Cover letters are an important part of any job application. With recruiters and hiring managers receiving hundreds of applications, a good cover letter can help give you the best chances of landing that role! These tips will make sure your job applications have the best chance of standing out in the crowd.
1. Convey your enthusiasm!
So often we speak to our law grads and alumni about an opportunity that they are really excited about applying for, only to review their cover letter and find their enthusiasm and excitement is not reflected!
Wait a minute, isn’t my suitability obvious from my CV? Well, yes, there will ideally be plenty of alignment between your CV and what the hiring manager is looking for, but the main purpose of your CV is to outline your education, qualifications, and experience simply and clearly in detail.
Your cover letter is where you speak directly to the employer about why you are motivated and enthusiastic about the opportunity on offer. You should be highlighting the synergies between what’s on your CV and what they need from someone in this role.
Employers want to see evidence of your technical and professional skills, but they also want to see that a candidate understands the role on offer, can demonstrate their interest in the area of law and, ideally, that they know something about their organisation and its values. So make sure that your cover letter clearly describes what interests you about the role and why you think you are a good fit. And conveying your passion will show the employer that you are enthusiastic about the role too. This is just so important.
2. Tailor your letter to reflect the language of the organisation, the position description and the advertisement
Before writing your letter, make sure you access all the information you can about the role and the organisation and make sure your language and the references you make align with what’s on offer.
But what about that template letter that you always use, it’s great, right? I’m afraid there is no “great cover letter” only a “great cover letter for this job.” You may have an excellent paragraph on your ability to work independently and without close supervision that is ready to go, but if the employer has specifically requested attributes such as ‘team player’ and ‘collaborative’ and stated that ‘this role will work closely with our Senior Associates’… then it’s time to ditch that paragraph in favour of some information on your experience working in teams, what you enjoy about that and what you have learned from it.
3. Don’t make the recruiter go searching for what they want to see – wherever possible, use headings!
Closely related to the last point about tailoring your letter, your ability to make it easy for the recruiter to find what they’re looking for can be the difference between your application being read thoroughly or merely skimmed over and set aside.
Remember, recruiters are likely to spend between 5-30 seconds on their initial review of your application. To help them find what they are looking for and to feel encouraged to keep reading, use headings to break up the key information within your letter. If you are asked to respond to “key selection criteria” then headings are a must-have. If not, but you have been provided with information about what the employer is specifically looking for, then the use of headings can also be effective.
4. Use simple, plain language – keep it short and be succinct
A cover letter is not the time for fancy language or proving that you went to law school by cleverly inserting Latin phrases whenever you can … and leave that thesaurus out of your cover letter-writing toolkit.
Instead, use a clear, plain-language writing style to convey information that responds directly to what the employer says they want to see. Don’t waste time or valuable space on sales-pitches, buzz-words and fluffy sentences that describe how awesome you are. Provide concrete, verifiable information and be concise. For example, instead of stating that “I am a motivated, hard-working, highly organised team player and leader with excellent communication skills” it is much more effective to outline some concrete examples where you have demonstrated that you have the skills and attributes the employer is seeking. Does the job ad ask for a team player? Then tell them about how much you enjoyed a group project at university where each group member brought their unique perspective and skills to the challenge at hand and how, together, you achieved a great outcome. Or does the employer value attention to detail? Then provide a brief description of an example from your study or work experience where attention to detail was critical and share any positive feedback you have had about your strengths in this area.
5. Address your letter to a specific individual – (No name provided? Use their job title.)
The days of “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To whom it may concern” are long gone. So, then to whom do you address your letter? Rule #1 is that if you have been provided with the name and /or title of the hiring manager, then make sure you address your letter to them. Remember we mentioned earlier about the 5-30 seconds of their attention that they are likely to give your application? That may be less than 5 seconds if you have ignored this important detail in the advertisement and instead have started with an impersonal, generic greeting.
What if the ad doesn’t tell you how your letter should be addressed? If you have a contact email or phone number for any queries, then you can enquire as to whom the application should be addressed. If you have been provided with a title only, then it’s fine to use this in your address e.g. “Dear Principal Solicitor” or “Dear Human Resources Manager”. If you have no information or way of finding out, then it is acceptable to use “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Recruiting Manager” and take it from there.
Other common questions about cover letters:
How long should my cover letter be?
Well, it should be as long as the employer asks it to be. But what if no limit or guidance is provided in the ad? Then we recommend you aim for around a page, but use your judgement. If you are asked to respond to multiple key selection criteria then a page may not suffice, but just remember to aim for concise, clear and succinct writing at all times.
Do I even need to bother with a cover letter these days?
YES! As experienced recruiters, we know firsthand the difference that a well written and compelling cover letter can make to a recruiter’s shortlisting decision. Further, recent surveys have found that 83% of hiring managers agreed that a well written cover letter is important for their decision making. And why do employers still want to see a cover letter? The most common reason is so they can understand your motivation to join their company, followed by learning about your career objectives, understanding why you have changed career direction (if that is applicable) and to read about your professional achievements. This mirrors the feedback from employers that we speak to, whether legal principals or HR professionals, who constantly tell us that they want to see more than just qualifications and work history when deciding who to interview.