Writing an interesting and unique cover letter is not easy, and as a graduate the temptation is to just tweak a generic letter you have gradually developed. When applying for so many jobs this can feel like the only option, but simply changing the company name on each letter will lead nowhere. Unlike a CV which will usually need less tailoring, with a cover letter you should start from scratch. The blinking cursor and the blank Word document can often be intimidating, but once you ask yourself some questions, it should come more naturally.
Below are some starting points to get you thinking, which should produce quite different results according to the company or role you are applying for:
What sort of people are they looking for?
Don’t be afraid to copy and paste the keywords from the advert or the company website for your own reference – you are looking for attitudinal traits (e.g. highly motivated) rather than skills (e.g. aptitude for data analysis). Use this to decide which of your own characteristics will appeal to them, but don’t risk parroting the advert back to them.
What skills can I offer them?
First write down your top strengths. Then rule out those that are least relevant to the role and to the company. What does the company stand for? What does it strive to achieve? Describe what interests you about their business aims, and how you think you can assist in achieving them. For example, many start-ups are trying to shake up the industries they are entering and take on the big boys (such as Airbnb in the hotels industry, and SoundCloud in the music industry). Could you show you are ready to join a challenge like this?
What experience do I have?
Write down your work experience in short descriptive sentences rather than the format on your CV, then only highlight what might intrigue them. Your stint at a call centre as a penniless graduate probably won’t cut it, unless the vacancy or the business has customer service right at the heart of it.
Why would I like to work for this company?
If you have not already made it clear to them why you appreciate their work, you need to first make it clear in your own head. If you are only applying because you need the money, find another reason fast, otherwise no passion will come across. Dig around to find out what makes them different in a way that you admire (i.e. not simply winning awards) and draw attention to this.
Do I have a critical viewpoint of this company and the industry it sits in?
Don’t be afraid to have an opinion. Can you make any suggestions for their business? For their marketing, for the way their website works, for the way they handle customer enquiries? Show them you have engaged with their product and brand; that you admire it and can think of it from a critical viewpoint too. After all, every business can always improve.
Why should they hire me?
Do this last: try writing out why they should hire you in 20 words or less. It will be tricky but it should define the tone and content of the whole letter, and will probably make you feel more confident.
By now you should have about twice as many words as you need; a much better position to be in compared to “I’m writing to apply for…” at the top of a blank page. Now all you need to do is trim it down to make it punchy. Once that’s done, ask someone else to proofread it and cut it further. If this all goes to plan, your application should be given the attention it deserves, and who knows, it might just lead to that all-important interview.
Lauren Ingram graduated from Sussex University in 2011. She studied linguistics and is now pursuing a marketing career in Berlin.