4. Creating a winning cover letter

Your cover letter is essentially your sales tool which needs to engage the reader by highlighting relevant aspects of your skills and experience. Whilst this may seem a daunting task at first, the best way to approach it would be to make brief notes for each paragraph you want to write before developing the sentence structures of your letter. The points that you make should be achievement-based and demonstrate that you have given thought to what you can offer the company.  If you feel less than confident about your writing skills, it is worthwhile getting someone whose judgement you trust to read your letter first and give you feedback on it.

4.1 - The use of descriptive language

Your letter should be written using action verbs and positive adjectives (see Action Verbs for a comprehensive list of words). The action verbs are used to describe your achievements and the positive adjectives give a more descriptive account of your qualities e.g. adaptable, enthusiastic, innovative. It makes for more interesting reading if you are able to vary your wording throughout the letter and use a wide vocabulary rather than repeating the same words throughout.  The same applies for using the word ‘I’ to start every sentence – try to find another way to rephrase a sentence so that you avoid sounding repetitive.

4.2 - Talking nonsense or jargon

Another common error is trying too hard to sound impressive and ending up not making sense at all. Re-read your sentences and ensure you have not said something strange, or a sentence that cannot be understood by a normal business person e.g. “I enclose herewith my CV…”

Do also bear in mind that industry jargon is not necessary for a cover letter as it may be read by someone in HR or Recruitment who doesn’t have your background and cannot make sense of what you saying. Reserve that for the interview stage when meeting someone from your field who then may be impressed with your knowledge.

4.3 - Quoting specific details

You should attempt to be as descriptive and accurate as possible when quoting your achievements and responsibilities to create a strong impact, e.g. quantify how many employees you supervised, the number of clients you handled, how much money you saved the company, and most importantly, by what percentage you increased sales or profits. Using terminology such as ‘significant increase in profits’ does not mean anything in itself as it is without context so does need to be backed up with an actual achievement which explains the outcome and benefits to the organisation.

Numbers are best quoted as figures rather than being written in full so that they are easy to read. Percentages should be written with the ’%’sign and money written as ‘K’ for thousands and ‘M’ for millions e.g. £25K, £2.5M.

4.4 - Common spelling and grammatical errors

Getting this part right is essential but is all too often, overlooked.  Even though Word has the facility to pick up spelling errors which are usually underlined and easy to spot, it is quite often a case of merely using the wrong version of a word which will not be highlighed in the checking process. Firstly, make sure you make use of the Spelling and/or Grammar check facility.  Secondly, read, read and re-read your letter again to ensure it makes sense and to check that there are not any grammatical errors or sentences which do not flow properly.  English grammar can be quite complex so if you are unsure, try to get some help from someone whom you know has a good command of the English language and can help you in perfecting your letter.

Amazingly, some recruiters have been astonished to find job-seekers using ‘text speak’ in their cover letters which has become so widely accepted in our technological age but there is a time and place for this style of writing, and it certainly is not in cover letters!

Some common mistakes for words which sound the same but have different meanings are:
  • your/you’re
  • its/it’s
  • they’re/their/there
  • effect/affect
  • principal/principle
  • accept/except
  • practice/practise
  • advise/advice
  • complementary/complimentary

If you are unsure which version to use, check each definition in the dictionary. The misuse of apostrophes can totally change the meaning of a sentence but there are three uses which should be understood; firstly, to replace a vowel; secondly, to demonstrate ownership or possession; and thirdly to show plural forms. This can be quite a lengthy subject so it may be worthwhile reading on this subject through the internet or books on basic grammar.

Another common grammatical error is the incorrect words following ‘could’, ‘would’, ‘should’  to pronounce ‘could’ve’ - it should be written ‘could have’, not ‘could of’ which is a common error but one to bear in mind.