How to write a job application letter that gets you to interview
"The only purpose of a job application letter is to get you an interview."
There was a time when I sent out roughly 100 job application letters without even a single job interview. It was disheartening. I eventually worked out a 2-page template that landed 5 job interviews from 5 job application letters and that's what I'd like to share with you today.
I've since stopped using that particular template because I've found better ways to win jobs than applying for them, but that is a topic for another article. In any case, an example of the template is included at the end of this article. And, if you would like a version of it in MS Word format, it is on my DOWNLOADS page under the Templates category.
If you've already landed a job interview (or after this letter helps you find one) you might also like this article: "How to Turn a Job Interview Into a Job Offer".
But back to my terrible track record of job applications ... In my defence, my CV was much leaner in 1995 than it is today. I was also living in a remote part of Australia and applying for jobs around Australia and all over the world. To be blunt though, my application letters clearly sucked! I tried not to take it personally and kept trying new approaches, including resorting to doing some reading and asking colleagues for advice. That led to that successful 2-page job application template I mentioned above. Over the years, I've also skimmed or read over 1,000 job applications and interviewed hundreds of people, so I have developed a pretty good sense for what works and what doesn't. But first to the basics. The following graphic outlines the essence of a strong application letter.
Get the formalities right Don't try to wow people with your creative design sense, unless you're applying for a creative design job. Stick to the standard format expected of a formal business letter. Your name and contact details, plus the date on the right hand side. Details of the recipient and subject on the left. Text should be justified. This is partly a matter of following convention, and partly a matter of making it look professional. Keep it short & smart The application letter should be short, sweet, smart and to the point. One of my mistakes in the past was trying to write War & Peace, responding to each selection criteria with a page of text. Simple rule of thumb is to include enough to 'weed you into contention'. Most people include enough information to weed themselves out. If they ask you, for example, for your experience with accounting software, just respond to this. Don't say you're an expert with Xero software unless they specifically ask for that. If they are looking for MYOB expertise, mentioning Xero is more likely to see you weeded out of contention rather than offered an interview. Managers and recruiters read a lot of applications and have limited time, so be precise and specific. They don’t need to know the names of every company you have worked for that’s what CV is for. Start with a strong statement It’s important to open with something that will get the recruiter’s attention. Your application letter needs to start with a strong statement outlining why you want to apply for the job and why at this company. Share what you can give to the company and what the company can give you. This requires research on your part; find out more about the company, its business, and exactly why the job and company are a good fit for you. The applicants who have researched the company they are applying to always make a good impression. Keep it relevant
Make sure that every application letter you send out is tailored to the job you are applying for. It’s important to include skills and experience that are relevant only to this job. You need to show that you have the skills required which relate to the list of essential skills and qualifications that employer is looking for. Anything in your application that doesn’t meet the requirements listed in the ad should be left out of the application. Always remember that you need to fit these points in neatly and naturally. Sell yourself In most cases your application letter is the first chance potential employers have to get to know you, so don’t miss the opportunity to sell yourself. This isn’t the time to be too modest about your achievements. Include anything you feel is relevant to the role and makes you the right candidate for the job. Tell them why are you strong fit for the role and the company. Double-check your application letter Rule 1: No typos! Rule 2: No typos! You might write a great application letter only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with a couple of typos or misspelling a name. People will forgive one or two if you have a great CV, but I have, more than once, rejected application letters that say things such as "I have to great attention to detail". Back to the earlier point; don't give them any reasons to weed you out. Check the spelling and grammar of your application letter to detect any possible little errors that could turn away a potential employer. If you’re not great at spelling or grammar, or even if you are, get a friend to look it over before you press 'send'.
Send it as a PDF
Unless they specifically ask for a different format (e.g. MS Word) always send it as a PDF. That way, the formatting will always look as you intended it. And you'll get a chance to make sure that it has consistent spacing, fonts, headings, etc. Close well
Finish with something positive and upbeat. Explain how your experience or worldview will help you succeed at the job. Let them know when you’ll be available for interview (and work) and that you look forward to hearing from them.
"Remember, the only purpose of the application letter is to get you an interview. All else is fluff, and likely to exclude you from the interview list."
There is no such thing as a 'silver bullet' for job application letters but this is as close as I have come.
Page 2 of the Job Application Letter Template
And the text version of the letter ...
If you'd like to simply copy and paste, here is the text version. If you'd like to download the template in MS Word format, just subscribe to my newsletter.
Julian Talbot 10 No Such Place Tribeca ACT 2604 Tel: 555 555 555 email@example.com
February 9th, 2017
Re: Advertised Position – Manager/Boss/CEO
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am replying to your advertisement in the New York Times in which you seek a suitably qualified person to fill the role of Manager/Boss/CEO in your Corporate Services Division [J1].
I have over 15 years <boss & management> experience across a range of industries including commercial, healthcare, resources, and Defence. [J2] While my resume provides a general outline of my work history, problem solving abilities, and some achievements, I have taken the time to summarise my applicable skills for you in the table below. I hope this allows you to use your time effectively today. [J3]
Your requirements: [J4]
Proven leadership and management skills sufficient to manage a highly skilled and diverse team of professionals.
Proven executive leadership and mentoring experience at departmental level in complex environments with staff of up to 200.
Team leader in a range of organisations including public sector, defence force, volunteer groups, security, and the resources industry. [J5]
Performance Leadership Program (Woodside/McKinsey)
Appropriate qualifications combined with substantial senior level experience in managing a large portfolio of leased and owned properties, preferably within a public sector environment;
Strong commercial experience including responsibility for property portfolio’s to $200M and annual property services budgets to $8M.
Team Leader on a review project for a $25M property services contract which delivered savings of 10% per annum through development of audit systems, Codes of Practice, contractor management systems, and Business Process Re-engineering.
Specification, tendering, evaluation, and implementation of a $17M Security contract which delivered ongoing savings of 15% ($3M).
Professional Certificate in Property Portfolio Management (UWS)
Certified Protection Professional (CPP) Accreditation (ASIS) [J6]
Excellent understanding of Government policy, direction and objectives in relation to the commercial and public interest performance of Commonwealth owned and leased properties;
Current role as Security and Risk Management Specialist for the Department of Health and Ageing is responsible for writing policy, strategic guidelines, and Chief Executive Instructions.
The role also involves provision of security, insurance, and risk management advice across the Department including assisting Property Branch with interpretation and implementation of risk management practices and the Commonwealth Protective Security Manual (PSM).
Contract Risk and Relationship Management (Woodside/PMMS) [J7]
Outstanding client relationship management skills including the ability to build credibility with Austrade staff at all levels as well as a wide range of external organisations;
Demonstrated ability to maintain sensitive relationships and manage internal and external stakeholder expectations in a variety of roles including as client, contractor, service provider, and consultant. [J8]
Demonstrated ability to contribute effectively and develop strong relationships at senior levels in a range of culturally and politically sensitive environments within Australia and internationally. [J9]
Decision Making & Problem Solving (Pilbara Technical College)
Excellent communication, interpersonal and negotiation skills;
Highly developed written communication skills including policy and procedure development, inductions, training manuals, business cases, and multi-site ISO 9000 implementation.
Extensive experience as a presenter, trainer, and facilitator for audiences at all levels which has developed strong communication, negotiating and influencing skills.
Certificate IV - Workplace Trainer & Assessor (Pilbara Technical College)
Proven high-level strategic, analytical and conceptual thinking skills including the ability to anticipate key issues and generate creative and practical solutions;
Delivered annual cost savings of 13% ($800,000) [J10] for Woodside Energy Ltd. by challenging the status quo, applying commercial risk analysis to contracting strategies, implementing policy changes, and structural reform.
Developed and implemented the Strategic Security Risk Management System for Australia’s largest resources project (NW Shelf Project). [J11]
Initiated, researched, and prepared a critically and commercially acclaimed property management strategy to release $140M capital via an Unlisted Property Trust. [J12]
Currently studying Master of Risk Management (Monash University)
Demonstrated commitment to Austrade’s values including personal development and being a team player.
Introduced and managed employee consultative committees for Chubb, PT Koba Tin, and Australasian Correctional Management.
Established and implemented staff EEO and OHS [J13] training programs in Australia’s network of Immigration Detention Centres.
Extensive record of personal development as illustrated by my resume together with the highest standards of probity, integrity and conduct as will be confirmed by referees.
Certificate IV in Occupational Health & Safety (IFAP)
My career includes experience in a variety of positions and a range of industries, all of which have required me to take a strategic view and consider downstream impacts [J14] to develop and implement systems. My success in this has been achieved through developing good working relationships, providing credible leadership, direction and advice, considering the views of others and providing feedback when required. My strong interpersonal communication skills and ability to work as part of a team [J15] have contributed to my success.
I believe my experience, technical skills, and behaviours make me an ideal candidate for the position and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the role at an interview. I can be contacted via email (Julian@juliantalbot.com) or on 555 555 555 if you should have any questions. [J16]
Julian Talbot [Sent electronically] [J17]
[J1] Remind them which job.
[J2] Get them interested
[J3] Explain why such a short response to criteria
[J4] My full response to criteria is in this table and the ‘Your requirements’ are the ‘Selection Criteria’ If they don’t have ‘Selection Criteria’ (and some people don’t) then analyse the advertisement closely and work out what is important to them. It will be in the body of the ad. If you really can’t work it out, see if you can ring someone to ask what their current issues and challenges are. Why are they recruiting?
[J5] Provide just enough information to respond to the criteria. Never enough for the recruiter to weed you out. Eg: If they are looking for IT skills, tell them about your 3 years working on an IT project – do NOT describe it as 3 years working on a Microsoft Sharepoint project.
[J6] Relevant qualifications in italics.
[J7] In italics at the bottom of each response to the selection criteria, include a course or professional accreditation that is relevant. At least one but no more than two.
[J8] This is a bit of a generic statement but again, it’s designed to highlight that I’ve worked in a number of roles, so have extensive experience working well with people. And to make the reader curious. I didn’t want to satisfy their curiosity with this letter, I wanted to stoke their curiosity.
[J9] This is another ‘motherhood statement’ and could be improved by adding some numbers. But it did the trick. I landed an interview and eventually the job. The main focus of this paragraph is to explain the big picture.
[J10] Numbers work! Use numbers wherever you can. They are much stronger than simply saying “achieved cost savings’. Without numbers, you may as well just say, “I’m a nice person, kind to animals … “ etc.
[J11] Bask in the reflected glory of your previous employers!
[J12] More numbers. And hopefully unusual enough to get attention.
[J13] Only use acronyms if they are so ubiquitous that you are 100% certain the reader of your letter will understand them.
[J14] Close with key words that will have resonance for this particular job.
[J15] Every job requires these so communications skills are a good place to close.
[J16] Closing. Short & sweet.
[J17] Note the Footer has my name and contact email, just in case the two pages are separated somehow.
How to Turn a Job Interview Into a Job
If you'd like to know how to convert a job interview into a job, my thoughts on that topic are at this link.
Clearly if you've read this far, you know that I've stuffed up a lot of job application letters. I've also made a mess of at least my fair share of job interviews. I'm fairly creative so you can also take it for granted that I know lots of different ways to 'fail' at job applications. The best advice I can give you is to not follow my advice at all, but to be even more creative and make different mistakes from mine, at least until you achieve some success. Persistence is about my only 'success secret' so don't say you haven't been warned if this job application template only lands you with a rejection letter when you are the 25th person that day to use exactly the same 2 page template!