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Even as job applications increasingly move online to be carried along by automated software, there’s still a huge amount of value in the classic cover letter. If you’ve covered all the basics, then your application is going to be read by a real person at some point, and their reaction to it will make the difference between you being offered an interview and falling out of the running.
Your cover letter gives you freedom to deviate from the standard CV structure, allowing you to lend useful context to your application and make more elaborate points. And if you make a concerted effort to present yourself in the best light, there’s every chance that your cover letter is good — but it might not be great.
So how do you take your cover letter to the next level? Well, it’s all about the quality of your writing. To that end, let’s take a look at how you can use basic writing principles to turn your cover letter into a rhetorical powerhouse:
Draw from cover letters you like
Great writers read voraciously, because that’s where inspiration comes from. They gather existing ideas, squash them all into a pulp, and use that concentrated creativity to spark their own twists. Anyone who tries to adhere to complete originality will see their work stagnate. When you draw from the work of others, you produce something fresh — when you draw only from your own work, you repeat yourself again and again.
Accordingly, you should make a habit of reading other cover letters, and other CVs in general. What do you like about them? What do you dislike? How could they be improved? If you were a recruiter, which of them would warrant further consideration? You might even notice a piece of phrasing that you particularly hate, only to realise that you used it for your cover letter without noticing (it’s never easy to edit your own work).
Write for your audience
You draft your cover letter, thinking carefully about what you should include as you do so. When you’re done, you make some minor changes, then sit back and relax. That’s it: job done. You then attach it to your next ten job applications, hoping for great results — but they’re unlikely to arrive, no matter how strong your cover letter may be.
Why? Because a cover letter, like a CV, should be customised for the audience (the prospective employer you’re trying to impress). Every business has different requirements: one might look for levity in its employees, while another might expect strict formality. Even if your generic cover letter doesn’t outright antagonise the reader, it won’t impress them.
Every time you’re putting together a fresh application, you should revisit your cover letter. You’ll likely be able to preserve certain elements (maybe even large parts concerning skills), but each recipient should get a distinct cover letter composed to address their specific requirements.
Take your time to make your case
“I served three terms as class president at my school” isn’t a silly thing to note — it’s just thin. What does that really mean? What did it actually involve? Why should the recruiter care? Your objective here isn’t to be as succinct as possible (that’s for the main body of the CV): it’s to make a case, person-to-person, for your candidacy.
Pertaining to the literary world, Jericho Writers has some great show don’t tell examples that show how much more compelling it is to lay out a situation in detail instead of settling for a quick summary. The same goes for your cover letter. Talk about what challenges you faced as class president, how it affected you, and what you learned. Explain why it’s important: you can’t expect the reader to infer everything with no additional information.
Trim the unnecessary elements
While you do need to patiently explain your most important points, you don’t need to include things just to add content. Remember everything you mention in the main body of your CV: you can make reference to those things, but you don’t need to repeat them. If you’ve held several positions, then instead of addressing them one by one, you can refer to them on aggregate by talking about the development of your skills.
Ignore anyone who claims that you should never include adverbs, but do weigh the value of every word. It’s frustratingly easy to fall into the trap of using purple prose when you’re trying to make an emotive case for your usefulness. Don’t be a robot, but definitely don’t make the mistake of wasting the reader’s time with self-indulgent comments.
Your cover letter is your chance to get creative and make the best possible case for hiring you, so don’t waste it. Use these basic writing principles to make it better — just a small investment of time and effort could massively improve your chances.