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5 tips from a copywriter on writing cover letters that get read instead of trashed12 min read

How to Write a Cover Letter

If you want that dream job, master the art of writing an attention-grabbing cover letter.

As I’ve mentioned before ,  I’ve been on the job market a lot. Looking for work sometimes felt like the actual job while the work I got hired for came and went.

I’ve sent out more applications than I can remember. I’ve written and re-written cover letters and CVs in a bid to get noticed.

I’ve been to job seeker training more times than I care to admit and every single time they were telling us that we need to stand out if we want to get hired.

The problem was that they’d turn around and teach us how to write the same old boring CVs and cover letters that everyone — I repeat: everyone — hates.

If you hate writing it, you can bet your pretty little heinie other people are gonna hate reading it — or even worse; they simply won’t care.

When all the choices are equal, it doesn’t matter which one they pick – even if that happens to be you, they won’t see anything special about you.

So how do you write a cover letter that actually gets read?

A cover letter seems like a necessary evil for most people: something that must be tolerated if you want a job. I think a lot of us revert back to that age-old standard model because we are intimidated by writing one that genuinely represents us.

But a cover letter is your chance to shine, to show them who you truly are. Even if they don’t think you’re the right person for the job, but they remember you (out of all those candidates); you’ve done a good job.

Getting a job should never be a one-sided deal — as much as you’re selling yourself to The Company, The Company needs to sell itself to you too. This was my complaint with poorly written job ads.

A cover letter is also the perfect tool for you if you’re career path has been winding and peppered with sometimes interesting and sometimes necessary detours.

That you didn’t rocket your way into a linear career path doesn’t make you any less qualified — often the lessons learned in the school of hard knocks are what make you a more solid, more experienced candidate for the job.

The key to writing a winning cover letter is to shift the conversation from (blindly staring) at relevant experience toward whether or not you can do the job you’re applying for.

Don’t bother narrating the reader through your entire career path in an attempt to justify every professional decision you ever made. Life is life, what you did isn’t as important as what you learned.

Do yourself — and the hiring manager — a favour and let your skillset speak for itself. Showcasing your transferable skills in your cover letter (and CV) will make you much more attractive to prospective employers.

5 Tips For Writing Better Cover Letters

1. Have a target audience in mind and write for them

As important as this is for anyone looking to get hired, this is especially important for those of us with coloured work histories.

You’re not going to be able to simply list your job experience (my track record spans sales, warehouse work and entrepreneurship) and expect a hiring manager to immediately see what you bring to the table.

Instead, you need to turn the focus toward what you’re trying to achieve, why you’re working towards it and what steps you’ve taken to get there. Which leads us to the next point.

2. Find the common threads

Look back at your work history and find what your jobs have in common. Present your choices in a way that shows the common thread running through all the career decisions.

My work history is focused on different aspects of brand communication and business development. As the entrepreneurial type, I’m personally interested in understanding how to do business better and figure out what makes companies great.

Sales are the most critical point of contact with the customer and having worked on the floor on a day-to-day basis means I understand just how important it is to keep sales staff motivated.

It also taught me how essential coherent brand communication is because I’ve seen what it looks like when the (very costly marketing) messages fly over the customers’ heads and produce zero returns.

Working in a warehouse taught me how important inventory management is because I’ve seen the waste and inefficiencies first hand.

I’ve also experienced how the employees that seem the most insignificant are treated poorly and how bad hiring practices can hamper sales, excellent customer service and employee motivation.

Having personal experience in running a start-up, means I know what the challenges are in reality — not just what the schoolbooks say they are.

Getting a company off the ground means thinking on your feet, understanding branding, being creative with your marketing and working efficiently because budgets are small and revenue is difficult or slow to build.

As a content marketer, I’ve specialised in brand communication and have mostly worked with small businesses and personal brands.

My varied experience has actually made me better at my job than if I would have trodden a perfect path to copywriter going from school to a working professional.

I’ve found that I’m more resilient and a better problem solver than peers who have less experience with rejection and failure.

3. Don’t over-explain

Someone who’s nervous about how their career path reads can be seen from a mile away. Speaking quickly, being nervous and over-explaining whatever you perceive as a weakness will give you away instantly.

Think about how you’re going to present your career choices and how you’re going to tell your story to a potential employer so that it makes sense.

Make your elevator pitch short and sweet, be confident in your abilities and refocus the discussion to what value you bring to the company; how you’re going to commit and what you’re going to deliver.

They’re looking for the person who’ll come in and say that they’re going to get the job done so that they can stop worrying about it. Be that person.

4. Take control of your story

If you feel like there is something in your work history that won’t be perceived well, you can be pretty sure other people will come to the same conclusion.

That’s why it’s so important that you take control of the narrative and send a message that makes you feel confident in your own abilities.

If you’re afraid that your career moves are going to make you appear like a job hopper, you can add a short statement describing the reason for the change.

“Due to corporate restructuring,” makes it clear your job got axed, “Following a relocation to…” makes it obvious why you changed jobs or “Because I had hit a ceiling in my career path at…” lets them know that you’re ambitious and want to progress as a professional – potentially making you a long-term employee with the right company.

If you just needed a change, you can explain the reasons you felt your previous job wasn’t fulfilling your requirements anymore.

5. Focus on performance

Companies like employees that bring performance. A resume or cover letter that just looks like a list of your weekly duties isn’t going to cut it.

What you want to do is describe those duties in terms of the accomplishments they lead you to.

You want to use this opportunity to tell the reader something they don’t already know.

Hiring managers already have a good idea of the duties associated with your job titles. By not wasting space on listing tasks that are part and parcel of the job, you should use your limited space to paint a picture of your abilities.

A duty describes what you did and an accomplishment how well you did it.

“Did sales” is pretty run-of-the-mill and won’t impress upon anyone how good you really are. “Consistently met sales targets and grew YoY revenue by 15%” is an accomplishment.

Back when I was working in the kids’ shoe department, my favourite part of the job was helping people. My favourite customers were the first time parents who were utterly lost when it came to buying shoes.

So, rather than “did customer service” I emphasised that “I helped solve new customers’ problems and found the right solutions to their needs, my focus was on providing excellent service and turning first-time buyers into returning customers”.

Some phrases to help you showcase performance:

  • Known for…
  • Invited to…
  • Promoted to…
  • Recognised for…
  • Given responsibility to…

6. Present what transferable skills you bring

Transferable skills are those skills that are universally useful. They’re skills that you can learn in just about any environment or setting and carry the lessons with you into other areas of life.

The good news is that you’ve already developed a bunch of transferable skills at school, in social settings, at work etc.

Employers look for people who demonstrate a good set of transferable skills.

What’s important is that you learn to recognise what transferable skills you have developed and give examples of how you’d apply them to the new job.

Begin by listing the things that set you apart. Then consider each point and ask yourself:

  • What did I do that was above and beyond what the job required?
  • What process did I implement to improve things?
  • What results did I get when making improvements?
  • What problems did I solve?
  • Did I consistently meet and/or exceed goals?
  • Was I recognised by a supervisor for good performance (when and why)?
  • How did I stand out among my colleagues?
  • What made me particularly good at my job?
  • Did I win any awards or accolades?

Add as many facts and figures as you can to your list. Quantifying your accomplishments tells the recruiter what level of responsibility or amount of work was required to achieve that particular accomplishment.

Also think about the benefits that you added to your team, customers or company. That allows you to communicate what you’re capable of and how this new employer would benefit from hiring you.

Now go write that winning cover letter!

Lily Herman found that a certain type of cover letter yielded more interviews than others. According to her the cover letter that she got the most interviews with was:

  • Short and to the point (less than 150 words). Anyone looking to hire help is bound to be busy and you want to make it short and sweet.
  • Quite informal. Adhering to the standard templates of cover letter writing doesn’t allow for much of your personality to shine through, because they traditionally read more like a list of your experience.
  • A bit arrogant, punchy and unapologetic. You should know that you’re good at what you do and that your skillset is solid — and not be afraid to say so.
  • Declares how good you really are. The people reading this letter have never heard of you, so make them pay attention. Don’t undersell yourself.
  • Has a call-to-action asking them to contact you — seems obvious that they will if they’re interested, but this can sometimes be the difference between forgetting to call you and picking up the phone. It shows you’re proactive and waiting to hear from them.
  • Promises results. Think of what you can deliver and showcase that.
  • Has a few referrals upfront. If they’re enticed by your cover letter and CV you’re making it easy for them to do their due diligence before getting in touch with you. If you’re as good as you say you are, they’ll call you.

May you find the job of your dreams!

To give you a more concrete idea of the type of cover letter that I write, based on the (very sage) advice in this article, I’ve added one down below.

This is an actual cover letter than I sent out (didn’t get the job) and I considered this as the first point of contact that the hiring manager had with me. My goal was to get them to be curious enough to get through this and then open my CV.

So, I kept it light and breezy in the cover letter, because if this piqued their interest, my CV is the heavy hitter, since it’s 5 pages long and looks more like a media kit than a conventional CV.

The joke on the top was a bit cheesy but the point was to make my letter more memorable. If you can make them smile, you’ve got a foot in!


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