember is that you are marketing a product (you) into a very specific audience. Often (through a job advert or role description) that audience has revealed exactly what ‘product’ they’re looking for.

What you’re looking to do is ensure they can’t miss exactly how you fit their bill and why they should ‘buy’ you using all the means at your disposal. Like any good marketing it might need to make a similar point in different ways a number of times as people don’t always get it first time.

That’s where your cover letter really comes into its own. Either before the CV is read, by telling the reader in précis exactly what they are about to see, or by confirming what it is they’ve just read, summing it all up nicely.

Even seasoned recruiters can be influenced by a convincing portrayal.

The power of suggestion in this scenario is very strong - you can put the summary you want into someone’s mind, especially if they are reading a number of different CVs at pace. Even seasoned recruiters can be influenced by a convincing portrayal. Though like any brand experience, if the contents don’t live up to the description on the wrapper the consumer’s disappointment is doubled. So...

Keep it short and avoid clichés and simpering politeness. Convey the facts with an added opinion, avoiding arrogance but demonstrating some self-belief. OK that‘s a fine line to walk. So get someone else to look over it before pressing ‘send’. They may spot a tone of voice or meaning that you hadn’t even considered was there.

Use Bullet points if you like. Don’t be afraid to use the same words as you have in the CV, perhaps even lifting sections from your profile paragraph or key achievements or similar. The repetition will be powerful if not overdone.

Talk about how you match the culture of the company/organisation, you can do this here more easily than in the CV; and give reasons why you want to work there (think what is it they will get from you, not what you’ll get from them).

Don’t be wild and whacky (unless the organisations you’re applying to is), use normal typefaces (I’d recommend something neutral and contemporary - even Arial is fine) and don’t add scanned signatures (it may be kicked out by their system's spam or malware filters as an undesirable file.

Have you got any examples of introductory or cover letters you’d be willing to share that have brought home the bacon? I’d love to share them with the readers here.

Lastly, I do know this all means extra effort and time, but you spent a lot of time putting that CV together.  I believe you’ll increase your chances of gaining an interview by 50% by doing so. So maybe reduce the number of applications you make and go for quality instead.