Due to my background, people keep asking me about what I feel a cover letter and a CV should be like, so here some words on the subject. In my mind, there exists no one and only right way to write a cover letter or a CV. There likely are as many opinions about this as there are persons on this planet. Also, there are sometimes differences between different cultures, even between companies. Here the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
People like to customise their cover letters and CVs according to what they feel is in their best interest. And why not! A cover letter and CV should reflect the person they tell about. So also, here, keep in mind that this is only my opinion. Do pay attention to what others are saying, you might learn something, but always make up your own mind about what you feel is right.
First a general comment
Some people advise putting your focus on the CV and feel the cover letter is not needed at all. I beg to disagree strongly. In my mind, the cover letter and the CV are two very different things, both are important, and both are a must-have, almost like the two sides of a coin. Without both sides, you have no coin.
The Cover Letter
When you are young and do not yet have a “career”, no problem, put your best effort in the cover letter. A well-made cover letter can tell a lot about your potential.
In the cover letter, you should try to add a personal touch. Here the focus is on you as a person and tells about the person behind the CV. At best, you can create a “personal brand” that makes you stand out. E.g.:
- Maybe a few words about your life before graduating. A short story. Life does not start at 20.
- Highlight the driving forces behind your potential, actions, and success.
- What you are like, your characteristics, values, thoughts, and career aspirations.
- Your expertise, skills, strengths, what turns you on, what not, your motivation factors.
- Important: Why are you interested in this job in this company?
- Important: Why good in your job, why a good “winning candidate”.
- Important: Particularly why a good choice for this very position, in this company?
- The hiring managers always wonder about these three questions. Answer them!
- Here you can elaborate on your achievements if needed.
- Important: “Hiring managers” are often C-level executives who are fast thinkers with little time. Be brief and to the point, base what you say on hard facts, don’t exaggerate. Tell something the other party is interested in!
- Be constructive, positive, and personal all through.
- Always customise your cover letter to the issue at hand, to the function, company, industry in question, even down to the very person you are sending the cover letter to if you feel this could be in your best interest. Never use the same “one-size” cover letter for all situations.
- The detailed career is in the CV. Do not repeat the same “text” in the cover letter. A cover letter should preferably be one page long, so focus.
A CV is a pretty clear-cut document. A CV is a summary of your professional career – hard facts presented clearly and logically.
Don’t make this too complicated. Ask yourself, what would you like to know about a Candidate if you were the Head Hunter or a hiring manager? There is nothing wrong with presenting yourself and your career in a favourable light but don’t write a CV describing a superman, just an accurate summary of yourself. Superman is seldom the best choice for any job. As far as the layout is concerned, there are hundreds of examples on the Internet. Study them for perspective, then choose a layout you feel fits you best.
The header list of a CV is simple:
Career history, (list your work history in chronological order.)
Salary & benefits & notice period
Memberships, positions of trust
Don’t just copy your employer’s standard job description. Personalise and customise. Describe your area of responsibility in a way that gives the reader an adequate and diverse understanding of what you do. Include volumes and numbers, also the number of subordinates (if you have any) who report to you. Also, e.g. your achievements, value-added product or technology knowledge, market knowledge, special expertise, use of time. Important: Never only say you always reach your budgets and goals and that you are darn good in your job. Always give evidence-based examples, hard facts and figures, of what you have done.
You could also consider commenting on your career moves very shortly, i.e. why you left the previous company and why you landed the next job. Any interviewer will ask you about this for sure. Having this information in your CV informs the interviewer of this already in advance and eliminates any prior wrong assumptions. Not a must-have, though.
Always remember to say a few words about your employers. Don’t assume everyone knows who they are. Even if people may know a famous brand does not mean they know the metrics of the company.
Important – Don’t leave any gaps. Also, if you are unemployed, say so now in the CV. This is no deal-breaker. If you “hide this” and only reveal it in the interview, it might be. “What else did you not tell about” someone might think.
Include your hobbies and positions of trust. Sometimes they may have a positive impact. A CV should preferably be two, max three pages long. Focus. Photo or not? No deal-breaker neither way. If you do include a photo, please not one with you in a pub or on the beach.
Some general advice:
- In both documents focus on the quality of the content, not on “special effects” like bright colours, many different fonts, many different font sizes etc. They may instead hide your potential.
- Here keep it simple is beautiful, and the clarity of the message is essential, not special effects.
- Pay attention to the language. Never any grammatical errors or otherwise “bad” language anywhere. Always have someone double-check your documents.
- On the Internet, you will find many people telling you that you should try to make yourself look as good as possible and to avoid revealing any weaknesses in yourself. This is not necessarily the best of advice if taken to the extreme. Any lack of expertise and weaknesses tend to catch up with you.
- Don’t make yourself into something you are not. If you are good at doing this, someone might hire you believing you are something you are not and you might land a job you would never have wanted, a job you can’t manage. Just then, it is too late.
- You can certainly be honest about yourself, without putting yourself down, and you most certainly can praise yourself, without telling things that are not true. It is just about finding the right words.
- Important: You are like a piece of a puzzle. You fit in perfectly somewhere and in other places, not at all. Don’t make yourself look like a piece of a puzzle that you are not. It might backfire.
Finally, if this is the first time you are writing a cover letter and CV and you do not quite know how to do it, or if you just are not good at expressing yourself in writing, no problem. Ask someone to help you. There is nothing wrong asking for advice and second opinions. During my time as Head Hunter I must have asked thousands of people for all kinds of advice over the years. When there was something I did not quite understand or know how to do, I found someone who did know, then contacted this person and asked him/her for advice.
Important: The above said, do not let other people write your cover letter and CV. Ask all the advice you want but do the writing yourself. Otherwise chances are that the person in the cover letter and CV is not you.