You’ve found the job to apply for. What about the cover letter?

What’s the value of writing a cover letter these days? Is there a better way to write one, quickly? There is. And it can be done again and again.

You've found the job to apply for. What about the cover letter?

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been here too many times throughout my career. ‘Here’ being a place where I’ve had to make an application for a job. An important job at that. One that I think suits me and I think can be the opportunity I’ve been looking for.

Maybe this scenario is familiar to you: For whatever reason, you’re looking for a new role. You’ve updated your CV, posted it on a number of carefully selected job boards and set up a collection of job alerts. As they come through you inspect them. You delete the ones that are just plain wrong because they don’t match your search criteria (which makes you wonder about the search engine on the job site, but that’s another story), read some or all of the job descriptions for the others and decide to apply for one or more.

Now, the job site you’re on gives you a quick and easy way to apply, which is great. Naturally, you can use the CV you posted on the site some time ago, or you can upload a new one because you made a tweak to it recently. And then there’s the Cover Letter text box. Sometimes the job site fills it in with a generic message and sometimes it leaves it blank. So what do you do? It isn’t easy.

The point of a cover letter is to help the agent see and understand quickly that you have what’s needed. There can’t be another reason for a cover letter. You can’t establish a rapport at this stage. You can’t convey everything that you have to offer (it’s hard enough to do that in the CV itself). And you can’t always get it right.

“You can’t convey everything that you have to offer (it’s hard enough to do that in the CV itself).”

Today and for many years in fact, the business of finding a candidate for a job, any job, any industry, niche, specialisation or location is pretty well cut-throat and dog eat dog. It’s the way it is. The days of having time and moving the process along at a clip but comfortable pace are, simply; over. One ad placed by an agent will reach a great many people. At all times, there are a great many people looking for a small number of jobs. So, you find yourself scrabbling to be recognised and you’ve got a small number of opportunities to get attention.

In your circumstances and situation, if you’re still in a role and looking when you can, you probably haven’t got masses of time available to custom apply. So how do you approach the cover letter problem? It’s hard to think of how to word the specific experience in an area at the spur of the moment. The wording is critical. That small collection of sentences has to grab and hold the agent’s attention in seconds. Given the number of applications that’ll be received for a role, any role, agents cannot take their time. So what to do?

Some of the job sites have problems delivering applications, simply made up of an alert and an attached Word or .PDF file to the agent, let alone an additional cover letter document. Will your application actually be received?

So, there really are a number of challenges around cover letters. And they need to be understood so you can work out what’s best for your situation, skills, needs and wants.

Amongst the responses received to covering letters in the past are statements like:

“I see you’ve said the same thing in the CV as you have in the covering letter. Why is that?” To which the answer is “Because it’s relevant and I wanted you to see it straight away.” Implication being that cutting and pasting has somehow degraded to content (in the CV or the covering letter?)

“Your cover letter was more a collection of bullet points than a letter and I found it hard to read.” To which the answer is “OK. Thank you for the feedback. I’ll certainly keep that in mind. Did you get my point, though?” Takeaway: It’s hard to know what structure to use.

“I saw there was a covering letter but didn’t read it. I’ve had so many responses to the position I just don’t have time to read everything.” To which the (un-spoken) answer is “So why did I bother?”

“I haven’t received your application. Did you send it?” To which the answer is “Yes.” (with “That’s why I’m calling you about it” left un-spoken)

And there are many others, all of which make me ask the question “What really is the importance of a cover letter today?” And the answer is “Quite”.

The point of the letter is clear. The challenges facing someone who is applying for a role are clear. The question about it having been received, read and understood can’t be answered simply, but the exercise, effort and value of the cover letter is actually clear. It’s clear because it serves YOU as well as the agent / client. Just the act of thinking about it while the job description is being read makes a difference. For example, it helps you identify the experiences of the past and present that fit and it gives you the opportunity to organise your thoughts way before the opportunity to sit and talk in an interview come up.

Whether or not you commit to writing anything, thinking about what you’d say and how you’d say it can give you an edge. The edges can make the difference to being read and remembered.

Your cover letter will naturally be unique to each role, but this doesn’t mean you have to write from scratch every time. There are generalities and specifics about your experience and you know them better than anyone else. So, in a separate, dedicated exercise, sit down with the CV, a fine drink and your thoughts and deliberately extract the highlights and specific experiences and summarise them into a well written, short sentence each. Store them in a document organised so you can find any sentence in seconds (Word’s search is a good tool for that). The sentences can be formed into short, succinct paragraphs or you can bullet point them when assembling the cover letter. Also, if you make edits when setting up the cover letter for a role, decide if the new version is better than the original and save it. Also, when there’s a point you haven’t thought of previously that’s relevant and valuable to the role in question, write the new sentence in the base document rather than directly into the cover letter being sent. It will help you think it through and word it with care attention to making it appropriate. The base document is a living thing and will develop over time.

So, when you’re faced with the decision to include a cover letter or not, you’re in a position to do so quickly, with the confidence that your content is good and that it conveys your strengths clearly.

As you develop and use the content, it’s worthwhile asking agents for their professional opinion, which they like to give. When you ask them, remember that you’re only after a couple of words from them. You don’t want to distract them and have the conversation drift away from the details of the role, the content of your actual CV and your suitability for it. Over time you’ll decide whether or not you want to continue using a cover letter and that’s great. It means you’ll have more control over the process of applying for jobs and that control is precious. Good luck.

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