Career development: Write an effective cover letter
A cover letter is an integral part of any job application, and arguably the hardest bit to get right. How do you write a letter that gives you an edge? Martha Harris asked recruitment specialist Kirsty Hall
“This is a really common mistake,” says Kirsty Hall, founder of KDH Associates (left). Simply replicating what’s on your CV should be avoided, she adds, stressing that a cover letter should expand on your CV – for example, by noting skills that aren’t easy to infer from your job history.
“It’s also a good place to explain your current circumstances and any gaps in employment. But don’t feel the need to explain every job move you’ve ever had,” she adds. “Keep this succinct, and try to put a positive spin on why you are looking for a new opportunity.”
For some job-hunters, a cover letter takes on additional significance. “Covering letters are even more important than your CV if you are at the beginning of your career and don’t have lengthy work experience,” says Hall. “You can reference non-academic or non-work related achievements that are relevant to the role, and will give the reader a sense that you are a well-rounded person.”
But most importantly: “You should use your cover letter to explain to a prospective employer why you are interested in working for them specifically and what makes you perfect for the company.”
2. Do your research
Copy-and-paste is the enemy of the cover letter – it should always be tailored to the company you are applying to, so make sure you do your research.
“This can be as basic as looking at their website, but if you’re really looking to impress then go further – look at their Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, read about recent successes they’ve had on key projects and reference these in your letter.”
Importantly, make sure you stress what you can do for the employer, not what they can do for you.
3. Strike the right tone
“Always write in the first person and try to give a sense of your personality,” says Hall. Nevertheless, she adds, it’s important to create an appropriate tone.
“If you are applying to a well-established property consultancy, a more formal tone may be appreciated. If applying to a start-up, a more conversational style may be more appealing. If in doubt then opt for somewhere in between.”
Be aware of your reader. “If your letter is going to be read by an HR manager at a global property consultancy, remember that they may not know lots about planning, so avoid acronyms and explain technical terms.
“If your letter is going to be read by an HR manager at a global property consultancy, remember that they may not know lots about planning, so avoid acronyms and explain technical terms”
“But if you’re writing to the director of an independent planning consultancy and you know that they are a planner, don’t do them the disservice of explaining the acronym RTPI (or similar).”
A little sincere flattery can go a long way – but be wary of overdoing it. “For example, if you think that a company has a really strong brand that makes them stand out from their competition and that you feel this demonstrates how progressive they are, then say this.”
4. Be mindful of structure
A cover letter need not be any longer than one side of A4 and is best sent as a PDF to avoid the risk of format errors arising. Kirsty advises the following structure:
Paragraph 1: “Explain why you are writing, why you want to work for this company, and why you are interested in the position they are advertising. If you are writing speculatively, explain that you admire the company and would appreciate being kept abreast of upcoming opportunities. This paragraph must be tailored, compelling and devoid of errors. If you have come into contact with someone from the company, this is the perfect place to mention it.”
Paragraph 2: “Give a brief explanation of your background and current circumstances, but do not fall into the trap of providing your life story.”
Paragraph 3: “Pick three areas that are listed in the job description and either direct the reader to that experience in your CV or – even better – choose experiences that you haven’t included there. If you are applying speculatively, think about the skills you have that align with the ethos of the company or that would complement current gaps you think they have in their service.”
Paragraph 4: “This should be your closing paragraph. Asserting your interest, a note of gratitude for the reader’s time and an ‘I would welcome the opportunity to meet you’ are all that you need to say here.”
5. Check and check again
“A good command of written English is essential to the vast majority of planning roles,” says Hall, “and your covering letter is an ideal opportunity to showcase this.
“Check grammar and spelling obsessively, making sure that you’re happy with the structure and that it flows, rather than looking like a jumble of cut-and-paste extracts from your CV.
"The most common error that I see in a covering letter is a mistake in who they are addressed to"
“The most common error that I see in a covering letter is a mistake in who they are addressed to; this is such a fundamental oversight that it will totally undermine all of the hard work you have put into the rest of your application.” Check the name of the person you are writing to, if available, or give an appropriate generic address such as “Dear Sir/Madam” if unsure.
Above all, though, “genuine enthusiasm for a role and/or company is probably the top thing that a prospective employer will look for, and can give you an edge over an applicant with more experience or better academic results”.
Kirsty Hall is the founder of KDH Associates, a bespoke recruitment service for clients within the built environment sector.
For more information on how to write the perfect cover letter, read our Q&A with Indigo Planning’s Suzanne Joseph on the Planner Jobs site: tinyurl.com/Planner0317-IndigoPlanning
Photo | iStock
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