It is generally accepted practice to include a cover (or covering) letter, together with your resume and any other documentation that you forward to the employer as part of a job application.
Your covering letter essentially provides an explanation of why you are communicating with the employer. Imagine a prospective employer's confusion if they received your resume without a covering letter explaining why you have sent it to them, or what position you were applying for.
A well written covering letter however can achieve much, much more in assisting you to gain employment. It represents a significant opportunity to create a positive impression with the employer, and to further market your skills and qualifications. Often your cover letter alone can influence an employer to include you in the next stage of the selection process, which is meeting you in an interview.
Always include a cover letter when sending your resume to:
- An employer, or a recruitment agency, in response to an advertised position.
- A recruitment agency seeking their assistance in finding employment.
- Prospective individual employers as part of a self-marketing exercise, or when enquiring about employment opportunities in their organisation.
Send a cover letter even if a job advertisement doesn't specifically request that you do so. Remember, a cover letter provides another opportunity, in addition to your resume, to make a positive impression with prospective employers.
Note: The only exception to this would be an employer's on-line application process which does not enable or allow for a cover letter to be included.
The cover letter is an obvious means of introducing yourself to a potential employer, or, to an employer's agent if you are writing to a recruitment agency.
Beyond this however, you should use a cover letter to:
Explain clearly and concisely who you are, what job you are applying for, and why you applying.
Summarise your key strengths, attributes, qualifications and motivations.
Convey that you are professional, competent and enthusiastic about the employment opportunity through the language, content and overall layout of the letter.
Tip: Never send a 'generic' cover letter to employers. As with your resume, it is essential that every cover letter you send to an employer is tailored to either the specific selection criteria appearing in the job advertisement, and/or to your specific purpose in writing to that employer.
A final thought about the importance of your cover letter: The cover letter and the resume should both be stand alone documents and have sufficient impact on the employer to take your application to the next stage. Don't assume that an employer will take the time to read both the cover letter and resume when deciding which applications to accept or reject.
Your cover letter is a sales letter; you want the employer to "buy" what you have to offer. To encourage them to do this, it is essential that you explain how the employer will benefit if they offer you a position.
For example, if you have well developed interpersonal communication skills and you know these skills are important to the employer, then say you have these skills in your letter. Then go one step further and point out a benefit, for instance:
"I have highly developed interpersonal communication skills which means that I able to rapidly form effective working relationships with both co-workers and customers".
Avoid doing what inexperienced job candidates do which is usually to point out to an employer how a position with their organisation meets their career goals or other needs, such as:
"This is my ideal position", or "this role will give me the opportunity to get started/gain important experience in this field".
Employers will rarely be impressed by this; they much prefer to know about the contribution you can make, or the benefits you can bring to their organisation.
Following are some guidelines to assist you to write cover letters that make a positive impact on employers:
Ideally keep the length of your letter to a single A4 page, and no more than a page and a half. Keep your message clear and succinct.
Address your letter to a person, not a position. The job advertisement might say to address your letter to the "The Human Resources Manager" or other job title. Contact the organisation to find out the name of the person to whom the letter should be addressed. In this way you can differentiate yourself from other candidates, and increase the chances that your application will get noticed.
Ensure your name, address, phone number/s and email address are at the very top of the letter and aligned to the right hand margin.
Also at the top of the letter, on the next line after the greeting "Dear Ms ...", quote any employer reference information and/or number appearing in the job advertisement.
Set out your letter so that it is easy to read, and that essential information about you can be seen at a glance. The reader will probably spend no more than 30 seconds or so reading your letter before deciding if you qualify for further consideration.
It is quite acceptable to use bold or underlined sub-headings in the main body of your letter with information relevant to the sub heading in dot point form.
Make the tone of your letter lively by commencing bullet point sentences with action words such as 'led', 'designed', 'planned and organised', 'implemented' etc as appropriate.
Close the letter with "Yours sincerely" if you know the person to whom you are writing, otherwise close with "Yours faithfully".
Sign the letter in your own hand writing, and type your name underneath the signature.
Always proof read your letter. Spelling and grammar must be correct. Having a friend or colleague proof read your letter is also helpful.
The next topic provides suggestions about the content of specific types of cover letters.
What you write about in your letter will depend on your purpose. Following are some additional, more specific guidelines for each of the most common situations where you should send a cover letter. These situations are:
A position in private enterprise. Here you are responding to a job advertisement placed either by the employer, or a recruitment agency, where you are not required to also submit a separate document addressing the selection criteria.
A role in a government department, local government and some not for profit organisations. This type of job application usually requires you to prepare and submit, in addition to your resume and cover letter, a separate document which addresses the selection criteria contained in the person specification for the role.
Writing a speculative letter (or cold call) to an employer enquiring about employment opportunities.
Writing to introduce yourself to a recruitment agency and requesting them to assist you to find employment, rather than the situation where you are writing in response to a job advertisement.
Carefully analyse the job advertisement to determine the content of this type of letter. In your letter you should describe succinctly and clearly how you meet that criteria.
Advertisements for graduate positions most often appear in the large display advertisements in the careers or professional section of the newspaper, not in the positions vacant section.
A display advertisement will usually consist of three parts - a description of the employer organisation, an overview of the job role and then the selection criteria. The selection criteria part of an advertisement usually starts with a sentence like "The successful candidate will demonstrate/possess ..." or "To be successful in this role you will ..."
The focus and main content of your letter should be about how you meet the selection criteria. This is because the decision to hire will be based on how well candidates meet the selection criteria.
In your introductory paragraph:
Refer to the position, including a reference number, if applicable, and where you saw it advertised.
Say that you are interested in the role, and express confidence in your ability to perform the role to the standard required.
Then write a sentence introducing the reader to the main body of the letter, for example, "Following is a summary of my qualifications and experience based on your selection criteria: ..."
In the main body of your letter:
Use sub headings, either in bold font or underlined, for each of the selection criteria, and then detail under each heading the information in dot point summary form about how you meet the criteria.
Indicate that you have enclosed your resume which contains further information about your skills and qualifications in relation to the position.
The concluding paragraph:
Indicate that you look forward to meeting the person to whom you are writing in the interview, at which time you will be able to further demonstrate your suitability for the role and outline the contribution you can make to the organisation.
Avoid a weak closing sentence which states that you "hope to hear" from them – indicate in the tone of the letter that you are confident about your capabilities and that an interview is expected!
Tip: Avoid doing what inexperienced job seekers tend to do, which is to write about their ability to carry out the described role, rather than attempting to match their skills and experience against the selection criteria.
The content of your cover letter for a position in a federal, state or local government organisation or department will be set out in a similar style to a letter which you might send for a role outside government.
You will need to outline in the letter the position for which you are applying and why you believe you are the best candidate for the role. When applying for most government roles you will need to complete a separate, and usually quite extensive document which contains evidence about how you meet the selection criteria. Because you will need to restrict the length of your cover letter to a page or so, your major challenge will to condense and summarise in your letter, information that you will have already provided in this separate document.
In the main body of the letter therefore, using the same sub heading and bullet point format as for a private enterprise position, select and write about how you meet 3 or 4 of the most important 'essential' selection criteria.
This is an option for finding employment which is sometimes successful. The approach is to write to an employer, or employers, and recruitment agents who operate in your field of career interest, either to enquire about employment opportunities, or to offer your services.
This type of letter is often called a speculative or cold call letter because you are not responding to an advertisement, and you may not know if the employer is looking to hire staff.
Some suggested approaches for preparing this type of letter are:
If you know the organisation recruits graduates for various types of employment, work experience or project work, explain the arrangement you are seeking. This could be for example to seek full time employment, undertake casual, contract or voluntary work, vacation employment, or as part of a university assignment or project which has application to the organisation or industry.
If, as a result of your research into the organisation, you are aware that they have a need that you are able to help them meet, outline in the letter your understanding of their need. Then explain how, through your specific skills, knowledge or experience, you can assist.
Outline your action plan in your closing paragraph. For example, explain that you will make a follow up phone call seeking an interview and give a time frame for when you will be doing this. Do not expect the employer to contact you.
Address your letter to a person. Identify who appropriate person/s might be through research and through networking. You can then ask for this person by name when you make your follow up phone call.
It is recommended that you include two or three recruitment agencies as part of your job search strategy, asking their assistance in finding you a job. You do not have to wait for an advertisement to appear before contacting a recruitment agency. Write to them as soon as you start your job search.
Be sure to select recruitment agencies that specialise in the industry or occupations that you are targeting.
Recruitment agencies often do not advertise all the positions they are attempting to fill for the employers who are their clients. Instead they will attempt to fill these positions from candidates whose details they already have on their data base. In order to get onto their data base you will probably need to write to them and include your resume.
As with other employment applications you will need to explain in your letter the type of role you are seeking, and outline the skills, knowledge and experience you would bring to such a role. Your approach in the letter is to assist the agency to sell your services to an employer.
Be aware that most recruitment agencies are pleased to work with candidates who are seeking employment under various conditions. This includes permanent, full time roles, full time, fixed term contracts, part time and casual work. You will need to indicate in your cover letter what your preferences are in this regard.
Tip: It sometimes helps to be flexible about the basis on which you might be employed by an organisation. There are many examples of people commencing their career with an organisation on a contract basis, or even as a part time or casual employee who have subsequently been offered a full time, permanent position.
With the increasing use of employment advertising on the internet and electronic job application processes it is quite likely that you will be using an email in which to write a covering letter.
If you are writing an email cover letter it is even more important to be clear and concise in what you write. Generally the reader will not want to have to work their way through large blocks of text to find out why you are writing and what you have to offer. This means you should aim to confine the content of your email into a single screen sized page.
Some guidelines to follow:
Use the subject line to clearly convey your purpose in writing.
Explain in the first sentence why you are writing.
In dot point form provide a very brief summary of your key selling points - your relevant skills, knowledge and experience.
In your closing sentence indicate that you are looking forward to meeting them in the interview where you can further demonstrate your capabilities.
When you begin to seriously look for employment it is possible that you will prepare numerous, and different versions of cover letters, your resume and other documentation associated with your application.
Should you be invited to attend an interview, or an employer contacts you by telephone (with or without notice) to conduct a screening interview, it will be imperative that you are able to quickly locate and refer to the information you have given that employer.
A good filing system will assist you to do this. Keep a separate file for each job application. Include in this file:
The job advertisement.
Job or person specifications.
Any notes or worksheets associated with the position.
A copy of the cover letter, resume and any other documentation you send to the employer.