Five dos and don'ts for writing job application cover letters

Serious Fraud Office recruitment lead Emma Reid says 'sir', 'madam' and 'to whom it may concern' shouldn't be used in job application cover letters.
Serious Fraud Office recruitment lead Emma Reid says 'sir', 'madam' and 'to whom it may concern' shouldn't be used in job application cover letters. Photo credit: Getty.

The New Year provides an opportunity for a fresh start and for those affected by COVID-19, that might include looking for new work.

Data from employment website SEEK shows Kiwi job seekers should feel encouraged. Since April last year (with the exception of August), the number of jobs advertised online rose month-on-month. By November, job ads had bounced back to just over 80 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels, with numbers expected to rise through January and February.

As cover letters are often the first thing employers look at before contacting people for an interview, Newshub asked recruitment experts what they look for.

Here are their top five cover letter dos and don'ts.

1. Do write a cover letter

Most online job applications ask for a cover letter, along with a CV.

To save time, applicants might be tempted to skip the letter entirely. But Serious Fraud Office recruitment lead Emma Reid says the cover letter is the first opportunity for applicants to connect. If missed, it's a red flag.

"Think about applying for roles as an exam… if you miss a question or an entire section you can't possibly gain maximum points. Take every opportunity to make a connection," Reid suggested.

2. Do address the person individually

Job advertisements often include the name and title of the person recruiting for the role.

Before writing the letter, it's useful to check if the person listed on the ad works for the employer, or whether they're recruiting on their behalf.

If the ad includes the person's name, the letter could address them as 'Hi', followed by their first name.

If there's no name, Reid says it's acceptable to address the email and/or cover letter to 'The recruitment team'.

"Sir and Madam is not the business language of today - certainly not in New Zealand - it's way too formal for most organisations," Reid said.

"Don't use 'to whom it may concern' and please don't call me 'dear'," Reid added.

Elyssia Clark, head of customer insights and strategy at online job website SEEK suggests applicants go the extra mile and try to find out the right name.

For a small company, this might be the managing director, CEO or general manager.  For a large company, the human resources manager and/or head of department.

"It's more personal and shows you've taken initiative. If you're unable to find this information, a more generic approach is OK," Clark said.

3. Do consider the opening line

Another tricky part of cover letters is the opening line. Is there an alternative to the standard approach of 'I'm writing to apply for the role of x with company y as advertised on z'?

While that approach isn't wrong, Reid says there are ways to make it more interesting.

"My current favourite opening line is, 'I'd like to be (name of company's, role title)'. It's clear, direct and engaging… it gets my attention." 

4. Don't use a template letter 

Referring to the wrong company, job and/or person is a mistake applicants should avoid.

Rather than be a cut and paste job, the cover letter should pick out the key skills listed on the ad, matching them to personal experience, attributes and goals.

"Your job application is all about showing how you're a good fit for the role on offer. You don't want your cover letter to seem reused," Clark said.

The applicant should explain how they match the job requirements in a couple of lines.

"Put some thought into how you might differentiate and align yourself with a very compelling impact statement. [Be] succinctly clear how you meet the prerequisites in the advertisement," Reid suggested.

5. Don't forget to do a spell check

Before sending the cover letter, applicants are urged to:

  • Check statements made in the cover letter match their CV and LinkedIn profile.
  • Include their full name, email, and mobile number.  
  • Use a file format to save their CV, cover letter and other attachments before sending them (Reid suggests using a format such as firstname_lastname_documenttype_date).
  • Do a final spell and grammar check.  

"Make sure you haven't left tracked changes showing. When we have a number of equally capable applicants, a lack of attention to detail might be the reason [applicants] miss out," Reid added.

Although it can be tempting to apply for lots of roles, experts suggest being selective and putting more effort into fewer applications.

"Only apply for roles with which you have true alignment, skills, experience, qualifications [and] sector experience. Make impactful and compelling applications only. Being honest with yourself will mitigate your disappointment," Reid said.

It's worth remembering that only one person gets the job.  How applicants respond to a 'no' is important - it might mean 'not right now' or 'not this particular role'.

"[It] could turn into a 'yes' at a later date… every little interaction builds your personal brand," Reid said.