The purpose of a cover letter is to persuade your prospective employer that you are a strong candidate, capable of doing the advertised job, and are someone who’s great to work with. With so much to fit in it can herd to know where to start, and even harder to know where to stop.
So, here’s our to the question “how long should a cover letter be?”:
As Long as It Takes to Persuade The Reader To Invite You To Interview.
Now, no employer is going to read a boring 6-page cover letter. You should eventually be able to get your point across on one or two pages. But remember: the point of a cover letter is to persuade the employer to invite you for an interview. This is a subtle but critical distinction.
Most job hunters sit down and think, “Okay, I need to write about me and make it fill one page.”
The problem is, it’s not about you. It’s about them. A good candidate need to show the employer that you understand their perspective, their problems, their goals, (and that you can offer them a solution. This mindset also makes it much easier to write a cover letter.
In her book, ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’, Anne Lamont says that all good writers produce a terrible first draft. (Actually, ‘terrible’ isn't the exact word she uses...) Anyway. She says it’s what allows them “to write good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” In other words: don’t worry about how long your cover letter should be. Write, write, and write some more. You can always make it more concise later.
Here’s a simple process you can use to write a stunningly effective cover letter:
- Research. Make notes.
- Write a ‘terrible’ first draft. Just get something down on paper (or screen)
- Edit. Make it easy to read.
Simple, but not always easy. Let’s explore each step...
Do This Before You Write a Word of Your Cover Letter.
To persuade the employer to invite you to interview you need to understand what they are looking for. Do they want somebody to immediately work without supervision? Or are they prepared to train you? Which characteristics are most important to them and why?
The easiest way to find out is to study the job description and person specification. Notice I said ‘study’, not ‘read’. That’s because to really absorb the information, reading is not enough. Instead, take notes. Lots of them. Try to get into the employer’s head. WHY do they want somebody with 2 years of experience? Write down your thoughts.
Next, head to the company’s website. What are their values? Which words appear again and again. Think. Make notes. After an hour or two of doing this, your head should be full of ideas about what the employer is looking for and how you can help them.
Now, walk away from your computer and forget about the job for a day or two. Don’t do any research. Don’t rewrite your CV. If it’s the weekend, go and play golf. Or go to the park with your kids. Do anything other than prepare your application. Why?
Because it will allow your research to sink and ideas to brew. By the time you sit back down, you’ll be ready to for step two.
Write a ‘Terrible’ First Draft of Your Cover Letter
Now that you’re back to work, take a look at the notes you took on the job and employer. Engage your memory. Don’t be afraid to take more notes on whatever pops into your mind.
Next, open a blank document. Pretend you’re writing a letter to a friend. Start with the words, “Dear [insert name]”. Then write. Write, write, write. Don’t stop. What you have written so far isn’t very good, but that’s okay. It’s more important to get everything out. Keep writing until you have nothing more to say. And remember, don’t filter. Don’t go back to edit. Just write.
Done? Great, here’s what to do next:
Turn Your First Draft Into An Irresistible Cover Letter
If you did the last step well, you should have a mass of words on the screen. Don’t worry because you are now going to turn it into a smoking a hot cover letters the employer won’t be able to resist. Editing and refining your covering letter is methodical work, so take it one step at a time.
Step 1: add some structure to your letter.
Organise what you have written into the following sections:
- Opening paragraph
- Tell your story
- List your previous results as bullet points
- Explain what you can do for them
- Thank the employer for their consideration
- Sign off
- Add a ‘P.S.’ - e.g. include very short and snappy testimonials/references
Step 2: Apply the “so what” test.
Every sentence must be integral to making your case. Read your letter aloud, and if your reader can say “so what?” at any point, take that phrase out.
Step 3: Make it so that a primary school child can understand it.
At school, we learnt to use big words and string long sentences together. But when it comes to persuasive writing (like a cover letter) it helps to make it super easy to understand. Short sentences and simple words. Case in point:
One day, James Altucher found the top 30 most popular articles and applied the Flesch-Kincaid (F-K) reading score test. An F-K score of 10 means it can a 10th grader could understand it. A score of 5 means an 11-year-old could understand it. And so on. What did he find?
One of the most popular articles (written by a New York Times best-selling author) was simple enough to be understood by an 11-year-old. On average, the 30 articles had an F-K score of 8. Making your cover letter easy to read is a simple way to make it stand out from the crowd.
Well, they should. Because it’s easy. All you need to do is copy the text in your letter, head over to http://hemingwayapp.com/, and click ‘paste’. Then follow the instructions.
By now, your cover letter should be much shorter than your first draft. It should be well structured, easy to read and make the recruiter desperate to meet you. If you’re still not sure whether it’s a good length, just follow the steps above until it fits on to a single A4 page. But remember: what you say is more important than how you say it!
Here’s an Even Easier Way to Make It to Interview.
Drafting and re-drafting your covering letter to get your foot in the door can be long and lonely work. If you apply for a job through a recruitment agency you may not need to write a cover letter at all. Plus, the agent will fight your corner and help you land the job. If you’re ready for a new opportunity, send us your CV today.
If you need help with your CV to read our advice on how long should a management consultancy CV be.
You should also watch our video with tips for writing a great consultancy management CV.