The covering letter is like a calling card. It's a succinct, snappy, memorable way for you to introduce yourself to an employer and hopefully get them to read on into your CV with interest and enthusiasm.
So what makes a good covering letter and what makes a bad one? What are the basic facts to bear in mind when sitting down to write it?
Take your time. A covering letter may only be a few hundred words at the most so the temptation is to rattle it off quickly and plough on into the more important document, the CV.
The letter is your first point of contact. Experts say that you have just 40 seconds to grab your reader's attention before he starts thinking about the next one in the pile. In that time you need to present yourself, your experience, your qualifications and your potential to fill the vacancy.
Do your homework
Always, if at all possible, address the application to the person who is choosing the new employee. Often adverts in magazines or newspapers ask for CVs to be sent simply to the human resources department. Call the company and at the very least find out who the HR director is and address the envelope to them.
Aren't I just repeating my CV?
No. A covering letter should be very clear and to the point, including a few reasons why you are perfect for the job and what experience you have. Remember: think of it as an introduction. State your intentions from the beginning.
Don't be shy
As with the CV, highlight your achievements rather than just give a boring explanation of what you do. Include figures if possible, saying how you increased sales by 30%, or reduced staff turnover by 50% by bringing in a new training scheme, for example.
Don't second-guess your reader too much
By all means think what the employer is looking for in the person who will fill his vacancy, and prioritise your skills and experience to match those requirements. Don't, however, tell him why you want to leave your current job, especially if it's because you hate your job.
Do you include your salary in a covering letter? Yes, but only if it's specifically asked for in the job advertisement. If it is, then don't be afraid of putting it in. They have a reason for asking and if the answer is not there, it could mean instant rejection. Don't worry, nobody expects you to work for free.
Make a point of briefly saying that you are available for interview at the prospective employer's convenience. Highlight your contact details, these days including a mobile phone number and e-mail address if you have them. Add that you can be contacted for any further information if it's needed.
Once you've written your covering letter, read it back to yourself very slowly. Look closely at every word - you'll be surprised how easy it is to miss a spelling mistake or a typing error. Show it to a couple of friends and get some feedback. It's always worth taking the extra time to get a second opinion.
A covering letter is an introduction and an invitation to a potential employer. If offered neatly, mistake-free and with the most pertinent experience and qualifications clearly presented, then your CV will seem all the more attractive and interesting. Hopefully, it will then be your future employer sending you a letter asking you to come to an interview.