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Cover letter

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.


When should I send a cover letter?

Always include a cover letter when sending your resume to:

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.

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What is the purpose of a cover letter?

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:

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.

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Write about the benefits to the employer

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.

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General guidelines for preparing a cover letter

Following are some guidelines to assist you to write cover letters that make a positive impact on employers:

The next topic provides suggestions about the content of specific types of cover letters.

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Suggested content for specific types of cover letter

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:

Job advertisement response - private enterprises

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:

In the main body of your letter:

The concluding paragraph:

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.

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Job advertisement response - roles in government departments/ organisations

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.

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Speculative or cold call letter

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:

Writing to a recruitment agency

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.

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Email cover letters

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:

Keep good records

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:

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