I'm regularly asked by candidates whether they should write a cover letter, and what to include. I'm noting down a few recommendations that I believe will help you stand out.
When to write a cover letter?
If you are excited about the role, I believe there's only one situation where you shouldn't write a cover letter.
When applying for a job, sometimes companies ask for additional answers alongside a CV (e.g. "What excites you about our company?"). In this case I don't believe you need to write a cover letter. They've been helpful to give you a clear opportunity to stand out.
Otherwise, I recommend writing a cover letter. I say this because I advocate for making fewer, better applications. I know it's hard to spend more time on an individual application, especially when job searching feels like a numbers game. But I feel writing quality applications is a better strategy for securing a great role. If others are sending their CV and nothing else, and you're writing a well-crafted cover letter, you are more likely to stand out!
What to write in a cover letter
To structure the cover letter, imagine you're being asked these two questions and use one paragraph to answer each. Your cover letter should be brief (1 page).
1 - What excites you about company X?
The best way to stand out is to demonstrate you have put time and thought into understanding the company.
There are simple things you can do that will instantly elevate you above candidates who haven't put additional effort in:
- Refer to an article/blog which talks about the company
- Talk about how you've tried the product and what you like
- Write why you like the mission, or show an understanding of the problem being solved
I've also written an article on 6 areas to research before interviewing at a startup - these are all useful areas to include in a cover letter to show you're excited.
Once you've written this paragraph, ask yourself "If I replaced company X with another company, for example a competitor, would it still make sense?". If the answer is yes, you probably need to add more insight and detail. The aim is to avoid seeming generic.
I often see receive cover letters with sentences like "I want to join Otta as you are changing recruiting" and this isn't enough insight to help you stand out. In fact, sometimes it can work against you, as you've made the effort to write a cover letter but haven't taken the time to write in-depth!
2 - Why do you want this role?
Your CV tells the hiring manager about your previous experience, but it doesn't say anything about your motivations. I believe a cover letter is a great opportunity to tell more of your story.
Here are some example questions that you may want to answer in this paragraph:
- What is it about this role that you really like? (Look carefully at the job description and the areas that excite you)
- If you're applying for a more senior role, why is now the right time?
- If you're moving from a corporate to a startup, why are you confident that a fast-growth environment is right for you? (I've written an article about the qualities startups look for when hiring)
- If you're making a career shift (e.g. strategy to marketing), what is your reasoning? What have you done to make yourself confident this is the right move for you?
- What do you want to achieve in your next role?
- Where do you want to be in 3-5 years and how will this role help you?
- What's important in your next role?
You don't need to tell your whole story (e.g. why you decided to start your career as a software engineer). Ideally you'll find a few interesting areas where the hiring manager will think "yes, that's exactly what we need!" and this will elevate you above other candidates.
Don't make your cover letter an extension of your CV
When reading cover letters, I make this comment about 50% of the time. A lot of candidates use a cover letter to write their CV in more detail. Either by writing more achievements, including deeper detail about projects, or repeating selling-points from the CV.
In my experience, a hiring manager will use the CV to judge your experience and suitability. They're looking to the cover letter to find something else to excite them. I believe my advice (explaining your excitement about the company and why you want the role) will help you stand out more.
If you find yourself using a cover letter to write more detail, I recommend going back to your CV and make edits to include those details in a concise way.