Should you even bother writing a cover letter?
You've spent hours perfecting your CV and LinkedIn profile, then you hastily type a few lines as a cover letter and hit send. After all, do recruiters bother to read cover letters anymore?
Whilst online recruitment tools and digital portals don't always explicitly request one, the inclusion of a cover letter can grab the interest of an HR Manager, show your value, and make a strong case for why you're the right candidate for the job.
Here's all you need to know about the power of the cover letter and why including one ‒ whether requested or not ‒ will elevate your application and help you to put your best self forward.
Do employers really read cover letters?
The simple answer is, yes ‒ most of the time. Many employers like to see a cover letter because it shows two important things: that the candidate has gone the extra mile and that the candidate is serious about their application.
A stellar cover letter acts as a tool for the HR Manager to easily identify suitable applicants by drawing out their unique skills and personality, saving precious time in the shortlisting process.
True, there are some scenarios where the cover letter is not always a prerequisite. The way in which we apply for jobs is evolving, and digital recruitment is becoming increasingly popular. The 2019/2020 XpertHR key recruitment metrics survey reveals that social media as a candidate-attraction method has grown dramatically in recent years, and LinkedIn is used in the recruitment processes of more than nine in 10 organisations (93.2%).
Also, cover letters aren't always necessary when applying via an applicant tracking system - some organisations set questions to answer that are tied to their values and culture instead.
Even the best cover letters only form part of the overall decision-making process. This is particularly true when HR Managers are considering applications from neurodivergent people, to account for the advantage given to those who can write well.
However, cover letters still hold a lot of value and candidates should think twice before simply hitting the Easy Apply button. It may save time, but this efficiency could be at the expense of quality, as the recruiter will see only a snapshot of your LinkedIn profile rather than the relevant and interesting parts of your career story that a cover letter could supply.
A poll by UK job site reed.co.uk shows that 36% of respondents consider a cover letter "quite important" when receiving an application from a candidate, with 20% seeing them as vital, stating that they wouldn't consider an application without one.
As an HR Specialist for a London-based IP law firm, I draw on 20 years of experience in HR, and contacts from inside the industry and recruitment community, to form my opinions. I believe that yes, cover letters are still being read.
What HR Managers are looking for in a good cover letter
The main purpose of the cover letter is to formally convey your interest in the role, but it also provides a valuable platform to amplify your expertise, skills, and qualifications.
First impressions count and a bad cover letter could make all the difference between success and rejection. So what are recruiters really looking for in a good cover letter, and how can you ensure that yours is distinctive?
Put the effort in
Similar to following LinkedIn profile best practices, you should give your cover letter the same level of attention. Avoid rushing the writing process or simply cutting and pasting sections of your CV in a panic; it will reflect in the content and appear obvious to the HR Manager.
Take the time to do some thorough research. You should familiarise yourself with the company and department's brand values, their current projects, and any recent successes. Identify keywords from the job advert and use them to demonstrate how your skills, abilities, and personal values match up to the company. If you address the HR Manager by name in a cover letter rather than generically (even if it involves some extra fact-finding) it adds a warm but professional touch.
Before submitting, take the time to check the spelling and grammar and proofread your cover letter ‒ then proofread again.
Be comprehensive but concise
Your cover letter should be around half a page to one page in length. Aim for 250 words, but never more than 400 to keep the reader engaged. Consider dividing your cover letter into sections with an introduction, a main body comprising two to three paragraphs and a strong ending. Alison Green, writer of Ask a Manager, has some fixes for bad ways to open a cover letter.
Go beyond simply listing your knowledge, skills, and career history to date. You should engage carefully with the job requirements and clearly and explicitly show what you have done, rather than tell them. For example, "At ABC company, I achieved X, Y and Z." Being specific with your personal contributions and achievements will convince the HR Manager you have exactly what they need.
When describing your accomplishments, consider using action verbs in your CV to keep things concise but powerful. Examples include "improved," "transformed," "resolved" and "pioneered."
Show your personality (but not too much)
A cover letter can provide valuable insight into your personality and show how you would fit well with the company culture. It provides an opportunity to creatively expand on any career gaps in your CV in more detail, such as an intentional career break or family leave to raise children. It also provides an opportunity to add any periods of volunteering.
It could also help you to challenge any potential unconscious bias in the hiring process, by confidently explaining your knowledge, experience, and expertise and using your background to your advantage.
However, you should steer away from being too familiar, using jokes, or making reference to something personal about the HR Manager that you may have seen on LinkedIn. You're not an employee (yet), and you could unintentionally blur the line between confidence and arrogance.
On the flip side, you should also avoid using overly formal or stilted language, industry jargon, or complicated words that you wouldn't normally use, such as "advantageous" instead of "helpful." Try reading your cover letter aloud, videoing yourself, and watching it back, or asking someone you trust to listen to you read; if any elements don't sound like you, re-work them until you're happy they do.
Ideally, you should find a balance between appearing credible and serious about your application, whilst remaining friendly and approachable.
Use your letter to get ahead
Even if a cover letter is not specifically requested, providing one could give you a competitive advantage. A carefully crafted and engaging cover letter could grab the attention of the hiring manager – and help you to land your dream job.
Any successful cover letter must be paired with a strong CV. Get a free CV review to find out how yours fares.