A cover letter is an integral part of landing your dream role. Here, a careers expert shares her advice on how to make yours stand out, even if you’re lacking experience for your desired role.
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Making a career change is a big decision that can feel daunting, particularly after a year filled with so much change due to the effects of coronavirus. However, the impact of the pandemic has led more people to consider changing jobs, with research by Total Jobs suggesting that a fifth of UK workers have realised their job wasn’t for them as a result of COVID.
Leaving your job to find a career you care about is an incredible decision to make for yourself. But applying for new jobs is rarely an exciting process. Searching all over the internet for new jobs, filling out online applications and editing your CV – it’s not how most people would choose to spend their time. And a task many of us dread in particular is writing a cover letter.
Cover letters require you to list off your achievements and take pride in yourself, something a lot of people aren’t used to doing in regular life. And they can also feel repetitive to write, especially if you are applying for a lot of similar jobs.
“Cover letters can feel confusing and overwhelming but it’s actually a really great chance to join the dots between your CV and the job advert,” says Emma Feasey, the services manager for the Young Women’s Trust, a feminist organisation that helps young women to build skills that will benefit them in the workplace.
Most jobs require cover letters and employers take them seriously too, as they offer them a chance to see how you respond to their specific job advert. Here, Emma shares her advice for how to write a stand-out cover letter if you have recently changed careers, or you’re looking to in the future, and are worried about not having enough experience.
Take some time to think positively about the cover letter before you start writing it
If you don’t think you have much relevant experience to the job you’re applying for, you may start to put yourself down before you’ve even started to write your cover letter. To avoid this, Emma recommends taking some time to think positively about the experience beforehand.
“Before you even start writing the letter, imagine yourself sending off a really strong application and how that would make you feel,” she advises. “You could also make a list of things that you know about yourself that would make you a really good fit for this role and keep that list near you to give you a boost of positivity while you’re writing.
Make it easy for the recruiter to read your cover letter
“Recruiters are reading hundreds of cover letters for each job application and they’re probably only looking over yours for about 30 seconds, so you need to make it easy for them to find the information they’re looking for,” Emma says.
Emma says that your cover letter should be no more than two sides of A4 and that you should use a standard font. She also stresses the importance of short sentences and short paragraphs, as well as sending your cover letter as a PDF so the formatting isn’t affected by different software. As well as this, include your contact details at the top of your cover letter, so it’s easy for the recruiter to get in touch with you.
“Something I also recommend is pulling out all the key points from the job description and using them as headings, putting them in bold or underlining them,” Emma says. You can then include your relevant experience underneath each heading.
Avoid negative phrasing in your cover letter
If you are lacking some experience for the role you’re applying for, your cover letter is the perfect time to address this. There are clever ways you can do this without making yourself look like you’re not experienced enough for the job, according to Emma.
“Never use negative phrasing,” she says. “Instead of saying, ‘Although I haven’t used photoshop,’ try, ‘I regularly edit images using Canva.’”
Don’t talk yourself out of the role, Emma advises, and think about what you do have to offer in place of things you can’t do at the moment. “Be bold and big everything up – maximise your achievements and successes,” Emma says, adding that you should try and use active language where possible.
“If you have a gap on your CV, you can explain it in your cover letter if you feel comfortable,” Emma continues. “But don’t over-explain. One sentence simply explaining the gap – for example, ‘I was looking for work during the pandemic’ or ‘I was caring for a family member’ – is fine.”
Think about your transferable skills
Even if you think you don’t have any relevant experience to the job you’re applying for, there will definitely be some skills you’ve learnt at previous jobs or from other experiences that will be useful to the role.
“Maybe you haven’t done the exact tasks or duties that they ask for in the role but you will have done things that show similar skill or strength,” Emma says. “We develop skills in unpaid work too, like caring for family members and voluntary work so don’t be afraid to mention this where it’s relevant.”
When you’re talking about your skills, Emma explains that you should show examples of them rather than just claiming to be good at something. For example, instead of saying, ‘I have excellent communication skills,’ give an example of when you used those communication skills successfully.
“The recruiter might be willing to hire somebody who has come from a different field because you bring unique experiences that someone who has always worked in the same field doesn’t have, so try and have that confidence in yourself,” Emma adds.
Add interesting details to your cover letter
If you’re finding your cover letter boring to write, the likelihood is that the recruiter will find it boring to read. Emma suggests including interesting, relevant, details about yourself, rather than using generic descriptions and examples.
“The opening paragraph in particular should include something that makes the recruiter want to read on,” she explains. “You could sum up your passion for the role and why you’re suited for it. Try to be as specific as possible.”
“Include something that might make the person reading mention you to a colleague because you’ve done something interesting,” Emma suggests. “And make sure to include figures to make things measurable and provide scale.”
Match the tone of your cover letter to the organisation you’re applying to
It’s important to keep your cover letter formal and professional. However, Emma also recommends researching the organisation you’re applying to and figuring out what their tone of voice is and trying to mirror this in your letter.
“Look at the job advert itself but also research their website and take into account the way they talk about what they do, their team and the people they’re working with,” Emma explains. “Borrow some of their phrasing and this will immediately make you seem like a good fit.”
An understanding of the organisation you’re applying to is often more important than experience and subtle adjustments to your cover letter like this one will really ensure that comes across. “If you can also include something in your cover letter that references a project or campaign the organisation has worked on recently, this looks really impressive,” Emma adds.
Emma Feasey, services manager at the Young Women's Trust
Emma Feasey is the Services Manager for Young Women’s Trust – a feminist organisation working to achieve economic justice for young women. She manages their free Work It Out services – supporting young women to build skills and strong mental health. Emma has worked in the charity sector for over 12 years and also volunteers with LGBTQ+ young people.
Images: Getty and Emma Feasey