Your cover letter will be the first thing an employer sees: your first chance to make a good impression - or a bad one. And with research showing that most cover letters are read in less than a minute, you don't have much time to do it.
So what are the key tips on how to get yourself noticed? What are employers looking for in a cover letter - and what will kill your chances dead?
Make it specific
If you're applying for lots of jobs, it's tempting to use the same application letter for each one. Don't. Quite apart from the risk of leaving the wrong company name in - and, yes, people really do do that - employers aren't stupid; they can tell.
Try and send your letter to a named individual. "Even if the job ad doesn't list the name of the person who will eventually receive and read your application, by calling and asking you will immediately show the kind of initiative and resourcefulness that will set you apart from the crowd," says Andy Sumner, managing director of jobs website Monster UK and Ireland.
Do your research. In the internet age, this is easy. You could, for example, find out whether the company is expanding or winning awards and mention that as a reason you'd like to work for them. Showing familiarity with their client list can look good too. Their website should also give you a feel for the corporate culture, which will tell you whether to write a very formal letter or a slightly more chatty one.
Get things in the right order
Your cover letter should have your address and phone number at the top, just in case it gets separated from your CV. It should be concise - no more than a page.
The first paragraph should be short and sweet, stating the job you're applying for and where you heard about it. Next, say briefly why you're keen - this is where the research comes in, allowing you to show familiarity with the company's products or services and recent news.
The next step is to show why you're perfect for the job. Read the advertisement very carefully, looking for the key words - and make sure you use them in your letter. Some companies even use computer software to scan CVs and letters for the right terms.
Bullet points often work well here: if there's a list of skills required, you can list how you are able to match it - but don't copy chunks of the ad word for word.
Avoid lifting sections straight from your CV. And try and avoid cliches: rather then describing yourself as 'proactive', for example, mention your experience at initiating new projects. The same principles apply with other tired phrases such as 'team player', 'self-starter' and the like.
Finally, add that you're attaching a CV, and that you look forward to hearing from them.
Don't try to be wacky
This can work - but only in the most exceptional of circumstances. One well-known journalist and broadcaster got her first break on a pop magazine by littering her application with slang and exclamation marks; but it's not a strategy likely to work with a bank. It's better to play safe than sorry.
At interview, your personality may very well be important, but at this initial stage you're simply looking to demonstrate that you're qualifed and motivated. As Sumner points out: "You're writing to promote yourself as a professional, someone who is capable of offering value to the organisation."
Check it over
Employers are often deluged with applications, and are looking for reasons to throw as many away as they can in order to get the number down to something more manageable. Spelling mistakes are the easiest excuse. Indeed, a survey of employers by the US' Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that three-quarters would eliminate a candidate on the basis of typographical or grammatical errors.
Don't rely on a spell-checker - that won't alert you if you've written 'your' instead of 'you're', for example. If at all possible, get someone else to read it over - after all, even professional writers need their work checked over by sub-editors and proof-readers.
And avoid these mistakes!
In a survey last year, US job site CareerBuilder asked employers for examples of the worst applications they'd seen. The responses included:
- An application from a person the company had just fired
- The candidate said he wanted 'to work for someone who is not an alcoholic with three DUI's like my current employer'
- The application read only 'Hire me, I'm awesome'
- The application mentioned the candidate's online video gaming experience leading warrior clans, suggesting this counted as leadership experience
- The application was written in the Star Trek language Klingon.
How to write a successful CV
What are the best-paid jobs in the UK?
Over 50? What are your career options?