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While there is much debate about the need for a cover letter nowadays, especially as email has made our communication faster and more concise, many organizations still request one. Even if you apply for a role online using an email application form, the principles of constructing your introduction remain the same. Karalyn Brown of job search consultancy Interview IQ, outlines everything you need to do to make your cover letter stand out.

Cover Letters That Stand Out

There are critical differences between a good cover letter and an outstanding one. While a good cover letter introduces you to the recruiter, an outstanding one is a compelling invitation to read your resume, a marketing exercise that leaves the recruiter in no doubt as to why you would be suitable for the role and importantly exactly why you want it.

Before you begin

An effective job search campaign begins by research, understanding you, what you want and the company you are approaching. Before you begin framing your application, you need to know:

  • yourself - your key strengths and weaknesses;
  • the company, not just their products and services, but their future direction and how you could contribute to their success; and
  • what you are looking for in a role, in a career, and in a company. You also need to know the culture and management style which allows you to perform at your best.

Once you understand these, communicating them is easy.

Market your strengths to the position requirements

In essence you are matching yourself as a product, to a need - the company's requirement to fill the position. So identify the top three skills essential for the role and ensure you address these in your letter. If possible demonstrate how you meet the requirements with succinct examples relating to achieving your business objectives in your current role. Refer to where these are listed in your resume.

Express how you can help the company

The internet makes researching companies very easy so there's really no excuse not to be well informed. You can visit websites for annual reports, access online directories and do a search on Google for latest media news and references from others.

Annual reports, business media releases and press articles often contain information about the current objectives and future direction of a company. Having done your research on an organization you can be specific about what you can offer that is of value to them.

Convince them you want to work for just them

While understanding the financials will allow you to express how you can help the company achieve their objectives, the why you want to work for them is more personal.

Again much information is on the company website. Look at their mission and values statements, their careers section and what they offer for employee development. Shareholder pages often highlight information about company's community and social responsibility programs, which are a great indicator of the values of a company.

With all this information you can find something that directly appeals to you which you can word into a statement far more compelling than "your company is a market leader" (unless of course it truly is). Importantly this shows you know what you want and that you have done your research.

Communicate personally

As most people can frame a business letter it becomes difficult as a recruiter to distinguish one letter from another. So to stand out this really means finding your voice - a style that reflects you and the way you are comfortable speaking. If you read the letter out loud, and trial corrections along the way, your sentences will flow, just as they do when you speak. This is also a good way to find flaws in your logic.

A final point on communication is the need for simplicity Avoid using two words when one will do. Keep your language basic. That means jargon free. Quite possibly the HR department or recruiter, not the line manager will screen your application. They need to be able to understand who you are and what you can offer.

Recruiters always, and HR managers sometimes, have to justify their decision to put you up for a role, so keeping it simple for them makes selling you easier.

Initiate action

The last part of your letter should initiate an action. Assume you will be short listed and be firm in your statement that you are looking forward to meeting the recruiter in interview.

How long should this letter be?

This is the hard bit - all of this should be no more than a page. Recruiters are busy people and often receive hundreds of applications. They simply don't have the time to read many pages.

A final word on the basics

With spelling and grammar checks so easily available in all software there is absolutely no excuse for any mistakes. However when you are under pressure it's easy to write "there" instead of "their", its instead of it's" and so on. Before sending off your application, leave it a while. Then print it out and read it. It's astonishing the number of mistakes you pick up that way.

An insider's tip

A common complaint amongst recruiters is about how many people claim excellent communication skills and then destroy that impression by a sloppy cover letter. In fact there's no need to state you have exceptional communication skills, you just need to demonstrate them.

You can show your ability to listen, by identifying and addressing the requested criteria. You can demonstrate you understand the importance of brevity by limiting your letter to a page. You can match your communication style to the audience, by using language (not jargon) that is appropriate for the position.

Useful resources

If you are struggling to communicate, a letter writing or basic communication course may be worthwhile. Visit the Australian Institute of Management for some very good courses on basic and advanced communication.

For tips on cover letter writing and just about everything else you need to know about conducting a successful job search see the Riley Guide .

About Karalyn Brown

Karalyn has over 10 years experience as a decision maker in recruitment, in a consultancy and in corporate HR. Karalyn owns and runs Interview IQ who provide personalised interview coaching and job search advice. For more information visit www.interviewiq.com.au.

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