The cover letter, or letter of introduction, is the first thing your potential employer will see – and therefore the most important. This should not be a reiteration of your resume. Use the cover letter as a way of introducing yourself through matching your experience and achievements with the criteria set out in the job description.
The aim of a cover letter is to make the employer interested in you enough to want to read your resume, and hopefully give you an interview. Remember, hundreds of people may be applying for the same job as you, so it's worth putting in time and effort to make a fantastic first impression.
Know where your letter is going - don't let it get lost in the post!
If possible, address your letter with the name of the recipient. Often this will be the Human Resources Manager – but don't settle for just a title if you know (or can find out) the name of the person. Sometimes, you can use Google to look them up: because most businesses have generic email addresses such as firstname.lastname@example.org or even email@example.com, you can use sites like Google and LinkedIn to track down their actual name.
Say you are applying for a job with a cafe called The Coffee House, in Sydney. In the job description you may have noticed that the fine print listed all enquiries be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Try a LinkedIn search for "J Jenkins Coffeehouse Sydney" – more often than not, you'll find out the information that you need – the name of the person and their role. Be careful though; sometimes more than one person is managing the application process and your letter will need to be addressed to a manager rather than a recruitment assistant. If you're unsure, a polite phone call to the office of the company is fine – just introduce yourself, say that you are interested in the role, and ask who to address your cover letter to.
The trouble is worth it – it shows that you are genuinely interested in the company, and avoids your application being thrown in the huge (and probably boring) pile of "To Whom It May Concern".
Finding out about the company you want to work for shows that you are committed to the role
While you're online, do some research into the company. Your cover letter should not only mention why you'd be great for the role, but ideally it will include why you would be an asset to the company itself, or why their company in particular appeals to you. What is it about Coffee House that you like, as opposed to, say, The Drinks Cafe up the road? Perhaps it's that they are locally owned, or they sponsor your local Primary School. Maybe it's just that you've heard the pay is higher – but keep that to yourself!
Now that you're armed with the right information, you're ready to begin your Cover Letter.
The best way to write your letter is to divide it into three or four paragraphs – anything longer would be excessive. Paragraph one will state your interest in the job, and may only be a few lines. This could be something like "I am writing in response to the recently advertised role of Barista with Coffee House Sydney. With three years' experience working in sustainable and eco-friendly businesses such as yours, I believe I am the ideal candidate for this role." If you were referred to this company by someone who already works there, or a relevant person they would know, now is the time to mention it.
Paragraphs two and three focus on your particular experience, and relates it to the job description. Dot points are okay but only if they are necessary. Start by stating why this job is relevant to your career plan – employers like to know that you will stick with them and have a genuine interest in the business. If you are only applying for a role as a means to earn money and nothing else, try to re-frame that as a positive – you may mention that you are a "dedicated worker", or that you're keen to broaden your experience, or willing to take on overtime. Don't invent reasons if they're not there – most large hospitality businesses, for example, know that the majority of their employees won't want to waitress for their whole lives, so lying about it will only come across as false.
Give examples that describe the skills you are listing. If you say that you are an effective group member, mention the time your work group successfully completed a project ahead of schedule. Make sure your examples are relevant to the workplace – use either previous employment, or community work, volunteer work, or university projects. Start with the most specific or unique skills and then the broad ones – for example your computer programming skills should come before your time management skills. Employers want to know that you offer something different and useful, that they couldn't get by hiring someone else.
Your final paragraph should refer the reader to your resume (and any other documents you have included, such as references or qualifications). Mention that you are enthusiastic about the opportunity, and that you look forward to hearing from them. If applicable, now is also a good time to state your availability. To sign off, use "sincerely" or "best wishes".
Finally, check the job description for application requirements – some prefer you to send in documents as PDF's, rather than Word Docs. To convert from Word to PDF, just select PDF from the 'save file as' drop-down menu when you're saving your final document.