Nine Top Tips For an Impactful Cover Letter

I have been involved in the shortlisting and recruitment of numerous staff in to both humanitarian and development positions. I have reviewed an incredible number of job applications. One thing that has really hit me is that not many applications I have reviewed have really impressed me. This post forms part of the career series being published on Women in Aid. If you want to contribute a post to this series please get in contact with us by emailing info(at)womeninaid.com.

Below are some of my top tips based on my own experience. I welcome comments from others on how they have approached writing cover letters and job applications.

1.       Firstly, DO write a cover letter if it is asked for. An amazing number of people who have applied for jobs I have recruited to have simply not done this. I think some people think that a simple email is enough. It is not. Write a cover letter and write it well. Read the tips below.

2.       Lean in” and sell yourself with a touch of bravado. Write confidently about what you have done. Delete any “we” sentences (e.g. we won a proposal for $2million). The recruiters want to know what you as an individual have brought to previous positions and what you will bring to the position you have applied for if successful.

3.       Clearly write why you want the job and why NOW is the right time for you to do it. Recruiters want you to have thought through why the position you are applying for is a good fit for your current skill level, your experience to date and your future plans. They want to know the same for the organisation you are applying for. Write this clearly within an opening paragraph to the cover letter.

4.       Explain how you meet the person specification (as listed on the job advert) one by one and with examples. The simplest way of doing this is by inserting a table in to the cover letter, with one column showing the person specification listed by the employer and a second column which is information of how you meet the criteria (see example below). You can also answer each criterion with paragraphs. If you are doing this make sure to clearly signpost or highlight how you are meeting each criterion (e.g. by putting their words in bold). This will make it easy for recruiters to shortlist you.

Person Specification Evidence of My Experience
3 years of senior management experience. As you can see from my attached CV I have worked as a senior manager for the following organisations: x, y and z, for a total of 6 years. My senior management experience is especially relevant for this job as much of my experience has been within the humanitarian sector and with similar sized organisations.
Extensive experience of budget development. For the last ** years the roles I have been employed in have involved budget development and management. I have developed budgets both at the organizational level and for specific donor funded projects.

5.       State the obvious. You may be writing your application in English, have been born in America and have a degree from an Australian University, but if the person specification asks for fluency in English be sure to write this. It may seem a little silly, but it is so important to not make recruiters guess or assume anything. Many of the modern shortlisting techniques prevent or limit the degree to which people are allowed to assume, so make sure you write the obvious!

 6.       Put all information in to the language of the organisation you are applying for. All organisations talk about things in quite different ways. Be sure to look through the organisations website and to work out how they talk about things. Do they talk about fundraising or business development? Do they talk about programme management or portfolio management? Ensure that your experience on both your CV and cover letter is tailored to the organisation.

 7.       Do not include a photograph. There is simply no need to include a photograph (or your age, or marital status, or your religion or any other personal details). All of these things only open you up to potential scrutiny that is not appropriate when applying for a job. This information is not relevant so don’t include it.

 8.       Do list which countries you have worked in, but be sure to highlight the country experience you have that is RELEVANT to the post you have applied for. A long list of countries is great, but if you’re applying for a job in Laos and have never worked in South East Asia before, you may want to describe why you think you’ll be able to adapt to this new culture. You’ll also definitely want to research and prepare for a question on the Laos culture for your interview.

 9.       Keep it concise. I don’t believe in “one page” limits or anything like that, as I believe that answering the criteria is the most important thing. However, it is important to write concisely and in punchy sentences. Write the cover letter and then ask someone to review it and specify that you want help to cut down sentences. Don’t cut substance just to fit it on to one page though!

And when you do get the job you might want to re-read last weeks post on negotiation!

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9 Responses to Nine Top Tips For an Impactful Cover Letter

  1. Claire says:

    Thanks for listing some very useful tips. Much more useful than most “how to write a cover letter” texts I have come across so far.
    I had to smile when reading about not attaching a photo. In Germany, my home country, it is still a must for applicants to submit a photo with their application. There had been some pilot projects recently to test applications without photos (and also without information on birth date and marital status, which is also common information in German CVs). Outcomes were positive but I am not convinced that this will change in the near future.
    German NGOs and consultancies hiring for international positions do handle this less strict, though.

    • Hi Claire,

      Thanks for the feedback!

      The photo and personal details question does seem to differ significantly by country. I’m not sure what the best solution for this is. I just know that it’s really hard when recruiting being confronted with information that it would be against much HR law to take in to account. It’s a difficult situation as a recruiter.

      Do you have any tips that you have used yourself when applying for jobs?

      Best wishes, Fi

  2. GS Azam says:

    Hi Fiona – Your article is very helpful for the job seekers. It’s so practial! Thank you for writing this. It’s true that many job-seekers in the South Asian sub-continent do not take it seriously enough to write the cover letter or even the CV. As a result, many of them do not get the chance of interviewing despite having required qualities. Now-a-days, there are many resources available on the web but not all the job seekers are reading them to prepare themselves better. One of the VPs of an organization once told me that the South Asian candidates “undersell” them while XXXX candidates “oversell”.

    The issue relating to photographs is interesting. I did not know that a country like Germany needs photos with the job-applications. In Asia or more specifically South Asian countries want photos so it became a habit and almost everybody affixes a photo on his/her CV even when applying for international positions. Many times people put a photo of their young age that surprise the interviewers if and when a face-to-face meeting takes place.

    I can add one point to the nine of yours above. Proof reading! It is important to carefully read the cover letter (CVs and Resumes as well) to avoid all typos and spelling errors. Once I used an old cover letter that was sent earlier to an organization let’s say X. I revised and changed everything and put the name of the new organization Y. Only in one place, it escaped my scrutiny but it did not escape the eyes of the CEO who later on interviewed me. I was selected for the job but at the end of our interview the CEO kindly and politely advised me to check my cover letters more carefully next time and explained why! I was terribly embarrassed and grateful!! Now I proof read 3 times.

    Your article will guide and benefit thousands of job-seeker! Thank you once again!!

  3. Monica says:

    Very interesting points of view. Thanks.

  4. Christina says:

    Question regarding the #4 idea to chart out the ways you match Person Specifications: Wouldn’t this come across as too informal? I imagine that if you are submitting your data to a recruitment company this could be useful for them, but what if you’re submitting to the organization directly? I imagine that a chart or table would be too blunt and suggest that you don’t have very good writing skills. Or maybe it’s suggesting that you ARE the concise, go-getter that will make their job easier? What’s to be valued here, then?

    • Good questions.

      I like reviewing cover letters with tables as it makes shortlisting easy. However, writing paragraphs that clearly state when evidence that proves that you meet the person spec is being met is also good. It just has to be clearly signposted.

      I would recommend doing the table exercise as preparation for writing the cover letter to ensure all points are covered.

      Other people who have been involved in recruiting please do comment….

  5. A couple of comments from our LinkedIn group (http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=5020090&goback=%2Eanp_5020090_1371376810533_1%2Egmr_5020090) are as follows:

    – if you edit and re-use a model cover letter ensure you have specified the correct job and the right employer!
    – be specific about the number of employees you have managed
    – be specific about the budget value you have managed
    – do add details of your right to work in the country you are applying for a position in (do you have the work permit required?)

  6. Lucy says:

    I have read a number of your posts – you seem to pick up topics relevant to my work and interests. At Mango (Management Accounting for NGOs) we see many different styles of CV and cover letter for candidates applying directly to us and to NGOs whose recruitment we are supporting. I like your suggestion of using a table that lists the key selection criteria outlined in the advert or person spec. I think this has real value as a candidate prepares their response to help ensure key areas are answered. In the final letter, my personal preference would be to review a letter that looks like a letter i.e. with paragraphs that highlight experience that is directly relevant to the key criteria in the job spec, rather than a table. The overall picture should give a sense of the breadth and depth of experience rather than every detail.
    Your point 3 is essential – a successful cover letter will be one that articulates enthusiasm for the role and demonstrates where personal values are in harmony with the hiring organisations.

  7. Amy says:

    Just read this very useful post – thanks Fi!
    When I write a cover letter (and yes, there must always be one and it must always address the key points of the person specification!) I go point-by-point through the PS and give specific examples of how I meet this criteria. For each example I describe (concisely) (1) what I did (2) how I did it and (3) the departmental / organizational / programmatic etc. change that came about as a result of my specific involvement.
    It is easy to claim ‘I can do X and Y’ – a good employer is looking for facts / examples to back up such statements, information about how one has gone about effecting change and the positive consequences.

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