How to write a good cover letter for a job
Once you've mastered How to present yourself in a CV, the next crucial element is the cover letter. I have seen many people falling in the same pitfalls, and thought it would be worth spending some time explaining what I would like to see in the cover letters I receive.
Not all jobs require a cover letter (or motivation letter), so it is up to each one to judge what to do. In my case I do want to see cover letters and the job description explicitly asks for one. Of you are applying through LinkedIn, for example, I would strongly advice you to add one page to the PDF before applying. It completely changes the attitude you are transmitting regarding the interest in the job position.
Cover letters are a complement to the curriculum vitae. In my case, when reviewing applications, I read the CV first and if that passes some basic thresholds, I read the cover letter while holding the CV next to it.
Cover letters, generally, must address two topics: why me and why here. Writing a good cover letter is not easy but it can get you much further than just a CV because you are in complete control of the reader. You can decide what and how to say things. Therefore, you must dedicate a healthy time to think about what to write when you are applying for a job. It'll become easier later on, when many elements can be reused.
Don't repeat your CV
If you are going to take only one advice out of this article, it's this: don't repeat in your cover letter what you've already said in your CV.
I have seen almost all cover letters repeating the information on the CV. Sometimes with identical words. This adds very little information about the candidate and should be avoided. I already know what and when you studied, or where you worked. No need to say, again, I studied this career in this university from this year to this year. The cover letter is the chance to express yourself beyond what the history of your life shows. It is your opportunity to preemptively answer questions that may arise while scanning your curriculum.
With that said, let's explore the things that must absolutely be covered in your letter.
Addressing why me
Your CV essentially tells how others perceive you. It tells the grades you got in school, or who else decided to hire you. But it tells very little about how you see yourself. A good cover letter will show your skills, but also your passion and motivation. From a CV alone it is very hard to understand why you chose the specific path you are following. The cover letter is an ideal place to explain it.
It can be important to preemptively address issues that may be apparent from your CV. For example, if you had 5 different jobs in the last 2 years it'll made me wonder about how you chose where to work, whether you know what you want in life. If you have an answer for these concerns, answer them as soon as possible.
Non-professional activities, such as hobbies, volunteering projects, something extraordinary that you've done such as taking a year off to write a book, are important features that could be included in the letter if you think they add to understanding you and why you would be a good fit for the position.
Do you enjoy writing and have a blog? Do you like taking photos and have an Instagram account? Not all hobbies are relevant for all jobs, but do not under estimate them. If someone has been experimenting with Arduinos or a Raspberry Pi, for example, they may be a better fit than someone who has a very specialized technical background in what we do. If you've managed to grow your personal following to thousands of people, it may be an indication that you are indeed a good marketeer.
The biggest challenge at this point is being able to convince the recipient of your letter to keep reading. Therefore, try to highlight what things you've liked in the positions you've held. For example, if you enjoy working in large teams or small teams. If you like working with clear goals or prefer to be able to pursue complex problems without clear step-by-step procedures. What gave you energy to come out of bed every morning.
Many people are afraid of stating what they prefer because there'll be the chance of loosing a job opportunity. The reality is that if you are a person who likes working alone and you claim to be a good team player, you'll end up in the wrong place. You won't enjoy the work and probably that'll reflect on your performance. Being open about preferences and ambitions only helps finding the best fit for you. Remember that at this stage, the credential aspects (degrees, past employment, etc.) were already checked in your CV.
Explaining who you are and what you think is simpler aspect of the two topics you must cover in the letter. You see the job description and try to determine what aspects of your personality are the most relevant for the job as you imagine it. However, addressing the why here requires a bit more of research. I've called it why here because it relates to how scientific proposals are structured. Perhaps it could be better called motivation for applying, and hence why it is called motivation letter as well.
This section of your letter is the best place to show that you have checked where you are applying and to what role. For example, most letters I've received stress how good candidates are at team playing. They completely neglect the startup nature of our company and the fact that most work is done essentially alone. Sure, we cooperate, but self-drive and determination are much more important than needing a team to succeed. Being a team player is not bad in itself but it is not always adding value to the profile we are looking for.
You can address what is it about the company that made you apply. Remember that people receiving your letter are smart. Empty sentences like I truly believe in the mission of the company, or I want to do something with an impact in society are automatically ignored in my mind and, probably, I will stop paying attention because I know they are copy/pastes generics. If you, on the other hand, talk about the product, how you would improve it, about the background of the company, etc. your chances of grabbing my attention are extremely higher.
Remember that if a company is trying to hire someone, they are looking for a person that can deliver value to them. If you focus exclusively on what you'll learn working with us, I would be hesitant. It looks like a purely extractive commitment: you don't want to do. Therefore, the idea is not to fall in either extreme. Be clear about what you can do and what you'll need to learn. For example, we are an optics-based company. If you have a solid background in electronics it could be clear you can help us out with the hardware design, miniaturization, etc. but you'll need to learn about optics.
If you share the vision of the company, don't just copy/paste it. "I share the idea of empowering scientists" does not say much about what vision do you have. Explain how do you identify with our vision, where do you think we are going. Even if you are wrong and we have a different plan in our minds, it's clear you've thought about the place where you could end up working. If you and your future employer have the same set of believes, the entire idea of working together becomes much smoother.
Avoid empty claims
The second biggest advice I can give anyone writing a cover letter (after not repeating what is written on your CV) is that it is better to make it short than empty. In some random cases I took the time to check whether the claims applicants were making were true. For example, people who claim to have been using different programming languages or modeling programs, but they don't talk about either of them in their scientific papers, nor have any way of showing what they've done (such as portfolio website on Github or elsewhere, etc).
Again, remember that the person reading your letter is a smart person. Throwing keywords one after the other is meaningless. Be mindful about the message you want to convey and do it as a grown up. You are applying for a job, this is not a high school assignment in which you can get around by filling lines of text without adding meaning. The cover letter is not only a tool to pass to the next phase, it'll also set the tone of the interview. Do it right and the interview will be on a positive tone, not on an inquiry tone.
Empty claims are not only those you can't substantiate because you were overselling yourself. They can also be those claiming to share the vision of the company without saying what it is or what is your own vision. If you talk about leadership skills, for example, use the opportunity to give an example. Being in charge of a group of people does not correlate with having skills to do so. Take a random professor at a university and chances are they won't have leadership skills and still manage groups of tens of people and millions in budget. Being elected for a board position, for example, is a whole other story.
Be mindful about multi-step processes
In my experience, applying to small or big companies is a completely different process. In small companies, your CV and cover letter will fall in the hands of the person making a decision very quickly. Therefore talking about technical or very specific topics can be an asset. In larger companies, however, this may be a drawback.
If the hiring process has many steps, the first person receiving your application will likely be the same person receiving the applications for any other job in the company. They can do some baseline checks on qualifications on your CV, and probably will skim through your letter. Be sure to provide enough general information so everyone can at least have a broad idea of what you are talking about.
If the company is looking for a Python programmer, for example, and you keep talking about numpy, it's going to be hard for someone from the outside to judge that you actually have the skills required. When applying to larger companies, finding the balance between generalities and technicalities is very subtle.
Ask someone to read it
If you do care about the job, ask someone to read the cover letter for you. If you find someone in the same field, it's even better. Ask how they feel after reading it. Probably they know you, they know your personality, and can decide whether you are conveying a fair picture of yourself or if you are failing at generating a correct image.
If you are applying to a larger company, ask someone who is not in your field to read it. Especially for technical positions, be sure you convey a clear message beyond the technicalities of the position to which you apply. The first person reading your letter will likely not be a technical person but they need to have some elements to judge whether your application should move forward or not. The easier you make it for them, the better it'll be for you.
In any case, you have to remember that whatever a person says, it's just feedback that you may or may not incorporate. The cover letter is yours, and it should reflect your character.
Another interesting read may be: How to present yourself in a CV
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