GUEST POST: What are Recruitment REALLY looking for in a Cover Letter?

First of all, massive thank you to all round superstar Cassie for writing this guest post for us! Yes we know our Cover Letters post is the stuff of legend but now we actually have a real life Resourcing guru to break down what she looks for in an application.

Without further ado…

What are Recruitment REALLY looking for in a Cover Letter?

So, disclaimer: I’m not an editor or a marketer or a publicist. I’m in recruitment.

What does that mean? Well, I read anything from 500-1000 applications a week, a good chunk of which are entry-level applications, and I help hiring managers shortlist.

I’ll start with an insight as to how I personally work for entry-level roles. I like to start with the cover letters. I’ll read through each one and move all the promising cover letters into a pile (a digital pile), and then I look at all the CVs in that pile. So as you can see, it is super important to have a great cover letter.

I’m only really looking for a few things at first glance so here’s the TL;DR version:

  • A good piece of writing. This is your first and possibly only chance to demonstrate your creative writing skills, so use it wisely
  • Someone who’s read the job advert. Your letter is about this job, and not any other job
  • Knowledge/Interest. You know what books that company/team works on and you have read some recently
  • Impeccable spelling/grammar/formatting. A typo is likely to take you out of the running, I’m afraid

A good piece of writing

Reading a cover letter is much like reading a book. If the first sentence is interesting, you read the second. If the second is interesting, you read the third. And et cetera. So if I stop reading after the first paragraph, did you tell me the most interesting, most important, most relevant information I needed to know?

A good cover letter is the start of a conversation—hopefully, a long one—so it should read like one.

Imagine you’re introducing yourself to a real live person (which you are, just on paper) and talking about something you’re mutually interested in.

Someone who’s read the job advert

I don’t need you to parrot the advert back to me, but there are often details in the job advert on which team the role is within or what books they work with, or a question that I’ve asked to be answered within the cover letter.

It’s a dead giveaway that you haven’t read the whole ad if you start talking about how much you love literary fiction if the job turns out to be working on crime, or even if you’re talking about picture books you loved as a child and the job is for middle grade (8-12) fiction.

Demonstration of knowledge/interest

You need to mention what books you’ve read that have been recently published by the company/division/imprint you’re applying to. This one is so totally non-negotiable!

In a cover letter, knowledge is the same thing as interest. If you’re interested in a thing, you should have a reasonable amount of knowledge about it, and be able to prove it.

To be clear—this isn’t knowledge you need to know off the top of your head. A quick internet search is both fine and expected.

You’ll also need to be specific and be able to back up your claims. Anyone can say ‘I love fantasy books’ but I only know that you really, genuinely do if you tell me details: ‘I love fantasy books; I recently read X and Y and liked it because of plot reasons, and am eagerly anticipating the release of Z next year.’

Even better would be to mention what books they’re releasing within the next year that you’re excited about.

Impeccable Grammar/Spelling/Formatting

You’d think this one is self-explanatory, but I’ve had so many cover letters where I’ve thought ‘Oh, that was really good, but they used US spelling. Do they know how things are spelt in the UK? That’s an issue if they don’t. Did they not notice? Did they notice but not care? Either might mean bad attention to detail…’

So here’s a non-comprehensive list of other things I will notice, because I’m a terrible, terrible pedant: if you don’t know the difference between an en-dash, em-dash and hyphen, if you are inconsistent in how many spaces you use after a full-stop, and if you have two different fonts in one letter. That sort of thing.

And that’s it! Well, not all of it. There are a whole bunch of details and various dos and don’ts that I assume you can find in most advice on how to write a cover letter, but what it really boils down to is this: cover letters that stand out that ones that are just really good pieces of creative writing.

PS. This is all pretty specifically for junior trade publishing roles; I don’t work like this for other roles, and you probably wouldn’t write like this if you’re also applying for banks and consultancies and stuff.

Cassie Leung is in the Resourcing team at Penguin Random House, recruiting for roles across the business and is happy to discuss all things applications-related on twitter @cm_leung

Well thanks Cassie!! Super helpful and lovely!

We should also probably mention that Cassie is in the Resourcing team at PRH, so this might not be what EVERY recruiter is looking for but it’s certainly a good starting point!

Make sure you tweet Cassie and say thanks!!




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