Cover letters – the whys, the wherefores and the wacky

Cover letters – the whys, the wherefores and the wacky 1920 1280 Haggie Partners
Rowena Nelson, Haggie Partners operations director, offers some words of wisdom on how to ensure your cover letter stands out. But not too much!

We all know that applying for jobs is hard. CVs, application forms, aptitude tests, virtual interviews now making it harder than ever to judge the culture of an organisation – there is so much to consider.

The hard work begins right at the start of the process because let’s face it, when you’re applying for a job, a good CV or application form alone isn’t enough. They rarely show your personality and humour – that’s not why they exist. So the cover letter is critical but they’re tricky. If I had to write one now, and happily I don’t, I would struggle. The trouble is that candidates are on the back foot; recruiters know their companies inside out. We know what makes us tick, why our culture is the way it is and how we have evolved, whereas potential candidates are completely in the dark. They have no idea about our particular tone or style or whether to insert a cheeky exclamation mark to reflect humour.

During our last recruitment drive, I sifted through hundreds of these letters (the pandemic situation meant 335 times more applicants than usual). All recruiters know how exhausting that is and it can be a little dull. So here are some thoughts that you may find useful. Failing that, I hope you enjoy some of the more unusual examples.

Unsurprisingly, the cover letters that stand out from the crowd are those shining with personality, a little humility and humour. This can be a great help to get you noticed and be seriously considered. It can also be taken too far. My favourite recent covering letter started like this:

“I don’t have a cv as such, if anything it’s more of a story or a disinterested farce. I have never been employed, not even a little bit. No Saturday jobs, or early morning paper routes. I’m a career sofa surfer at the bank of Mum and Dad, an amateur cat wrangler, and a lifter of heavy things deemed too cumbersome for increasingly geriatric parents.  I have A levels that earned me entry onto a number of incomplete degrees that I no longer have the skill set to understand let alone contemplate restarting.” 

He didn’t get an interview, though had we had fewer applications, I might have called him. It was clever and funny but just trying a bit too hard. I had to look up cat wrangler. Turns out it’s just someone with more than one cat.

Likewise, this cover note that we received some time ago made me smile: “One day I’d love to be a rocket scientist but until then I would relish the opportunity to work with you.” I loved that. He didn’t get an interview though because he decided his profile pic on Facebook – and therefore the one most likely to be seen by various potential employers – would be him stark naked halfway up a mountain. I suppose that proves that it isn’t only about the cover letter…

Some applicants are intriguing by virtue of their very pedestrian cover letters. Do they really want a job, or is it that they feel compelled to apply for everything just in case? Like this for example:

“Dear HR Manager,
I am writing to apply for the position of x. I feel I possess all the qualities you are looking for la la la.
Please find my CV attached.

It may be professional enough to get read and considered, but it’s not memorable and adds very little to the black and white details on your CV. What’s more he hadn’t even bothered to look my name up.

On the use of flouncy ‘swallowed a thesaurus-type’ language, our cat wrangler made an excellent point: “It’s hard to flex my literary muscles with so little evidence to rest upon without sounding like an 18th century social climber or an ambitious governess trying to establish publicly that they too know long mispronouncable multi-syllabic words.” But at least he had a go. I haven’t checked but he probably writes for the TLS now.

I think the best applications fall somewhere in the middle. Short, honest, friendly (but not overly so) and devoid of run of the mill words like ‘skill-set’ and braggy adjectives like ‘exceptional’ – as in ‘exceptionel atenttion to detail’. Never write this. You are BOUND to fail.

One of our newest recruits wrote: “I am an enthusiastic outgoing person, who thoroughly enjoys communicating with other people, and am looking forward to putting my knowledge and skills to good use in this industry.” There is a fine line between going over the top and genuine, warm enthusiasm but OMG I can’t tell you how important enthusiasm is!

A bit of carefully used flattery also goes a long way in demonstrating true interest in a role: “I am applying to Haggie Partners in the hope that it will provide long-term opportunities to develop my career in the industry, not only through the range and standing of the clients Haggie Partners serves, but also through its boutique nature, which would allow me to immediately learn from the very best talent in the company.” One of our team wrote that, got the job and stayed with us for many years.

Good judgement in communicating about yourself is needed in all cover letters, and perhaps that is what we as recruiters are most looking for – especially in my case when it comes to recruiting for people whose job will be all about communication. So I would say, do as much research as you can to help your letter hit its target.

This is probably illustrated by the best – and yet worst – answer that I’ve seen to the question “Why are you interested in this role?”: “I want to dress up in suits and get paid a lot.”

Good luck.