3. Making a good first impression

As recruiters will generally face a pile of applications if they have advertised for a role and there is only a short window of opportunity of around 20 seconds to grab their attention, it is very important to give yourself the best chance by presenting yourself as well as you can from a visual perspective in the first instance.

Investing time and effort in making a good impression can speak volumes as it indicates that you are a professional and have given a great deal of consideration as to how you wish to be perceived; the concept being that if you should invest such effort in the way in which you present yourself, you are more likely to carry this same professionalism into your work. Whilst, of course the content is also very important, in a competitive climate, you need to be one step ahead of the competition to ensure your cover letter stands out and makes an immediate, positive first impression.

3.1 - Key elements in presentation skills

Whilst some of following information may not be relevant if you applying by email, there are still a considerable number of roles which do request that your application is sent by post.  Even for those applications which are emailed, you still need to consider the fact that your letter is likely to be printed out so the layout is still important.

Choosing the paper – Making your letter stand out does not mean producing something very fancy on brightly coloured paper, even if applying for creative jobs!  It is best to use good quality, white, cream or off-white A4-size paper which is more substantial than standard photocopy paper (the quality that most letterhead paper is printed on).

Handwritten letters – In most circumstances, it is a given that your cover letter will be printed but there are occasions whereby you may be asked to handwrite your letter, possibly if the job requires you to undertake tasks where you will need good, legible handwriting e.g. a receptionist who would need to write messages for others.  If this is the case, make sure that your letter is very neatly written and well-presented – it might be a good idea to get someone else to read it first to make sure your writing is clear.

Appropriate typeface and font – The most commonly used styles of typeface are Arial and Times New Roman as they look professional and are easy-to-read. Do bear in mind that the aesthetics of your letter should not be based on your preferred, more creative typeface that you feel better expresses your personality, but should be one that would be widely acceptable to most recruiters. Again, if the typeface is too difficult to read, it could be frustrating for the recruiter to attempt to decipher it, and they could dismiss your ‘creative piece’ as being irritating which would not inspire them to read more, especially if your CV is written in the same font.

You can call attention to certain words or to highlight certain points in your letter by using a bold font and italics only if you are quoting a named publication, as it can be slightly difficult to read so should only be used minimally.  Do not underline and NEVER USE CAPITALS in the body of your letter – it can look as if you are shouting! The only exception to use capitals would be to highlight which role you are applying for at the start of your letter as it does make it easy to read at a glance and is acceptable when written in this way.

One way to break up the text and highlight significant achievements is to use bullet points – this should be written in the same typeface but as one or two lines only. Although it is by no means essential to list bullet points, it can help to bring the reader’s attention to those key achievements so it would come down to personal choice.

It is best to keep the font to size 10-12 which allows for you to print a considerable amount of information whilst keeping it down to one page.  The print colour should always be black which is the most easy to read and best for photocopying and scanning.

Spacing - To keep your letter easy to read, avoid cramming too much wording on the page by overdoing the amount of text. If you cannot get your message across on one page, you are probably saying too much anyway and repeating the content of your CV.

There should be enough white space to break up the text which maximises the ability to clearly read your letter. A good cover letter should have a wide margin of two or three centimetres on both sides. The letter should be laid out with sufficient spacing between different parts of the letter, e.g. enough room for your signature and clear differentiation between paragraphs. Make sure it is evenly spaced so that it fills the whole page which may mean inserting extra line spaces – you do not want to create a letter that is pushed up in the top half of the page.  It is best to fully justify your letter which gives the document a tidy, finished look (see samples for correct layout). 

Formatting - To ensure your cover letter is absolutely perfect, check the formatting of it when complete as it should be consistent throughout to give it that professional edge. There is no point in writing a great letter to be let down by poor presentation, so be sure to take your time before printing it off to check for inconsistencies such as change of font or size, even spacing, bullet points which line up together.

3.2 - Sending by email

Many applications are now sent this way, for practical reasons it is widely accepted. However, as previously mentioned, this does not mean that presentation is not important – in fact, because it could be one of many sitting in the reader’s inbox, it is essential that yours does gain their attention in the initial stage and make the same impact as sending a cover letter by post. 

Firstly, make use of the subject line – this should be the job vacancy number/title and your name.  For a speculative application, it would be best to give the title of the role you are looking for and your name eg. CV-John Smith, Market Manager Opportunities’. Never state ‘CV’ only without a name, the same applies with your filename, although CV/Name is sufficient.

The body of your letter should be exactly the same as if you were sending it - the only difference is that you do not need to include yours/their address and of course, the date will be evident from the date which it is sent. Your email should begin with ‘Dear Mr ....’ following the same principles as the cover letter for names – do be careful not to slip into a less formal way of addressing the person just because you are writing via email.

It is extremely important not to send your cover letter as an email attachment – if for any reason the person cannot open the attachment easily, you are greatly reducing your chances of it being read, whereby an eye-catching cover letter that is simple to read as an email, is much more likely to encourage the reader to attempt to open the attachment as you have caught their interest.

However, there are measures you can take to minimise potential problems with opening your CV. It is best to stick to Microsoft Word which is the most accepted format unless you have been specifically asked to produce it some other way – the most up-to-date version being Word 2010. Always bear in mind that you should be trying to make the process as simple as possible for the recruiter so any factors that could cause a potential problem in formatting or presentation, is likely to put them off despite how perfect you may be for the role!

If you sending the same CV to another person in the company, ensure that you use the ’cc’ function.  Whilst you believe it may save time to contact another 50 companies with the same CV using ‘bcc’, as already mentioned, it is highly recommended that you tailor each application to suit the particular company.  It can be very obvious when an email has been sent en masse and is not overly-flattering towards the company receiving your application as it says you are viewing your job-hunting exercise as a numbers game without really caring who it is you work for – not a good impression for a potential employer!