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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

What is a cover letter?

10 min read
What is a cover letter?
Artwork by:Aleksandra Zabnina
What is a cover letter? What should it cover? How can a page of writing make an incremental difference to the chances of securing an interview?

You are so much more than the sum of your previous accomplishments on your resume.

A cover letter is a way to inject some personality, motivation, and direction into a job search. It should be written directly for the hiring manager and make them feel that you are the only candidate in the frame for the job in question.

There is often nothing to choose between the resumes of the best candidates. A cover letter offers the chance of telling a compelling personal story that can resonate with the right hiring manager. Or not (which is also a good thing to establish early in the process).

The candidate should be out to find the right job for them – not just any job. A well-written cover letter can help them to personalize their application in such a way that a hiring manager is left with no doubt as to what sort of person they are. That enables an informed decision about whether they think that you would fit in.

Without any shadow of a doubt, cover letters are still necessary .

I see a cover letter as a job search mission statement. This is me; this is what I am about, and this is why I think that I would be a great fit for the role.

But what exactly is a cover letter and why is it so important? In this blog, we explore:

  • What is the point of a cover letter?
  • What do hiring managers expect in a cover letter?
  • 4 ingredients of a great cover letter
  • 4 errors of a terrible cover letter

Writing a cover letter is more of an art than a science, so while there is a framework of accepted norms, much of the content will depend on your circumstances. Firstly, let’s consider why one is required in the first place.

What is the point of a cover letter?

A cover letter is a one-page document that complements a resume by sharing a candidate’s feelings on their fit for the role, their motivations, and aspects of their personal story.

Hiring managers will normally read the resume before the cover letter. If your basic experience is a fit, they will hope to read a cover letter that shares some personality. 

If they are interested in you as a potential hire, they will read every line of the cover letter. When you are making a serious hiring decision, why wouldn’t you? A well-written cover letter is never a waste of time if it is submitted for the right role.

Cover letters are particularly useful to outline motivations if you have no experience , are approaching a career change, or are seeking a promotion.

The content of a cover letter should rhyme with your resume sales pitch, whilst not repeating it. Here is a bit more about what hiring managers hope to find there.

What do hiring managers expect in a cover letter?

An effective cover letter picks out a couple of relevant career accomplishments and weaves a story around why and how you made these things happen. 

There is still a place for the bullet-pointed achievements and brevity of a resume, but the benefit of a cover letter lies primarily in the ability to make your career sales pitch in your own free-flowing words within a carefully-designed format.

Hiring managers will hope to see the following in a cover letter:

Why you want the job (not only why you will be good at it).

How you can make an impact in the position.

What personal qualities you would bring to the team.

Evidence of research that shows you know what is expected.

Arguments for your circumstances – career change, return to work, etc.

Every cover letter will be different because the fit between your experience and the role will vary. Find the most compelling points of suitability and expand on your motivations.

Letter of Interest vs. Cover Letter
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Letter of Interest vs. Cover Letter

A letter of interest and a cover letter are similar but not identical documents used to apply for a job. Here we explore the differences and discuss how to write each of them to maximize your chances of getting the job that’s right for you in 2021.

4 Ingredients of a great cover letter

A cover letter is the sum of its ingredients. When you have a blank page to fill, the following attributes should all be present for you to shine.

Personality

When you write a cover letter, you need to share a part of your soul. While a resume is a factual account of your accomplishments, a cover letter is much more about your “why.”

Be vulnerable. After all, the job must be a fit for you. If a hiring manager doesn’t feel that you are the person for them, then it is probably for the best. A square peg in a round hole is a recipe for an unhappy career. Set out your personal case in your cover letter.

Enthusiasm

Excitement is an underrated sensation in the job search process. Candidates feel that they should be formal and professional in their written and oral communication, but this serves to dampen any enthusiasm that a candidate may have for a role.

Every hiring manager wants to sense: “wow, they really want to be here.” Allow yourself to express your excitement in your cover letter. Don’t go over the top, but equally don’t put a lid on why your eagerness. They want to hire people who are in it for the long run.

Tailored

Hiring managers want to feel special. While most candidates will spend a long time perfecting every word of their resumes, cover letters are often a hasty afterthought.

Most candidates use the same cover letter skeleton for each application, changing a few key details. This shows a lack of interest and is not hard to spot. If you (really) want the job, sit down with a blank page and write a bespoke letter for the specific role.

Conversational

Adopting a warm and friendly tone can set the scene to carry on the conversation during an interview. Don’t be afraid of using the first person (although not too much), and make sure that the cover letter “sounds” like you. Ask a friend to check if you are unsure.

A hiring manager will read the letter and imagine that you are speaking directly to them. How do you want to come across? Put yourself in their position. Are these the words that you would want to hear? What does the tone say about your personality?

4 Errors of a terrible cover letter

You can also get a cover letter horribly wrong. To the point that it would have been much better not to write one in the first place. Avoid these four mistakes if possible.

Self-obsession

A cover letter is a medium for job search persuasion. When the needs of an employer and the potential of an applicant meet, there is a partnership to explore.

Too many cover letters focus squarely on the potential of the applicant without mentioning how that fits the needs of the employer. Don’t fall into the trap of self-obsession - discuss why your experience will make a difference to your future boss.

Negativity

While every career story should contain realistic shades of positivity and negativity, when you sit down to write your cover letter it would seem strange to mention anything unflattering. That would make a hiring manager wonder what else lurks beneath.

Humility is important during an interview, but when you are writing a sales document such as a cover letter, you must put forward your most compelling case.

How to start a cover letter (2022)
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Figuring out how to start your cover letter can be one of the most challenging parts of the whole application process. It’s also one of the most important. According to Yahoo Finance, 77 percent of hiring managers say they would give preference to a candidate who submitted a cover letter – even if the application said it was optional!

Waffle

A long and rambling cover letter that is unclear in its messaging will not secure many interviews. The cover letter should be strictly no more than one page, which seems ample, but you would be surprised just how possible it is to write about not a lot in 300 words.

Be direct in your messages, use short sentences, and be content to leave out the juicy details for later in the interview process. Grab their attention with powerful language.

Generic phrases

While we mentioned earlier that a cover letter should be tailored in its messaging, that also rings true for the phrases that you use. There is a temptation to borrow impressive phrases from online cover letter examples, but this can easily spoil the flow of your writing.

Sure, deploy the odd impressive action verb and choose adjectives with care, but copying entire sections from example cover letters lowers you to the standards of your competition.

Expert tip

Circumstances may dictate that you need to write a motivation letter instead of a cover letter, but much of the advice above will still stand true.

Key takeaways

As every application is different, there is no one answer to “what is a cover letter?” 

Hopefully, we have given you some food for thought in terms of what a hiring manager is looking for and the type of content that will give you the best chance of success. Remember that a cover letter is all the following things:

  • Personal sales pitch from you to your future boss
  • A reflection of who you are and where you are going
  • Thoughtful response to the demands of the job description
  • Highlights from your career story with a promise of more to come
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