Five things recruiters look for in a cover letter
There’s a lot of advice out there on the best way to write a cover letter, mostly focused on avoiding mistakes. Career-skill programs typically like to familiarize students with “killer lines” or genre-specific formalities, or with the dos and don’ts of language or layout. This often leads to the (faulty) conclusion that once we’ve written a nice typo-free cover letter, we can use it again and again in response to any job ad. We just have to be sure we replace the last company and job title and do not forget to address the right person.
This couldn’t be more wrong. While avoiding easily avoidable errors may increase your chances to be considered for the right pile on a recruiter’s desk, it does not convince anyone you’re the right person for the job—even though this is what a cover letter should do. In fact, its purpose should be to take a recruiter on a guided tour of why you’re right for the position. Therefore, the cover letter must explicitly respond to the requirements specified in the job ad.
1. Been there, done that
The best way to respond to the job requirements in a cover letter is to spell out how your qualifications, skills and experience meet them. Job requirements are clearly listed in every job ad for any candidate to see, so why be the one to ignore them? For example, if a company is looking for someone who’s a good problem-solver, you should explicitly point this out in your cover letter rather than leave it to the recruiter to gather from your CV.
But saying you’re a “good problem solver” is not enough. Anyone can claim this. It’s much more effective to explain how you were key in solving a problem in a previous position or during your studies. Because from a recruiter’s perspective, past behavior predicts future behavior. So if you’ve been good at solving a problem once, they can expect this behavior from you in the future, giving them one more good reason to hire you.
2. Ask not what the company can do for you…
What recruiters also want to establish is why you’d like to join their company. However, this “motivation statement” should not come across as too self-centered. Something like: “I always knew Google was the place to start my career” could actually put a company off you — apart from the fact that this would be their call, not yours… It’s much more effective — and much more convincing—to focus on how you would add value to the company once hired. For example, you can state that you’d be immediately productive because you bring along relevant experience. Or if a company is looking for a marketing manager to advance its digital capabilities, you could explicitly mention your motivation to propel the company’s marketing into the digital future.
For all of the above reasons, the biggest mistake you can make when writing a cover letter is not to take a recruiter’s perspective. Even though this sounds easy, it requires an effort. Writing about ourselves can cause us to become very self-absorbed, preventing us from being able to think about what a recruiter is trying to figure out while screening often hundreds of applications.
3. Prove you put in some effort
If you think about it this way, then pre-written templates are actually a bad idea. Recruiters probably read the same basic cover letter over and over again. So writing a carefully curated, unique cover letter for each job you apply for will almost certainly help you stand out
Some candidates think a cover letter is not even necessary because everything a recruiter needs to know is their CV. But why leave this to the recruiter? While cover letters are perhaps not essential for some roles in certain industries, not including one in your application robs you of the chance to make the right impression. And you don’t want them to think you’re too lazy to put in the right effort.
Image: Giant stack of resumes by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY 2.0
4. Let your personality shine
Another thing we tend to forget is the formulaic nature of CVs, detailing duties and responsibilities in chronological order. This makes all candidates look rather boring and similar. A cover letter offers the unique opportunity to bring your application to life. And this helps the recruiter envision who the person behind the details really is and how he or she would fit in.
So the best advice you can get is to put yourself in a recruiter’s shoes, plan the content of your cover letter based on the requirements specified in the ad and explicitly show how your work experience and skills meets them.
5. Showcase your communication skills
One thing that appeals to almost any employer are communication skills. According to the labor market analytics company Burning Glass, communication skills are the number one baseline skill employers are currently looking for. Burning Glass provided ample evidence for this: it mined no less than 25 million job ads to create its skill ranking. Is there a better place to show (not tell) a recruiter that your communication skills are great than a cover letter?
The below video from the Writing Hub’s YouTube channel shows you how you can best showcase your skills and experience in your cover letter.