Cover letters – what to include and what not to include

How to write a cover letter

It’s easy to be misled about the contents of a good cover letter. The purpose of the letter is to summarise on one page why you should be invited to an interview. The best reasons are to do with possessing all of the things that the employer is looking for. These will include knowledge, skills, personal qualities and relevant experience. The cover letter is as important as the CV, and arguably more so. If the recruiter or employer reads it first, it will colour their view of what they read on your CV.

What to include then:

Contents of a good cover letter

You simply need to set out why you meet the given criteria through your knowledge, skills, personal qualities and relevant experience. Of course this will be on your CV already. So, mainly, you need to summarise that.

There are a few additional things that also go towards making a great cover letter. The first is why you are interested in the job. It shouldn’t be the first thing you tell them though. That’s because it’s irrelevant unless you are right for the job. So after you have told them why you are suitable, then you say what motivated you to apply. This is about them as well as you. What do you see that convinces you that they are the right employer for you? People like to think that you will show some enthusiasm.

For me this is all it takes. No gimmicks, no desperation and no attempts to get an advantage by being outlandish or attention seeking. It is a letter at the end of the day. Just make it a great letter.

And what not to include:

Telling a story

People have a tendency to structure a cover letter in completely the wrong way. Typically they do it chronologically rather than in a way that is meaningful to the employer. For example they write ‘I recently left x university after y years doing z course … where I learnt’ …

The equivalent for experienced candidates is something like ‘With x years in xyz company, I then moved on to y company, where I took responsibility for …’ Even worse if they start describing why they were selected for a role or who they knew there or how the opportunity came about. All totally irrelevant.

What you should be doing instead is writing in a compelling way about what you can do for the company. In recruitment, as in life – it’s not all about you!

There is absolutely no reason why your cover letter should go in chronological order. Do this if it works for you by all means; but don’t otherwise.

Here are some examples:

Instead of:

‘As part of my BTEC in Business Studies, I did a placement at Xyz Accountants and this was so successful that I was asked to continue working for the following year for 10 hours a week.’

The following is better:

‘With a BTEC in Business Studies and a year’s experience at Xyz Accountants, I have developed payroll software and client management skills.’

The fact that you were the only person out of 4 placement students kept on is an achievement and absolutely should be considered in the achievements section of your CV and it gives you a great example to talk about at your interview, but this and the number of hours (if anything, just state part time) are difficult to find space for in the letter. Concentrate on stating how you meet their criteria.

Instead of ‘I have just left ABC College, where I have been studying …’, the following is better: ‘I have an HND in … and experience in … which has developed skills in …’

Information that you couldn’t fit on your CV

Honestly, if you couldn’t fit it in your CV, it may not be important enough to include.

One thing you shouldn’t do is dump in all of the information that you couldn’t find space for on your CV. To do this results in two documents that lack coherency. It’s probable that you left it out for a good reason!

There are very few exceptions to this. One is for example if you are in Portsmouth and applying for a job in Aberdeen and the job is not an obvious career progression. It’s probably best to briefly point out that you are moving there!

Don’t try to explain things e.g. a so called ‘gap’ in your career. Nothing positive comes from this.

I did once agree with a client that it would be best to include a brief description of why they were changing careers. This was to emphasise why they were suitable for the role, the transferability of the skillset and to prevent that awful issue of being perceived as ‘overqualified’. Crucially however, this was done in a single, short sentence, with the rest of the letter dedicated to relevant achievements. In many cases even this is not necessary. You have applied for the job. The fact that you want to change careers is a given.

Negatives

You also shouldn’t be tempted to explain away any negatives or omissions – just focus on what you can do. The recruiter will make a judgement regarding any omission – as long as it’s not a fundamental competency, if you ‘tick every other box’ you will usually get an interview.

 

Unhelpful information

The two main categories of unhelpful information are: Unsubstantiated claims. Unless you can justify it with at least one example, there is really no point in writing it. The other is general waffle. A classic attempt to fill the cover letter up with what someone imagines will sound professional and positive. Unless it meets the criteria set out at the beginning of this article, you really don’t need it.

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Graeme Jordan

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CV Writer and Interview Coach. Blogging about ways to improve your CV writing and job searching experience.