I’ve seen some absolutely woeful attempts at cover letters over the years. Many were written by perfectly competent-sounding job applicants who then threw away their big chance by not even getting an interview.

Why do people do this?

My theory is that someone has given out the message that when you’re struggling to find work, the answer is to send out hundreds of applications because it’s ‘just a numbers game’. The problem with this is that the logic is partially correct but fatally flawed.

Let me explain.

Imagine you had to pass a 100-question test for which you have to get 50% to pass. It’s multiple choice and you have to choose an answer from A to E. You decide that you will sit the test thousands of times and pick ‘E’ for every question, every time. By the straight laws of probability you will get 20% each test but that’s nowhere near good enough.

If you take the test an effectively infinite number of times and, if the distribution of the correct answers is chosen randomly by the computer generating the test, one day you will get the magic 50%. The trouble is that it will probably take you several lifetimes (mathematicians can work this out more precisely but I don’t want to know the answer).

You see, yes, it is a numbers game but you will only get the winning ticket if you improve your chances by taking care over your applications. Since you don’t have an infinite amount of time to spend on submitting job applications, this means that you are far more likely to succeed in getting an interview if you:

  • Target your jobs
  • Groom your applications

Aim before you fire!

I’m interested in the second part for the moment and I want to explore how you can submit a truly humming cover letter to give yourself the best possible chance.

This blog is all about writing the cover letter (which I recommend you do yourself). You can then get your resume done professionally for under $100 if you shop around.

My job as a careers journalist means I regularly read stories like the one about the 17,000 workers applying for 1,800 jobs at Ford and then being (literally) subjected to the indignity of a lottery for a chance of work which pays half of what other Ford workers are paid. This screams to me, “Make every chance count!”

First, I want to show you the five main categories which unsuccessful cover letters fall into. If you recognize yourself here, you know you have some serious rethinking to do.

Insulting

  • “You can send me details of the job” (Can I now? That’s good of me.)
  • “I am interested in applying for the job” (Clearly a mass-produced application)
  • “How much do you pay?” (Most dramatic effect achieved when it’s the only thing in the letter)

Confusing

  • “I want to apply for a job you have advertised” (Which job?)
  • “This is my resume” (And? What is this for? Was I supposed to think it was someone else’s?)

Confusing to everyone

  • “I want a staff job and am particularly interested in the Christmas work” (What? Do you want permanent or temporary?)
  • “If there’s a job, I’d like to apply” (Works very well when a multitude of jobs are advertised at once)

Off-putting

  • “If I am wanted for interview, I could come as long as it’s on a Tuesday before 3pm or on a Thursday before 4pm except when it’s raining in which case I could only come in the mornings but not the last Tuesday in the month because the bus doesn’t run”
  • “I’m not sure about the job but I could have a go”
  • “I haven’t worked for a long time” (This is not inspiring. NB I’m not judging you because you’re unemployed, I’m judging you because you sound bone idle)

Showing you couldn’t be bothered by having a cover letter which is:

  • Full of spelling and grammar mistakes
  • Photocopied on poor quality paper
  • Not addressed to any particular individual
  • Devoid of any job name or reference
  • Folded into an impossibly small bundle so it fits into the tiniest envelope possible (and when it’s unfolded, it will be illegible)
  • Missing a stamp and with ‘Business Reply Mail’ on the envelope instead (the secretary will love dealing with that)

I particularly enjoy a badly formed staple so that I can prick my fingers on the letter. The trail of blood all over it makes it stand out from the crowd, very nicely.

Small details speak volumes

Now here are some other daft ideas not to try:

  • Using scented paper (or scenting it – I thought only animals did that)
  • Writing it on fluorescent paper (I get migraines just thinking about those applications)
  • Illustrating it (save it for your girlfriend/boyfriend/teddy bear)
  • Handwriting it copperplate style (impressive but no-one will read it)
  • Applying your knowledge of origami to be a bit creative (we do not need another duck)

OK, so, the funny bit over, what do you do?

You need to begin with the heading. Here are some suggestions. I don’t have a strong preference which you use. Let’s pretend that you are applying for a job as a clockwatcher.

  • “Vacancy For Clockwatcher”
  • “Clockwatcher Job Vacancy

… anything like that is acceptable. It clearly states what you are interested in and allows your application to be quickly directed to the right person.

Now the salutation.

“Dear Sirs” is the standard opening. Only use “Dear Sir” if you are addressing it to one person or “Dear Madam” if you know for 100% certainty that the person is female. Use “Dear Sirs” if you don’t know the gender or the genders are mixed. Now is not the time to be Politically Correct – this is just a convention, not a way of thinking.

Next the intro. Yes, of course they know why you are writing but the point of this next sentence is to judge your attitude.

“I would like to express my interest in the above vacancy (you don’t need to say what it is because your heading takes care of that) and attach herewith (you can also use ‘enclose herewith’ but it’s not as correct) my resume for your consideration.”

Now the hardsell.

“The position (avoid repetition of ‘job’, ‘vacancy’, ‘position’ by using them in rotation) is of particular relevance to me because I have long term aspirations of a career in wasting time.” This sentence shows that:

  • Your application is considered and not mass-produced
  • You are actually interested in this job and not any job
  • There is a chance you will be with the company a reasonable period of time

This is followed by a ‘clincher’.

“If required, I can usually attend an interview at short notice.” Well worth putting as, even if you don’t make the shortlist, one of them may cry off, not show, get a job elsewhere etc and it wouldn’t be the first time that a new employee has not turned up for the first day at work. I’ve had it happen.

Now, the ending.

“I look forward to hearing from you in due course.” Confident and to the point. No need for floweriness, and begging just makes you look desperate.

Outgoing salutation.

“Yours faithfully.” Only use ‘Yours sincerely’ if you began the cover letter ‘Dear Mr <name>’ or ‘Dear Mrs / Miss / Ms …’, all of which should be avoided in 95% plus of cases. Never, ever use ‘Best regards’, ‘Kind regards’, ‘Yours truly’ or any weird and wonderful ending you dream up.

Your name. Type it under your handwritten signature.

This is the basic model and can be improved upon although it is still perfectly suitable for most situations. Now it is finished, you should check it through for grammar and spelling errors. Never rely on your computer’s spellchecker unless it has a way of telling ‘which’ from ‘witch’, ‘there’ from ‘they’re’ and ‘their’ and ‘piece’ from ‘peace’ etc. Get someone else to look at your letter.

As a final word, if the application instructions tell you to quote a reference, put it in the title. If they tell you to address it to a particular person, write ‘For the attention of <name>’ above the title and still use ‘Dear Sirs’.

So, the finished letter might read:

Vacancy for clockwatcher

For the attention of Mr Minuteman

Dear Sirs

I would like to express my interest in the above vacancy and attach herewith my resume for your consideration.

The position is of particular relevance to me because I have long term aspirations of a career in wasting time.

If required, I can usually attend an interview at short notice.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully

A S Kiver

You gamble, he wins

When one in ten applicants gets a job, it doesn’t mean that you have to submit ten applications to be guaranteed a job. Most of those successful applicants are ones whose covering letters and resumes made the grade. If you want to gamble, go to a casino – don’t just apply to work at one.

Good luck.

Now find out how you can pep up your cover letter by adding a hook.

The Boss

The Boss ran an employment agency for 12 years before selling it to a rival company. During the years of his directorship, the business received over 15,000 job applications and had nearly 1,000 active outworkers at any one time. Before that, The Boss was a senior officer in marketing and management. As a key part of his work, he has both devised aptitude tests and interviewed extensively. He is now a busy careers journalist.