Writing the perfect motivation letter: cover letter examples and best tips
You might have asked yourself: is a cover letter necessary for a job application? Short answer: cover letters are very important and you should know how to write a killer cover letter that will land you an interview. In my 15 years in the job market, I have written hundreds of cover letters, and have been on both sides of the recruitment process. I have compiled all of my knowledge in this post, and I hope it will be helpful to those who are having a hard time applying for jobs and need guidance on how to get shortlisted for an interview. You can also download a cover letter example (one that I actually used to get a job!) if you join my newsletter.
What is a cover letter and how is it different to a resume
A resume (or CV) is a document that summarises your work experience, education, and hard skills. It usually includes a section on training and education received, any software and/or languages you use fluently, and a list of all your previous employments with the main tasks and responsibilities entailed in each of the roles you covered.
A cover letter is a personal statement you write specifically for the job you are applying for. You use it to give more detail on what about your experience makes you a good candidate for the job, and why the hiring manager should consider you for the post.
You could think about the CV being general data about your employment, and the cover letter being more tailored information about your professional achievements, why you want the position, and what you bring to the table.
Why cover letters are necessary
I have heard many opinions stating that having to write a cover letter is redundant, and that a resume should be enough to shortlist the right candidate. I can absolutely guarantee that not only this isn’t true, but it is actually bad practice not to ask for a cover letter.
Here are a few reasons why you should be happy that cover letters are a part of a recruitment process:
- They allow to contextualise any employment gaps. Disabled candidates or women who had children are more likely to have periods of unemployment, without this having anything to do with their employability. Due to unconscious bias, a hiring manager could give a negative judgement to these employment gaps: a cover letter can provide more context as to why they shouldn’t be concerned about the candidate’s ability to deliver the job.
- Work experience doesn’t equal suitability. Having accumulated an impressive portfolio of previous employments does not mean that a candidate is fit for the role, or for the hiring organisation. Through a cover letter, less experienced candidates can make a case that their potential lack of experience is made up for by having a genuine interest in and alignment to the organisation’s mission, transferable skills acquired in another industry, or a proven ability to learn quickly and go the extra mile.
- You can share what a resume can’t encapsulate. A CV doesn’t do a good job about showing your soft skills, such as the ability to build trustworthy relationships with colleagues and peers. It also doesn’t show any skills or experience you may have acquired outside of a professional environment. For example, a mother of three is likely to have outstanding organisational skills (and a lot of patience), or someone who took a sabbatical to travel might have learned a new language or resolved problems in a stressful environment.
- There are many CVs identical to yours. I can guarantee that hiring managers receive plenty of equivalent CVs for every job they recruit for. You are not the only one who may have earned a degree, or landed the jobs that you have: statistically, several other candidates will have similar resumes to yours. The cover letter is an opportunity to articulate what about you makes you a better fit than anyone else applying with a similar job record. Some examples are: what motivates you to apply, what kind of approach do you take in a professional environment, and what about the role makes you excited.
What to do before you apply for a job
Is the job worth applying for?
Don’t go for a role if it’s clearly above your experience level. This might sound harsh, but if you are targeting roles that go beyond what you can handle, you are either wasting your time, or putting yourself in trouble. I know of quite a few situations where a candidate oversold what they were capable of, and it has never ended well: the truth always comes out, and people notice when you are not pulling your weight.
I don’t want to discourage you from being ambitious: women especially tend to only apply for roles they absolutely know they can do 100% – this is also, in my opinion, wrong and unnecessary. You don’t need to be able to deliver every single element of the job description, but you do need to have accrued enough knowledge and experience to scale up your responsibilities without setting yourself up for failure.
Read the job description
I can’t tell you how obvious it is when a candidate has no idea of what job they are applying for. You might think that copying and pasting a cover letter you found on the internet or that you wrote for another application will save you time, but I can assure you it is a waste of it.
Read the Job Description, familiarise yourself with what tasks and responsibilities the role is expecting the candidates to be able to fulfil, and gather an idea of what you could hit the ground running with, and what you would need further development for.
What makes a great cover letter
Stick with me. Here are some tips and tricks on how to really make your cover letter stand out, which I always look for when I’m screening applicants and that I personally use every time I apply for a job.
The structure of the perfect cover letter
Cover letters shouldn’t be longer than 2 A4 pages in a size 12 font. This is the structure I always use to write my cover letter:
- Para 1: Brief general statement about why you are interested in the job. Don’t waste precious space stating your name/age/where you’re from/where you received your education. All of that is on your resume, and it is also not relevant to the shortlisting panel. Here’s an example:
Since understanding that my element is working in [insert industry/line of work], I have consistently pursued a career in this sector: to date, I have worked in a wide range of [insert field] environments. I am a hard-working and motivated fast learner, determined to always do my best and apply myself with dedication and I am excited to apply for the position of [role] at [organisation].
- Para 2-7: write a few paragraphs about your past work experience, and how it is relevant to the job description.
- Para 8-10: a couple of sections on your approach to work. for example, any management tools you use, how you structure your workload, how you deal with stress, and how you communicate with people. You should refer to the person specification to articulate how you are able to meet the employer’s requirements.
- Para 11-12: write something about the job and the company you are applying for: what about the company do you admire? What excites you about the role?
How to write about your previous experience in a cover letter
What hiring managers are looking for, is reasons to believe the candidate can do the job. for this reason, it is absolutely crucial that when you write about your previous experience, you follow the guidance below:
- Make your experience relevant to the job description. If you are applying for an admin assistant role and you have experience as a barista, don’t write about how you made coffee or cleaned the machines. Instead, you should write about preparing recruitment forms for new hires, or managing stock takes, or delivering induction processes for new starters, or using the company software to send stock orders, or using the HR system to record annual or sick leave. Understand what the company wants, and share what about your experience caters to that.
- Don’t use adjectives, use verbs. Replace ‘I am’ with: I achieved, I managed, I built, I organised, I raised, I trained, I set up, I grew, I fostered, I communicated, I learned, I planned, I created, I led, I delivered. Who are you to say that you are smart, organised, confident, amazing, etc?Anyone can say those things about themselves, and you are counting on the hiring manager to trust every word you say. Instead, let the facts talk for themselves: show them what you have done. Articulate how your actions positively affected the working environments you have been a part of.
- Give practical examples. If your CV or resume holds a list of your responsibilities, it is now your job to describe what those are in practice. Be specific about what you achieved and how you improved the department or areas you were responsible for. Here are some examples from my own cover letter:
I currently work as [role] at [organisation]. We are a small team of two, with me working full time and the Finance Manager working part-time, therefore I am no stranger to an incredibly heavy workload and the necessity to deliver efficiently and communicate effectively. On a daily basis, I deal with the complexities of accounting for three separate limited companies, and with transactions relating to at least two different shows per month, some of which are in-house productions rather than theatre hires.
I train and line-manage our fixed-term [role], which I find particularly rewarding: I would enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to be responsible for a permanent member of staff, and enable their growth and career development just like others have enabled mine.
When I was [role] at [organisation], I was delighted to learn about HR practices and I enjoyed outlining and defining the policies and administrative infrastructures which [organisation] was lacking at the time I joined. For example, I wrote the maternity leave policy, a grievance and disciplinary procedure, a protocol for TOIL, and the teaching policy. I have also improved the pre-existing contracts of employment by introducing a confidentiality clause and making them more compliant with the current employment and GDPR laws. I would cherish the possibility to continue to develop my knowledge of HR laws, regulations, and best practices.
- Write about the ‘how’, too. The cover letter is also an opportunity to share your character and soft skills, and it’s a missed opportunity if you just write about achievements. Give the hiring manager a flavour of how it would be to work with you, how you deal with others, and how you deliver your work. Here is an example from my cover letter:
All administrative roles imply transversal attention to many different duties: in order to meet deadlines with the right priorities, I’ve always planned daily tasks and set weekly goals, while keeping a certain margin of flexibility and being well aware of my team’s goals as well. My wide-ranging work in data management has taught me to be diligent and professional with sensitive information, and refined my communication skills: I understand the importance of being articulate, sensitive, and well mannered. I also appreciate when work is done meticulously and with order: being organised and scrupulous is a must when dealing with official documents and confidential information.
On a personal level, I enjoy having transparent and friendly relationships with colleagues and peers; having maintained strong and respectful rapports with past collaborators is perhaps what I’m most proud of: it is important for me to work in a nurturing and positive environment where work done independently would be balanced by generous teamwork and mutual support.
- Research the company. I always make the last paragraph about the organisation I am applying for. I want them to know I understand who they are, what they do, and why I’d be excited to join them. It doesn’t need to be too much in-depth, but it is important that the hiring manager understands that there is genuine interest here. Here’s an example:
I admire [organisation] not only for its remarkable work and exciting programming, but also for how the artistic mission opens up possibilities for meaningful change, access to life-changing theatre, and engagement with the community; and so, I would jump at the opportunity to join the team.
How to write a cover letter with little to no work experience?
Don’t get demoralised or discouraged from applying if your work experience is atypical. You may have some employment gaps due to becoming a stay-at-home parent, or due to disability, or you may have taken a sabbatical to travel the world, or whatever. This shouldn’t matter if you are skilled enough to do the job you are applying for.
My advice is, to be honest about any employment gaps, or atypical swerves in your career trajectory, and write about how the skills you acquired are transferrable to the role you’re going for.
I bet that any stay-at-home mum would be able to write pages about how they dealt with unexpected, stressful situations, or the organisational skills they had to learn, or the budget-managing experience they earned by managing the household. People who took a work hiatus to manage a personal issue can speak to the strength needed to overcome challenges, make plans, take care of one’s mental health, and develop meaningful relationships. Students can share about the projects or research they led on, the discipline it takes to comply to deadlines and deliver assignments, and overcome stress during high-pressure academic crunch points.
There is always a way that one can learn from non-professional contexts, and acquire skills from unexpected places. Don’t be afraid to write about this – but make sure it stays relevant to the job you are applying for.
Free cover letter example
I am happy to share with my email subscribers an example of a cover letter I used, which landed me an amazing role in one of the best theatres in London.
BUT PLEASE – don’t copy and paste directly from it! People will know. Make sure that you tailor your cover letter to the position you are applying for, and the skills that you have acquired.
It will take you a few hours to write a really good cover letter, but hopefully, it will also be a useful and enriching exercise that will make you think deeply about all of your achievements and capabilities.
This article was all about how to write the perfect cover letter.