1. The basics

1.1 - Addressing your letter to the right person

If you have taken the time to write a good cover letter and CV, it is important to complete your application by finding out the correct person to whom your CV should be sent. Not only does this help to ensure that it does land on the right person’s desk but it also appears far more impressive that you have taken the time to personalise your cover letter. It also allows you to follow up on your application by having a named person.

If you are responding to an advert, there is usually a name or job reference attached to it but if you are sending in a speculative letter, it is essential that you find out this information. It is always best to telephone the company to get the correct name as even though many companies will have a page dedicated to their key people (this normally includes a contact for Recruitment), this information could be out-of-date or may not give the details of the most appropriate person to whom you should write. If the receptionist is unable to give you a name, then you should ask to be put through to the relevant department and speak to someone who is better able to assist you. Alternatively, you could always address it to the manager of the particular department to which you are applying. It can also be a good idea to send an extra copy to the HR or Recruitment Manager (particularly as they are often the first to know of any recruitment drive or organisational requirements) and is always the next best option if you are struggling to find out whom would be the best person to receive your application.

Do give some thought as to your target audience which may mean tweaking the language and style slightly in order to create a stronger impact to the appeal of the reader - are you trying to appeal to a recruitment consultant who would be looking for key words/achievements in your experience in order to be able to sell you and therefore would benefit from a punchy, results-orientated letter? Or instead, are you writing to the Managing Director of a small company who are looking for someone to easily fit into the team so demonstrating your interpersonal and team-working skills could be a key factor in their recruitment selection process.

1.2 - Sending a timely application

Some companies will only plan a recruitment drive at particular periods during the year e.g. graduate schemes, and they would not welcome applications sent in outside of these periods so, irrelevant of how good your cover letter/CV is, do not send it if outside of the acceptable dates and expect them to look at your application. Even if you were their No. 1 choice on paper, the fact that you cannot follow their simple instructions in the first instance would do you no favours! If you are applying for roles or graduate schemes that state specific recruitment application dates, the best way to stay on top of your job search would be to add them to your Job Tracker and setting up reminders in your diary so that you do not miss the relevant companies’ deadline dates.

1.3 - Do your research

Before you make a start in writing the letter, do some research on the company and the actual role for which you would like to be considered. You need to fully understand the function of an organisation and how they are placed amongst their competitors; the best way to gain this information would be to thoroughly read their website (take particular interest in their areas of growth/redevelopment if you think you have a specialised skill to offer e.g. if a company are looking to develop into Europe and you speak a European language, this could be a useful skill to highlight).

It is also beneficial to read about them objectively, either through trade magazines, newspapers, websites, or other means to gain a full overview of their company which further demonstrates that you have a shown a genuine interest in them by taking the time and commitment to find out as much as you can about them. If you later get invited to an interview, the research that you have done could make for a couple of interesting questions to ask them and do remember, you are also assessed on the quality of your questions (another factor to make you stand out from other candidates’ more obvious questions). The other reason for doing this, is to try to use their style and terminology whilst addressing them e.g. are they a trendy advertising agency or a very formal legal company? Whilst recruiters obviously look for a person to have the suitable skills match, ‘fitting in’ to the company is equally important and this can be picked up during the initial contact stage.

Make sure that you also have an excellent understanding of the job role so that you can demonstrate how you could meet their requirements. Do not make assumptions that all jobs with the same job titles will be exactly the same, e.g. an HR Assistant in a small company could be more greatly involved in working alongside the HR Advisor on other projects, rather than in a larger company whereby the role might be purely an administration role.

1.4 - Tailor your letter

Although it may seem obvious that the same letter will not be appropriate for everyone, many people do take their chances in sending out a ‘one size-fits-all’ type letter to every company to whom they apply. Whilst this may be time-saving in the short-term, it is not an effective or recommended route to take as it shows that you have not taken the time or effort to research that particular organisation and personalise your cover letter.

As every organisation is different, your letter should address those differences so that you maximise your opportunity to demonstrate how you best suit them. This can be established by looking at the requirements of the job and giving them details of how your skills and experience are a good match for role. The common mistake made is that applicants will usually send in a very generic cover letter that is likely to have been copied and sent to a number of recruiters, without actually analysing the specific skill set required and tailoring an application to the organisations’ needs. The purpose of a good cover letter is to make yours stand out, so a more professional approach is essential. It is far more appealing to a recruiter if you can demonstrate why you would really like to work for their organisation and how your skills could be of benefit to them. In particular, if you are attempting to make a move up to the next level in your career, you have even more reason to do this as you might not yet have all the skills and experience they require, but you could highlight your transferable skills and significant achievements you have had in your career to-date which further emphasise your ability to do the job.

1.5 - Transferable skills

It would be a waste of time for all involved if applying for jobs which are totally unobtainable based on the fact that you cannot make a case for meeting the essential criteria.

However, do not underestimate the skills that you may have acquired through other means, such as applying to be a hotel receptionist after an extensive career in front-line work within Customer Services in the travel sector. Both require excellent presentation and interpersonal skills, the ability to stay calm under pressure, the potential requirement to speak another language and an understanding of the travel industry. Your letter should concentrate on emphasizing the comparisons and making them apparent to the recruiter so that they have less focus on other skills which you may not have.

Another common mistake is viewing any unpaid work as irrelevant (excluding voluntary work which should, of course, always be mentioned if relevant). For example, a mother who has taken time out of work to look after her children and been heavily involved in running and organising toddler groups including yearly summer and Xmas parties, and is also an active governor for her child’s school could demonstrate that she has excellent organisational and time-management skills, exceptional communication skills based on dealing with parents and teachers from all backgrounds, capable of arranging events, proficient at minute-taking and a is a valuable and proactive team member.

In this situation, it is a case of thinking outside the box and trying to bring in all of your relevant experience. If you have indirect experience but very valuable transferable skills, this could still be attractive to the employer as it demonstrates your potential capabilities and motivations. However, it would be true to say that most employers, unfortunately, too often overlook someone’s transferable skills and could, for example, overlook your application because of a lack of knowledge about the particular system they use. If this were case, then it would be in your favour to state that one of your strengths is being quick to learn new systems and make reference to a similar, comparable system which you have worked on. Try to pre-empt any reservations they may have by filling in the gaps beforehand to try to overcome the weaknesses they may identify in your application.