Recruitment has gone digital. Many job applications will now require you to fill out an online cover letter, so do the same rules apply?
Essentially, in terms of writing style, length and lucidity, an online cover letter is very similar, which is why it’s a good idea to check out our ‘How to Write a Covering Letter’ article before you plough on with this article. Otherwise, the structure of an online cover letter is a whole different kettle of fish.
Essentially, online cover letters will vary depending on the website through which you are applying; on some, you’ll just be copying and pasting a pre-written cover letter into a text box, and on others you’ll be answering questions that will help you to structure your online cover letter.
In the latter case, make sure you familiarise yourself with all of the instructions relating to name and email fields, character limits and the various boxes you’ll have to fill out.
Draft it first…
Here’s the main thing to remember: online cover letters can expose a multitude of sins, so you’ll need to take your time when filling it out. Don’t write your cover letter directly into the boxes; instead, draft it in a Word document first.
This means you can easily check for mistakes, spend time making it as good as possible, and you won’t have to worry that you might lose it by accidently closing the internet browser.
E is for Effort…
Even if the website asks you to put answers into a template that will automatically rustle up a cover letter, make sure you draft your answers first, and answer the questions fully.
You should spend as much time on an online cover letter as you would do on a traditional cover letter.
If you’re copying and pasting into text boxes, make sure you check the formatting. Sometimes things like styling, bullet points or spaces can get muddled in the transfer. Therefore, once you’ve pasted in the text, go back through it to check that it still reads well.
How long should my online cover letter be?
For online cover letters, the general wisdom is that they should be that little bit shorter than normal covering letters. Why? People have less patience when reading things on a screen. Some people even say that the online cover letter shouldn’t be longer than one screen in length.
Give it some personality…
When confronted with online cover letters, applicants often forget that, no matter how impersonal the application page looks, your application will eventually be read by another human being. Yes, your online cover letter needs to be professional and formal, but you shouldn’t lose your own personal voice.
Don't read that as an excuse to insert smileys and emoticons into the text, but do try to avoid clichéd expressions and formulaic business speak. Think of different ways to structure and formulate your sentences to really show off your writing style.
Watch your language.
Applicant tracking software looks for keywords in resumes and cover letters that literally match the job description listed by the employer. So your uploaded letter needs to include as many of those words as possible. “Use the exact language they use,” says Horowitz. The software identifies exact matches and near-matches, but the more direct hits, the better. When applying directly to hiring managers, however, you can’t parrot back their exact words, says Horowitz: “If it’s a person, give them a rewrite of what they want—same points, different language—in a way that respects their intelligence.”
Don’t worry if you’re not Hemingway.
Effective cover letters require clarity, not creativity. They’re not a test of your narrative skills; you can even use bullet points to get your points across, according to Lawson. If you show that you’ve done your homework, understand the job, and have the particular skills to fit the employer’s particular needs, you’ve written a good letter. Having a voice and showing some personality is fine, as long as it doesn’t obscure what you’re really trying to communicate: How you can help the company.
Know the nuts and bolts.
Cover letters have become less formal and more personal, perhaps because they’re delivered through email or online. Here’s what to say in a cover letter, and how to say it:
Subject field: the job title.
Salutation: “Dear Hiring Manager,” or if you have an exact name, “Dear Mr./Ms. Whatever.”
First paragraph: match up what you know about the company’s needs with your skills, strengths and experience. State what you can do to help.
Middle paragraph(s): explain anything on your resume that may raise questions—why you left your previous job in less than a year, or why you’re looking to switch careers. You can also offer more specific examples of how your experience fits perfectly with their requirements. “Include an anecdote that portrays you as a problem solver,” suggests Horowitz. “Then add: ‘I’d be happy to elaborate on this in an interview.’ Remember, however, that it’s about them, not you, so beware of overselling yourself. “Don’t go too over the top with the details; you don’t want to over-focus on any one minute detail,” says Shannon.
Last paragraph: state how to reach you: email address, phone number, the best time to call. If you think that money may be a deal breaker, you can give salary requirement to save everyone the time and hassle of finding out later.
Sign off: “Look forward to hearing from you.”
Follow instructions exactly for an effective cover letter. If the application directions say to upload a cover letter, do it—even if you plan to send it in the body of an email as well. Ignoring the cover letter rules is the quickest way for you, and your cover letter, to get bounced.