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How to write a great cover letter

A cover letter can make or break your chances of getting shortlisted for your dream job; however, it’s the area that many candidates fall down on. While CVs are carefully considered and crafted, all too often the cover letter is written in haste and half-heartedly. This does not go unnoticed by prospective employers and can result in you being ruled out before they even read your CV.

These top 10 tips on writing a good cover letter should help you excite the reader rather than eliminate you from the short-list of candidates. 

1. Understand the purpose behind a cover letter

While the CV is a factual record of your employment history, the cover letter gives employers an insight into who you are and why you’d be a great asset to their organisation. This is much more personality lead and an opportunity for you to “sell" yourself in a completely different way. Employers need your skills but also want to enjoy working alongside you. 

2. Get the right tone from the outset

Don’t bullet point the covering letter or do headings, underlined or otherwise. Address the letter with a warm and engaging “Dear Mr/Ms………..” Sign off in the same way, expressing your gratitude to the hiring manager for “taking time out of their busy schedule to read the letter” or for "taking an interest” in your application. Perhaps say at the end that you very much hope to get the opportunity to meet them in person.

3. Tailor it to the organisation

Always start with your passion for the work the organisation does and your sincere commitment to helping them achieve their goals. If you have a personal motivation for applying e.g. you or a family member directly benefitted from the services, make sure you mention that. It’s amazing (and worrying) when the cover letter doesn’t mention the organisation by name. This is a big mark against you; if the job has attracted many candidates, you could get rejected on this count alone.

4. Build a profile of yourself

Allow yourself to inject some personality into this document so the organisation can build a profile of who you are. Be disciplined and professional throughout but don’t be too stiff or formal. That can be off-putting by making you sound cold or pompous. You should aim for a more conversational tone, similar to how you’d interact at an interview and, further down the line, with colleagues. Provided it’s well thought through and appropriate, some lightness of tone or humour can work very well e.g. at the end when you’re talking about your hobbies.

5. Expand on career success

Your CV will only have limited information about your career history. Use the letter to elaborate on your abilities in the most relevant skills required. For example, if the job is for a major donor fundraiser, use one or two paragraphs to give a couple of tangible examples of your success in terms of prospecting, cultivation and stewardship, remembering to include the sums of money generated. If you’re applying for a manager position, talk about how you have motivated your team and led them to achieve or even surpass their goals. If this would be your first manager position, talk about how you’d approach it and the style and techniques you would use.

6. Add in any relevant information

You aren’t just the sum of your professional career. Many people who’ve succeeded at interviews have done so because they have done something exceptional or meaningful in their personal life that makes them ideally suited to the advertised job. Take this as an example. If you’ve been a volunteer for an NPO for a number of years and a Volunteer Co-Ordinator position comes up, you will have a valuable and empathetic perspective on the job. The cover letter is ideal for explaining this, so make the most of it.

7. Get the word count right

Your cover letter is the beginning of the interview process. The same rules apply - don’t be long-winded or repetitive; only give relevant and valuable information. You should aim to fill no more than two pages, although when it comes to senior roles, the expectation is that you will do 2-3 pages as you will have a broader base of skills and experience, not to mention successes. Remember, the goal is to give enough information to get you into the interview room, not to provide every cough and splutter of your career history. Selling yourself as a good communicator and then showing a lack of discipline in this area can be catastrophic.

8. Beware cut and paste

It is apparent to everyone when a candidate does a 'cut-and-paste' job from a previous application. Not only have we encountered the wrong organisation name being used (a dead giveaway), but the cover letter will undoubtedly miss the mark in terms of highlighting your suitability to the specific requirements of the job being applied for. This is a blatantly lazy approach that will give off a very bad signal to the employer about your professionalism and passion for this job, not to mention your attention to detail.

9. Proofread

It never ceases to amaze us how often CVs are sent to us riddled with typos, mistakes, wrong names and appalling grammatical errors. This is across the board but is particularly notable for senior, and even Chief Executives. Use spell check on your laptop and always, always proofread several times. It’s advisable to ask someone you trust to double-check before you submit. There is often time to correct the document if these errors are pointed out, but it gives a terrible first impression if they are not. Remember, we do the first shortlist for our clients, so you must impress us first. 

10. Get in early

Candidates tend to leave until the last minute to send us their CVs and cover letters. Sometimes they arrive a minute before the deadline. Occasionally, a recruiter like us will need to submit their shortlist to the client on the same day, so this does not give us time to read your cover letter and track you down to recommend any changes. The earlier you get it to us, the more support we can give you. It also gets you on our radar and, possibly, on the shortlist at the very start.


Bruce Tait | Charity Careers Africa

Director, Charity Careers Africa

Bruce is a well-known international NPO expert.  He has worked as a Consultant, Chief Executive and Director of Fundraising at multiple NPOs in Europe, North America and Africa. In 2007, Bruce set up his first NPO recruitment agency and now operates 6 ethical search firms around the world.
He pioneered values-based recruitment, and has worked to promote diversity in the non-profit sector. His team at Charity Careers Africa will guide and inform you throughout the recruitment process.

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