Every professional should know how to write a cover letter
Whether you are a freshly out of university or have been in the workforce for a decade, if you are applying for a new job position you will probably be asked to provide a cover letter.
A cover letter is a three to four paragraph essay that provides details about your professional and educational experiences and gives you the opportunity to explain why you are a good fit for the job. So even if an employer doesn’t ask for a cover letter, it’s a good idea to write one anyway.
However, let’s be real, job applications are not the most fun thing to do, and for many of us who don’t like writing, there is nothing as tedious as having to write a cover letter for a job position. But here’s the thing, a good cover letter will help you to stand out to employers and get the job interview.
Cover letters flesh out your resume
One of the biggest mistakes people make when writing a cover letter is treating it as an essay version of the CV/resume. As a result, they put every job and experience they have on their CV in the cover letter. Doing this will surely get your cover letter thrown in the trash. So, instead of copying your CV, cover letters are meant to expand on the most interesting or unclear parts of your resume, these include:
– Time gaps in your work experience
– University degrees that don’t match the work you do
– A sudden change in industry (or if the new job is in an industry or position type you haven’t held before)
– Other non-work related experiences that prepared you for the job (travel, volunteer, internships)
For instance, if you studied Engineering in university but have been working as a Tech Writer for the past two years, your cover letter is the place where you can explain how this happened:
“While I majored in Engineering at the University of Dar es Salaam, I was always interested in writing and was the editor of the university newspaper and blog. As a result, I decided to combine my passion for technology and writing in my chosen profession as a Tech Writer for The Citizen Newspaper after I graduated.”
Cover letters tell a story
Because your cover letter provides details that are not in your CV, it also creates an opportunity for you to tell a story about the progression and development of your professional career. So, while your resume can show that you’ve gotten better job positions over the years (intern > associate > officer), your cover letter is where you can tell the story of how this happened and present yourself in the best light possible (without lying).
For example, if you are now a Junior Associate at an auditing firm but you started off as an intern for the same company, then you can write about how you progressed into a full-time employee.
“In 2011, I landed a summer internship at the Elite Auditing Firm, and because of my ability to pay great attention to detail (one time I found a TZS 10 million discrepancy in a report that both my supervisor and senior auditor missed), I was quickly offered a job the next year. In the four years that I’ve been with the company, I’ve been responsible for managing 5 big corporate accounts for the firm whose retainer alone are collectively worth over TZS 100 million).
Cover letters show you can communicate well
While Tanzanians are generally uncomfortable with writing, especially in English, it’s critical to get over that fear and improve this skill if you want to maximise your chances of getting job interviews with reputable companies.
The reality is, whatever job function or industry you may be in if you are working a skilled professional job, it’s important to be a good communicator. This will come in handy if you have to write work emails, project briefs, and more. And so employers use the cover letter to see if you can effectively advocate for yourself in concise and engaging ways.
However, a well-written cover letter doesn’t have to sound like a Shakespeare or Chinua Achebe story. Instead, it should have:
– A clear structure: introduction, main body, and conclusion
– No grammatical or spelling errors
– Information not present in your CV
Note: Many people in Tanzania avoid writing cover letters by paying someone else to do it for them. While there are ways other people can help you improve your job application, you should get in the habit of writing your own cover letter as this gives you some practice on how to effectively communicate your thoughts and ideas through writing.
Moreover, if writing or being a good communicator is an important skill for your job role, then many employers will also require you to provide additional writing samples or take a writing test as they are aware that many people don’t write their own cover letters. So, you are better off doing it yourself from the start.
Ok, so now that you understand how exactly a cover letter helps potential employers learn more about you, how exactly do you write one?
Step by step guide to writing a cover letter
Put your address on the top right hand-side of the cover letter, this should include:
Put the address of the specific person you are writing the cover letter for on the left-hand side (opposite to your address) of the cover letter. While many jobs don’t give you a specific person to address your job application to, you can try and find out who will be reading your cover letter by:
– Visiting the company’s website and finding the name of the HR officer or your potential supervisor
– Use LinkedIn to find out who works at the company
– Call the company and ask HR who exactly to address the cover letter to
Write to a specific person
The effort you made to find someone specific to put in the company address will also be useful when it comes to addressing your cover letter. Recruiters everywhere will always tell you that it is better to address a specific person “Dear Ms. Serengia or Dear. Dr. Evans” than to simply write ‘To Whom It May Concern”.
Introduction (first paragraph)
Your first paragraph should first state what position you are applying for, as often times employers may be hiring for multiple positions at the same time, and given the volume of applications they receive, they can forget what specific position you are applying for.
So a simple, “My name is Ana Mallo, and I’m interested in the Sales Manager position at ZoomTanzania as advertised on the BrighterMonday website” is good enough.
After that, briefly explain why you are interested in the position, and more importantly, working for that company in particular. This will require you to do some research on the company (their values, history, business objectives).
Continuing with the above example:
“My experiences working with online and e-commerce businesses have prepared me to confidently sell and promote ZoomTanzania’s online advertising solutions to businesses of all sizes in the country. As a result, I’m excited for the opportunity to work with you.”
Main body (second and third paragraph)
The next two paragraphs of your cover letter are your opportunity to highlight why you are the best candidate for the job. Remember, you don’t have to talk about every job position you have put in your CV, instead, pick those milestones that greatly prepared you for the job you are applying for and tell a story.
Write something like,
“While my professional career as a salesperson started in 2010, I’ve loved selling since I was in high school. From the age of 16 I spent every school break at my uncle’s printing company, making calls and pitching to businesses that I believed would need our services. I remember clearly the day I made my first successful sale, it was to a new shopping centre that wanted promotional flyers – I realised then that sales was for me. As a result, I studied Business Administration at the University of Dar es Salaam because I wanted to learn how businesses operate internally so that I can know how to approach them as a sales representative.
While in University, I had several internships and part-time jobs in sales. However, the one that influenced me the most was when I worked for L’Oréal Tanzania. Not only did I go through a vigorous training process, but I also learned a lot of selling tricks from the challenge of selling mid-range cosmetics to the Tanzanian market. In the beginning, I only achieved 30% of my sales targets, and at the end, I improved to 85% and was offered a full-time job. I’ve been with L’Oréal ever since, and now command a team of 10 sales rep and collectively we gain TZS 90 million in profit per month.”
Conclusion (fourth paragraph)
The conclusion should reiterate your interest in the position, and also provide details of how to contact you.
“With over 5 years of experience in sales, my abilities to both sell on the ground and manage a team has adequately prepared me to join the ZoomTanzania team as the Sales Manager. I’m excited to work for one of the most trusted online businesses in the country, and if you are equally interested in working with me you can contact me at +255784567890.
Don’t forget to follow instructions
Since you’ve worked so hard on your cover letter, don’t mess up your chances of getting noticed by employers by not following instructions. If they give you an email address to send your application to and ask you to put a certain title on the email “Application for Sales Manager Job’, then do exactly that. If they ask you to send the application through the mail by a certain date, then don’t miss the deadline.
Moreover, a cover letter is not a substitute for other application materials like writing samples, or specific questions the employer can ask you to respond to (for instance, briefly explain why you want to work with our company?).
Bonus tip: When it comes to emailing your application, in addition to attaching your application materials also copy-paste your cover letter on the main body of the email. This will increase the chances that the recruiter will read your cover letter right when they open your email, rather than having to download the attachment.
One size may not fit all
Since writing a cover letter can be incredibly time-consuming, you may be tempted to use the same cover letter for different jobs you are applying for. However, even if you are applying for the exact same job role at different companies, a little bit of customisation goes a long way. In addition to changing the company and employer’s name and address, also tailor each cover letter to the company’s unique interests. So let’s say, one company really cares about creating a healthy work environment and team building – then focus more on this in your introduction;
“I look forward to the opportunity to be part of a team that thrives on collaboration ….”
Whereas if the another company is a start-up and is focused on growth, then you should stay,
“I look forward to working in a fast-paced and vigorous work environment, where I’ll be challenged to improve and grow consistently….”
Simply put, employers want to know why you want to work for them, not why you want a generic job role. So, if you put in the time and effort to create a cover letter you can be proud off, the employer will surely reward you with an interview.