Job search tips and tricks: how to write a cover letter that people will actually read

by Laurent Meyer

Cover letter
Ah, the dreaded cover letter (CL)!
“Well, isn’t my CV good enough? Why do I have to put in this extra effort?” 

Well, if this is how you think, you are off to a bad start. I hope that what you read here will help turn your attitude around and understand that if you follow the right guidelines, you’ll be churning out good CLs (cover letters) in no time and getting high response rates.

In my first blog of this 6-part series how to make a killer CV I mentioned the cover letter as a “second chance to make a good impression.” Most employers, by instinct, will usually look at the CV first. If it passes the test, then it’s on to the CL. Why? Because I want to see in writing why you want to work for my company.

So do you really want to take that risk of having your CL be the momentum-killer? A great CV or LinkedIn profile is just the start: now you want to stand out from the crowd, show you’re the real deal and so well prepared that you’re practically already a colleague. A cover letter could also turn into a cover email, but it should be researched, engaging, and, yes, modest!

Along with many other goodies, you’ll find some great CL templates on JobTracker, a tool developed by the Constructor Academy team to help students monitor their job applications.

Now let’s look at the substance of the letter.. Many so-called Career Coaches have fancy approaches, but my secret sauce is probably the simplest of all. It boils down to only three key words: you, me, us.  This is one of my favorite slides for students in our Career Developments sessions:

Key concepts of the cover letter

Each of these should be its own paragraph; so, 3 paragraphs at most. Keeping it short and to the point will make a difference. No need to overdo it. The recruiter’s time is precious; they must know from the beginning if you’re heading in the right direction. 

Now let us look at each of these structural elements in detail.

1. You

Here’s where you set the tone. The biggest mistakes here occur when you (the individual) set yourself over them (the company). It should be the other way around.The company is the focus in this opening paragraph. After all, they’re the ones with the need, the authority to hire you, as well as the wallet to pay your salary. You’re nothing to them until you start speaking their language. 

Of course, the start of the paragraph mentions the position to which applying. Immediately after, however, it’s time to write something pertinent to why the company is so unique to you. 

Let’s do a simple fill-in the blank exercise for you to understand this concept:

I write to you with great interest in the position of __________ found on __________. I’ve always been passionate about the  ________ industry and noticed from __________ that you’re making a big push with your  _________ technology/product/service to gain a solid foothold in the market.
From the get-go, the company can tell that you have already researched them and are up to date with what they do. You have only said “I” twice in this paragraph so you’re off to a good start.

2. Me

In a classical no-effort cover-letter strategy, one that’s often doomed, the “me” part is where most people think it’s time to write a laundry list of reasons on what makes them so great copy-pasted, more often than not, from the letter they wrote to another company just 10 minutes before.  Don’t do this. Companies can smell copy-paste, and trust me, it’s the worst kind of stink to them. They want to feel special and not treated as a number. And the overuse of “I” will just kill your letter. “I this, I that, I’m, I … I, I,I,I” just shifts the focus away from where it should be. You may think that it takes extra time to do this, but think of the waste that goes into copy-pasting the same text on 20 different CLs to get an equal amount of (predictable) rejections. In the same amount of time, you can put 5 customized CLs together and get a higher success rate, guaranteed. You may start off slow, but as you get the hang of it, the speed and efficiency rate increases significantly. It is all about the company and what they’re looking for. Reference their requirements on the job ad and match them with solid examples from your past experiences. 

We again turn to filling-in the blank so that you understand this concept:

My major contributions to the position in question are experience in ________, _______, ______, and _____ that I gained through working on projects such as ________, a tool that ______ built with the mentioned technologies and concepts. See the link to the project/code/video presentation
Optional is to put the above in bullet-point format, so long as the essentials are there.
In most CLs I read, the person goes off topic, listing university degrees (repeated from the CV), personal accomplishments, and a plethora of soft skills not backed by actual examples. Again, focus on the job at hand!

Speaking of soft-skills, here’s a bonus paragraph that you can include, backed by concrete examples of course:
The job description also mentions that ______, _____, _____ are key soft skills that are important to you. I’ve consistently demonstrated these abilities throughout my career, most recently at ________ where I was part of a team that successfully  _________, on-time and within the budget constraints.

3. Us

You definitely don’t want to overdo it now. Having already demonstrated to the company that you know what they do and how your skills relate to the position in question, you want to finish with a nice touch:

I look forward to the opportunity of contributing to the success of _______, both in this role and as a dedicated team-member. Please find my CV attached for your review. Many thanks in advance for your time and consideration.

Here it shows that there could be a match and that it is time to meet and find out!

But I cannot let you go just yet without one last thing!

There are a few important extra tips that I normally reserve for our students, but I just cannot leave it out of this article because it is about something that’s too painful when I see it on a CV. 
Too many times I read: “I am confident that... perfect fit... ideal for this role, …”. These are all signs of arrogance and overconfidence. First of all, you do not work for that company (yet!) and know nothing about how they function. How can you make such a claim? Whether you fit is not for you to say, but for them. Modesty appreciated please! At the very least, use “could”..

That’s it. I hope that the above has inspired you to give the cover letter the attention it deserves. My next article will be part 3 of the series: Maximizing the power of LinkedIn. See you soon!

Interested in reading more about Constructor Academy and tech related topics? Then check out our other blog posts.

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