how to write a cover letter

A common mistake job seekers make is spending lots of time on finessing their resumes, only to forget to include a cover letter as part of their application. As a job seeker, you should never neglect to include a cover letter. Cover letters are often the single most under-utilised tool in a job seekers arsenal, and understanding the secrets of how to write a great cover letter is almost as important as your resume itself.

As much as you may hate the thought of having to write one, your cover letter provides you with the perfect opportunity to summarise specifically what makes you stand out as the number one applicant for the job you are applying for. It is here that you can outline to your potential employer what makes you a great fit for both the role and the company - where you can express your personality and give the hiring manager an idea about you as a real person, not just your skills and expertise. Writing a poor cover letter (or even worse, not writing one at all!) can impact negatively on how your resume is perceived.  

In general, cover letters should

  • be tailored to be read specifically by the hiring manager advertising the role
  • show that you have read the advertisement carefully, considered it and understand what is required of you as the potential employee 
  • be concise and well structured, clearly linking your experience with the requirements of the position advertised
  • in length, be kept to around 5 paragraphs at most
  • be positive and confident, compelling the reader to look at your resume. Speak the language of the hiring manager
  • provide a call to action prompting the hiring manager to contact you to arrange an interview

step 1. who should you address your cover letter to?

Where possible you should always personalise your cover letter - you may be tempted to use a variation on 'To whom it may concern' as your opening line, however there is no better way to show your interest in the organisation than by taking the time to find out who it is that has advertised the role and addressing the letter directly to them. Usually you can find the hiring manager information either directly listed on the job advertisement (usually down the bottom in the 'contact us to apply' section), or if this is left blank, try looking on the company's career page or via your LinkedIn network to ascertain who has advertised the role.

step 2. introduce yourself

Often your cover letter is the first interaction the prospective employer will have with you - well before they open your resume. This is why it is imperative that when writing your cover letter you must introduce yourself and give the employer a sense of who you are and more importantly, why they should hire you for the role. Spend some time highlighting your key experience and take particular care to outline your demonstrated skills and how they mirror the requirements listed in the job description. Showcase how your skills/experience matches what the employer is looking for and what sets you apart from competing applicants. Don't forget to use strong action words and ensure the overall tone of your message is confident.

E.g. "I am writing to apply for your recently advertised role of business development manager in Auckland. Having over 4 years experience working as a Sales Manager in the Financial industry, I believe I am the perfect candidate for your role. As an expert in field sales, I pride myself on my excellent communication & negotiation skills, and in my superior ability to provide tailored solutions to my clients. In your advertisement you mentioned you are looking for someone who is energetic and who can drive sales margins. I am highly personable, cheerful and dynamic and it is my unique personality which really helps me to excel & grow both my portfolio of clients as well as the overall account worth. I am consistently a top performer and I know I would be an asset to your sales team."

step 3. show that you have taken the time to research the company 

One of the biggest oversights that people make when they are writing a cover letter is to make it all about themselves, but one of the best ways you can make your job application stand out from the crowd is by really researching the business you are applying with, and peppering your cover letter with information that only a person who is familiar with the company would know.

Visit the company website, and Google for the latest company news. In particular, a good place to start is by looking up the careers page on the website of your potential employer and learning what sets them apart as an employer brand. Familiarise yourself with what the company does and how it talks about itself so that you will be able to mention this in your cover letter, and also during your interview.

E.g.. "I have always admired ABC company and so when I saw your job advertisement I jumped at the chance to apply. Having read an article just the other day about how ABC company is expanding its operations into our western region, I can see how robust your business strategy is, and would love to be a part of this exciting new growth period in your organisation"

step 4: include a call to action

The last note your cover letter must finish on is a strong call to action, inciting the potential employer to look through your resume and to contact you to arrange an interview date/time.

E.g.. "Please see as attached my resume. As you can see by my skills and experience, I believe I would be a perfect fit for your organisation and I would welcome the chance to meet with you and discuss this opportunity further. Please call me on 023 123 123 or email me at joebloggs@candidate.co.nz so that we can arrange a suitable date/time. I look forward to hearing from you soon."

hot tip: don't use one generic cover letter for all your applications

Once you have taken the time to write your first cover letter, it might be tempting to recycle its use for all future job applications - don't do it!

While you might save time in the short term, having a tailored cover letter vs a generic one might be the difference between getting your dream job or losing it because of your oversight.

Your cover letter needs to show that you understand exactly what the employer wants from you as a prospective candidate, and that your skills and expertise match those that the organisation has outlined as requirements in their job advertisement. Since no two job ads are the same, the wording in your cover letters should always reflect these differentiations.

cover letter checklist

Now you know how to write a cover letter, so what are you waiting for - write it.

Once you have written your first cover letter, read through it thoroughly and use the below checklist to ensure you have included all the essential information required:
  • your name and contact details
  • the job title you are applying for
  • a brief summary of your skills and experience that match the job description
  • a summary of why you're right for the job
  • outline what you know about the company, and why you think you would fit in if you were to become the successful applicant
  • a call to action asking the hiring manager to read your resume & to contact you to arrange an interview

common mistakes made when writing a cover letter

Lastly, here is a list of things that you should take into consideration when learning how to write a cover letter:
  • Check your cover letter for any typo's or factual errors. 
  • Always use spell check before you send your cover letter, and if in doubt, get someone you trust to read over the letter and proof it for you.
  • Don't cut and paste reams of text from your resume into your cover letter - employers will see straight through this. 
  • Your cover letter is a way to show your personality, where your resume tends to be more factual, so make sure your tone and wording in your cover letter conveys you as a person, not just your skills and experience.
  • Don't make it a 60 page essay! The ideal length of a cover letter is between half and three quarters of an A4 page. Remember that the potential employer reading it does not have all day to scroll through a lengthy letter, so keep it succinct and to the point - you can always direct them to view your resume for further information.
  • Don't mention other jobs you may have applied for. Most jobseekers apply for several jobs at a time, however it is important not to mention this in your cover letter - you are trying to convince this company to hire you, so why would they be interested if they know you are looking at other roles as well?