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Do I really need to write a cover letter? In my role as a pharmacy recruiter and career coach, I am often asked whether a cover letter is a necessary accompaniment to a CV as part of a job application. Some people believe that cover letters just repeat information from their CVs — others are concerned that recruiters never even read them. However, if you can write a cover letter that explains why you are the right candidate for the job you want, you can ensure that your application stands out for the right reasons.

Cover letters — what’s the point?

Traditionally, you would send a CV and cover letter by post in response to a job application or as a speculative approach. Your cover letter would introduce you in a professional sense, explain why you were applying for the position and provide some evidence of your competency for the role.

Nowadays, applications are less frequently sent by post — they are usually emailed or completed online. Despite this, presenting a professional cover letter is still part of the established protocol. If you are responding to a job advertisement in today’s competitive pharmacy jobs market, it is likely you will be one of many applicants (sometimes one of hundreds). Therefore, you need to do everything you can to ensure your application stands out, which includes an excellent cover letter.

Before you start writing your CV and cover letter, you need to ask yourself: “What would the hiring manager want to see in the application?”

One way to find out is to simply call and ask the hiring manager or recruiter exactly what they would like to see. A recent survey of US employers by Saddleback College in America has shown that they can have differing views on whether a cover letter is important, how long it should be and what information it should contain. By asking the employer directly, you can find out their specific views and tailor your cover letter accordingly.

Laying out your letter

There are no set rules for your cover letter, but a good structure is important. The cover letter is telling a story about you and, like all good stories, it should have a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning

If the application is being posted then use a standard letter format, with your own address and date on the right and the organisation’s contact name and address on the left. For email applications, put your cover letter in the main body of the email and add your CV as an attachment. Your cover letter can be ignored more easily if you attach it as a separate document.

You should always try to address your cover letter to a specific person when possible. This will be easier if you have already called the hiring manager. Research by Forum3 (now called Charity People), a not-for-profit recruitment company for the third sector, suggests you are 10–15% more likely to receive a reply if you address your application to a person and 5% more likely to get an interview[1]. If you do not know the name of the person, then use a professional address such as “Dear Sir or Madam”.

Immediately after addressing the reader, you should state the purpose of the application, so that the reader can quickly understand the reason for the email. For example, “Reference: Application for Band 6 hospital pharmacist role”. This could also be included as the subject line of the email.

The first paragraph should describe what your current professional situation is and why you are applying for the position. This paragraph should also include any research you have done into the role or organisation, including anyone you have spoken to, any site visits you have undertaken and the name of anyone who may have referred you. If you have taken the time to research the organisation and the role, this could be a key differentiator for your application. However, you should avoid making generic statements, such as “I want to join your esteemed company”. Make sure anything you say about an organisation is relevant to them and based on the research you have undertaken.

The middle

Your cover letter should demonstrate to the reader that you have the key skills and experience relevant to the particular role. You can do this by providing specific examples, tailored to the requirements listed in the job description, of when you have demonstrated these from your own experience to date. Choose three or four of these relevant examples that each tell a story about your skills, experience or traits and provided a positive outcome for the stakeholders involved in the situation.

These examples could come from any part of your life, as long as they are relevant. Newly qualified pharmacists will likely use examples from their pharmacy placements, academia, part-time work and also extra-curricular activities, in order to demonstrate a range of skills. A more experienced pharmacist candidate would generally choose examples from their work history because it is the most relevant. However, sometimes it is appropriate to bring in other examples, such as voluntary work.

Always try to use an active voice when explaining your achievements, because this serves to make the reader feel that you were in control in these situations. Additionally, try to avoid making vague or generic statements that could apply to any applicant.

If an achievement is strong enough to be included in your cover letter, it should be repeated on your CV. Try not to repeat examples word-for-word on both documents — instead, try to interpret them differently. Sometimes, due to time constraints, the hiring manager may bypass your cover letter and go straight to your CV, which could mean they miss your best examples. In addition, repetition will serve to reinforce these key messages like a sales brochure would, which is, in essence, what your CV and cover letter are.

The end

In your final paragraph, thank the reader for taking the time to read your application and summarise why you feel you are a good fit for the role, based on your skills and experience. State how and when you can be contacted with regards to arranging an interview and then make sure you are available when you say you will be.

Sign off the letter professionally with “Yours sincerely” (to a specific person) or “Yours faithfully” (to an unnamed person), followed by your name.

Formatting your letter

In terms of format, a cover letter is usually written as a traditional letter, laid out in paragraphs. It is different to your CV, which is an abbreviated document that uses various techniques to draw the eye to the most important parts quickly and make the document as succinct as possible. In your cover letter, keep your language concise and purposeful. To achieve this, you may need to redraft your letter several times.

The grammar, spelling and formatting of your cover letter is just as important as the content of the document, so make sure it is perfect. Particularly, ensure you have spelt names and company names correctly and there are no typing errors. Research from student recruitment website suggests half of employers discard job applications that contain spelling or formatting errors.

Choose a standard, well known and professional font, such as Arial, Verdana, Calibri, Times New Roman or Trebuchet. This will make the letter easier to read and will also support applicant tracking systems that may not be able to pick up lesser-known fonts. Keep your font size between 10 and 12 for ease of reading.

Through my own experience of recruiting pharmacists, I have observed that the standard of today’s pharmacy job applications is generally quite poor. If you spend time putting together a strong application, which includes an excellent cover letter, then it will stand out to an employer and increase your chances of securing the role.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal, 7 February 2015, Vol 294, No 7848, online | DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20067660

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Jo Moyle is a careers adviser at Oxford Brookes University

Draw out all the reasons you're suitable for the job and wave them under the employer's nose: It's not uncommon for graduates to worry that referring in a covering letter to experience and achievements mentioned on the CV will be repetitive and unnecessary as the recruiter will get to the CV eventually. The result can be a letter with bland, unsupported statements creating a distinctly underwhelming first impression that is anything but a good advert for the CV. A good covering letter should whet the employer's appetite to read your CV - and ultimately to meet you - by drawing their attention to your experiences and achievements which most convincingly showcase your skills and suitability for the role. No one is saying that doing this succinctly is easy - Mark Twain's famous remark "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead," says it all. But unsubstantiated, subjective claims are more likely to annoy than impress - so work out what the key pieces of evidence for your credibility are and use the covering letter to wave them under the employer's nose.

Hannah Clements is a careers guidance specialist at the University of the Arts London

Think of your covering letter as a love letter, setting out why you and the employer are perfect for each other: Make sure it is relevant to who you are writing to and what you are writing for. Generic covering letters do not work as they do not focus and give concrete examples, or enable a prospective employer to see how you fit with them. One HR professional actually suggested to me that students and graduates should be approaching employers with a covering letter that reads like a love letter. He meant that you should be writing and telling them why you are for them and why they are for you - why you are the perfect match. If you are applying for a specific role, make sure you look at their criteria and match this to your skills and experience, giving examples of where you have developed these skills. Your examples can include previous employment, course projects, volunteering, and so on. The way you present your covering letter will make a big difference as to whether it is read or not.

Phil Marsland is a careers adviser at Leeds Metropolitan University

If a letter reads well, looks and feels good then it is likely that the recruiter will identify those qualities with the candidate: Consider providing a follow-up opportunity or action "I will telephone you on the morning of…" or "I am available for interview…" Keep your letter clear and concise - preferably on one side of plain A4 paper. Remember KISS (keep it short and simple). And finally, use good quality paper and a high quality printer. If a letter reads well, looks and feels good then it is likely that the recruiter will identify those qualities with the candidate. A good covering letter will not get you a job alone but it might encourage an employer to single out your application in preference to others.

Lesley Hassall is careers information and guidance manager at the University of Wolverhampton

An uninspiring covering letter increases the risk of your CV not being read: Your covering letter is the packaging for your CV, just as the design of a bottle represents the perfume inside or the picture on a box represents the chocolates it contains. You need to take care that your letter is consistent with the style, presentation and quality of your CV, and makes the employer wants to open the packaging to find out more about you. Sadly, many people underestimate both the importance of the covering letter and the skill involved in writing a good one; this increases the risk that the employer never reads your CV at all.

Alexandra Hemingway is a careers adviser at the University of Surrey

If you don't ask, you don't don't be afraid of speculative letters: Everybody hates cold calls and junk mail. Knowing how they make us feel probably explains why writing speculative job seeking letters can feel intimidating. But direct marketing is obviously worthwhile, or else companies wouldn't invest the time and money. Similarly, contacting employers gives you a good chance to get noticed, so you just have to grin and bear the potential embarrassment of putting yourself forward uninvited. Planning carefully will make your application more welcome.

Even without an advert to work from, you should be as specific as possible and tailor your approach carefully. The trick is to do your research into the target role and organisation, just like marketers do, so you give the impression of knowing your customer. This will make the reader take you seriously. Try using the company website and talking to employees, check what's been in the news and look up annual reports. Another tip to help the employer understand where you're coming from is to mention what prompted you to write, just as you'd normally state where you've seen an advert. Maybe your interest was sparked by a personal contact or a company representative who visited your university? If so, name the person and indicate their role - it's not name dropping, it's showing that you care enough to follow up on information and ideas. Anddon't be embarrassed. Receiving a well-crafted, carefully considered speculative application will probably make the recruiter's day and, after all, if you don't ask, you don't get.

Philippa Hardie is a careers adviser at the University of Chester

It is essential that you tailor your covering letter to the organisation you're applying for: A generic letter that you send out to any company advertising a suitable vacancy just won't get you anywhere except the bin. It really is worth doing your research and devoting a paragraph of your letter to why you want that job in that company. It's very easy these days to find out information about any organisation by doing your research on the internet. See if the company has a mission statement or an operational strategy. If it runs a graduate scheme, try to find out what the current trainees say about their jobs. There are usually quotes on the website. Don't regurgitate what you read in your letter as that will be spotted straight away, but you can pick out salient points so that the employer knows you've bothered to find out what they do in more detail. Make sure you mention the name of the company at least once and, if relevant, say something about the location of the job and why that is important to you. Employers can't fail to be impressed by your level of research.

Lizzie Dove is head of careers and employment at the University of West London

How to survive an employer's cursory glance at your cover letter…

- Time spent on making your cover letter look good visually is bound to enhance your chances of getting your letter read. Use standard business letter layout and don't forget to use 'Yours sincerely' and 'Yours faithfully' correctly.

- Address your covering letter to the right person as failure to do so has the potential to annoy the reader. It could also cast a doubt about your attention to detail or indeed your failure to find out how the company operates and who exactly is hiring you. Use of a title such as Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr and so on is usually most appropriate in the first instance.

- Make it clear which position you are applying for and make reference to how you heard about the job, as this helps with a company's marketing and it may be a small plus for you that you mentioned it.

- If you are asked to attach your CV and covering letter to an email, it is important to remember that your email is the first impression you make. That includes your email address, so it is best to avoid anything quirky in your address which may cause hilarity but won't get you the job. Keep the communication formal as in your covering letter and don't be tempted to use "hi" and "bye" and other casual English just because you're writing an email.

- Finally, before sending do a final check to make sure your letter will survive all aspects of the 'first impression' test, giving you the best chance of success in the rest of the recruitment process.

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