Sunday 17 January 2021

A short note on cover letters

My interest was really piqued this week by this question on Twitter

Here's some advice I've got for cover letters, based on reading hundreds over the past 10 years. I should note that when I recruit, I've always done all my own shortlisting - I don't delegate to HR, recruitment companies, or use AI tools to parse applications. So my system is probably a bit old-fashioned and personalised.

One page is fine

At Te Papa, we're now regularly receiving 100-200 applications for vacancies. Every one of those applications is read by a human being. My own preference is a 1 page cover letter and 3-4 page CV. No letters of reference, no work samples, no certifications for the first application unless explicitly requested. 

At The Dowse, I was reading applications as attachments to email (opening all the bits of an application all in the different formats they were provided). At Te Papa, we use software called Springboard which does enable you to print out applications, but I do everything online. I set aside a morning or an afternoon and I put my head down and push through. I try to value every application (and I take breaks when my concentration is flagging) but anything you can do to help me grasp your unique offer easily is much appreciated. 

One page helps me see everything in one go, and with retention when I'm reading heaps.

Remember that links may or may not function in your cover letter or CV (depending on the format I'm looking). I will usually only follow links once I'm down to a shortlist. If you tickle my curiosity/memory, I'll probably google you. Some people immediately jump to social media to research applicants, I personally don't.

Say why you want the job

You wouldn't believe how many people forget to put this in their cover letter (or even talk about it much in an interview). I hope for all applicants they're in the position of being able to apply for roles they care about. In my own case, I believe museums are special places, and I want to see applicants who share that feeling.

My basic format in my own cover letters:
  • I'm excited to see this role advertised because <your connection to this type of work and/or to this organisation>
  • My experience and skills are well suited to this role <high level matching to role description>
  • I'll bring these personal qualities to the role 
  • Working here would mean <this> to me
Do your best to find out who to address the letter to

I do genuinely appreciate when someone addresses the letter to me. if it's not apparent from the ad, contact whoever is doing the recruiting and ask who to address the letter to. I won't discount anyone who writes 'To whom it may concern' or 'Dear Recruiting Manager', but this is the first thing I'll see in an application and it puts me on the right footing.

Get some help

For my last two job applications, I've had friends who I've worked with in the past workshop my cover letter. Describing yourself through the eyes of colleagues rather than from your own perspective can help you be bolder and more focused in your cover letter. 

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