how to write a cover letter

By Chris Owen, Director, Hoffman Europe

We’re on the lookout for a recent graduate to join the team here at Hoffman, which means navigating through cover letters and CVs, both of which constantly veer between the brilliant and the downright stale.

The former invite interviews, the latter the bin, yet both are born with the same ultimate ambition, namely, getting a job. And while your CV lists your achievements and experience, your cover letter explains them.

pr cover letters

Remember that the people looking through your cover letter are looking through several from other candidates — and I can guarantee you the same tropes keep cropping up. Why? Because they’ve been taught to within an inch of their life — unnecessarily.

To quote Lou Hoffman; ‘Don’t follow the Resume 101 Handbook. Let me say this again because it’s so damn important. Do not follow the Resume 101 Handbook.’

So how do you stand out from the humdrum crowd? What matters?

Have a voice

A cover letter isn’t an academic task. It needs to have colour and tone. It should be an enjoyable read which makes the potential employer think they’d like to have you on board and that you’d bring energy and enthusiasm to a role.

This doesn’t come across if the letter is simply full of dry, formulaic, standardised maxims. We hire brains and personality, not taught-to-the-nth-degree tired clichés.

Ask yourself if this is how you’d describe your experience and the role you’re after to your best friend or parents? Does it sound like you — genuinely? Would your friend recognise this is by you?

Avoid the obvious

You’re ‘hard-working, driven, motivated, and work well in a team as well as on your own.’ Cool. But you would hardly say the opposite.

Tell us what magazines you read? Why do you read them? We want to know how you think, and what fascinates you — few things will get attention more than a sign that you’re curious and keen to learn more. Which brings us on to …

Don’t exaggerate experience

When anyone is hiring, they have a solid understanding of what experience they’re looking for and what they expect to see, so exaggeration of your experience is counterproductive.

Lou again: ‘If your work experience consists of flipping burgers, don’t describe this on the resume as hospitality beef specialist,’

If you were part of a new business process and saw the strategic and creative platforms being developed, then say so — and say you’d like to experience more. Don’t overhype it. Don’t say you ‘led it’. The people reading your CV will know this is 99.9% not the case.

More importantly though, exaggeration can hint at an ego. Humility goes a long way and combining what you’ve (genuinely) done and are proud of is key. Adding a ‘what’s next for me’ displays an understanding of a career and how you want to develop.

Tailor it

If you want the job, spend the time looking into the agency you’re applying to and tweak your template letter accordingly. Reference work it’s done, or clients you’d love to work with. Make it sound like you’ve done your homework and that we know you genuinely want to join the agency — not that we’re #23 on a list of copy-and-pasted agencies.

I’ve seen letters that say they’d ‘love to come and work at B2B, it looks like a great agency!’ which just shows that you a) don’t know what B2B PR is, and b) haven’t looked at what we’re called. Neither are great, to be honest.

Proof it

Read your letter out loud as you’ll spot errors better than scanning again. You’ll also hear the cadence, the tone, any jarring or echoes. You’ll notice, to quote Lou again, whether it sounds ‘conversational, or stiff as plywood’. No-one employs plywood.

Do this twice, at least.

Ask someone else to have a quick look. If you’re using a template to base your outreach with, this has to be perfect, so spend time properly nailing it. It’s worth it, or you undo any good work before you start.

man wearing a disguise

Be yourself

It’s obvious, but all too often forgotten.

An agency is hiring you now, for who you are and what you can bring to an agency. A cover letter should offer a glimpse into a potential recruit and how they will make an agency even better — the reason any hire is ever made.

Remember, if the cover letter is great, you’ll get an interview; so make sure that it puts forward the best version of who you are.

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