Job search: cover letters

Your CV may be a masterpiece of self-promotion, but who’s going to read it if your email or covering letter fails to impress?

For job-hunters, emails offer a number of advantages over the handwritten or typed letters that traditionally used to accompany CVs in the post. They’re easier to compose, they generally require less formality in content and tone, and they’re much more immediately accessible to the recipient. But simplicity, informality and speed can have drawbacks. Unless you observe some straightforward rules, the CV in which you’ve invested so much time and effort may never be opened.

Emails are typically read much faster than letters – but if the recipient’s inbox has piled up with applications, he or she might be more prone to making snap judgments, simply to expedite the initial screening process. A neatly-composed, correction-free handwritten letter will always stand out from those that have been dashed off in a hurry – but with email, there’s a more level playing field, and it’s what you say that will primarily dictate how the recipient responds.

Mind your language

‘It’s usually ok to be a little less formal in an email,’ says Charlie Carnall, a director at recruiter Hays Accountancy & Finance. ‘However, that’s not a green light to be over-familiar. If you’re in any doubt about whether your tone might strike the wrong note, it’s better to err on the side of caution.’

Remember that the purpose of your email (or covering letter) is to get your CV opened and read. But if technology gives you the ability to fire your CV off to scores of employers, the down side is that those employers will be on the receiving end of hundreds of applications. Many will therefore raise the bar considerably – and if they’re looking for reasons to reject (which in most cases takes far less time than to accept), your email must be tailored accordingly.

Make it personal. Address the recipient by name, saying why you’re emailing them. If you’ve been asked to quote a reference number, do so. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the person you’re emailing has only one function, which is to sift through applications for a single solitary job. ‘They may well use the same address as they do for their regular email, or for applications for other vacancies,’ says Gert Nzimiro, a director at Reed Accounting. ‘If the recipient has to work out for themselves why you’ve emailed them, because you’ve not taken the time to explain yourself – when an explanatory email takes just minutes – it might indicate that you can’t follow simple instructions, or that you don’t regard your potential employer’s request as sufficiently important to comply.’

Nor will taking short cuts – by typing the reference number into the subject field and attaching your CV – pass muster with most recipients. ‘There needs to be a sense of a human being behind the email,’ says Carnall. ‘If you were posting a printout of your CV, you wouldn’t just scribble a reference number at the top of the front page; you’d write or type a letter. Yes, it’s easier for recipients to open emails, and then open attachments – but doesn’t mean you should leave it to them to find out why you’re emailing them.’

Why not me?

Your email may only be given a cursory glance – so get straight down to business. Referring back to the requirements that you know about (or those you safely assume would be needed), summarise why you think you’d be right for the job.

'Making a direct reference to what the employer’s looking for shows that you’re taking the application seriously – instead of just sending what is obviously a template email,’ says Tomas Bergl, manager at recruiters Robert Half in the Czech Republic. ‘If you’re applying via a recruitment consultant, tailoring the email demonstrates that you’re genuinely interested in the opportunity with their client. That may well keep you at the forefront of your consultant’s mind when new jobs arise, which can only be a good thing.’

If the job specifically requires someone who’s part-qualified, make it clear that you’re studying ACCA and state how far advanced you are in your studies. And if you’ve passed all your exams first time so far, say so.

‘If the company sponsors its trainees through exams for professional qualifications, they may look favourably on you as someone who’s unlikely to cost them a fortune in re-sits,’ says Carnall. ‘If you’ve managed to pass your exams while holding down a demanding job, that’s even better.’

In a job market that increasingly sees candidates who resign receiving counter‑offers from their present employer, recruiters and their clients appreciate evidence that you’re committed to changing jobs, not window-shopping in order to force up your salary. By saying why the job for which you’re applying appeals to you, you’re saying: I really do like the sound of this opportunity.

According to Nzimiro, that counts considerably to those who decide who gets called in for interviews. ‘Motivation is a key factor for employers,’ he says. ‘They want reassurance that candidates in whom they plan to invest time interviewing are worthwhile prospects.’

After sending off…

Once you’ve sent your email off, don’t forget to save it. Email may facilitate job-hunting in volumes that wouldn’t be humanly possible with hand-written letters – but that makes good housekeeping essential. ‘It strikes completely the wrong note if a candidate doesn’t appear to remember the job for which he or she has applied,’ says Nzimiro. ‘That initial spark of interest at the employer’s end can easily be snuffed out.'

Similarly, make sure you know which version of your CV you sent. If you’ve modified it to highlight specific experience or competencies, but you don’t remember the modification, you risk looking as if you’ve falsified your application, even if that’s absolutely not the case. And if that happens over the interview desk, your careful preparation may come undone.

"It’s usually ok to be a little less formal in an email, but that’s not a green light to be over-familiar. If you’re in any doubt about whether your tone might strike the wrong note, it’s better to err on the side of caution"

Charlie Carnall - director, Hays Accountancy & Finance

"Making a direct reference to what the employer’s looking for shows that you’re taking the application seriously"