A cover letter is the best way to distil the information on your CV into a coherent message of why you are the most suitable candidate for the role.
Your cover letter provides you with a chance to build on the good work your CV has already done and as such the letter and your CV should complement each other and help create an enticing picture of you as a candidate the recruiter wants to take through to interview, or at least the next application sift.
Why have a cover letter at all when your CV contains all the information on your skills, experience and aptitude? It is not because employers love to wade through extra information, but so that you have the chance to explain more clearly who you are and why they should interview you.
So, as with your CV, tailor your cover letter to the specific job that you are applying for. Think of the question your cover letter needs to answer (much as you would have to answer a series of questions on an application form). Who are you? Why are you applying? And why are you the right candidate for them?
Do your research. Is there a particular policy unit in the think tank that you are especially interested in? Take the time to really look at the research they are producing; perhaps even referencing a particular report or event that you enjoyed. This will show both that you are keen to join their organisation and also that you are professional enough to conduct research and highlight it in an appropriate manner.
Now onto your own skills and experience. Hopefully your CV is crafted in such a way that it really draws out where you have useful experience (and it is worth tailoring your CV for each application) but the cover letter is a good opportunity to really highlight where, in particular, you have the skills they are looking for. It also gives you a chance to form a link for the employer between experience that is not obviously relevant to what they are looking for. Essential if you do not have directly relevant experience.
Now is the time to link your experience to specific requirements in the job advert. They want someone who has experience working in health policy? Make it one of your first sentences in your cover letter. They have said that experience editing videos would be desirable? Make the point that you have spent your time at university editing and creating videos and podcasts for a university group or previous employer.
Hopefully there are many examples for you to share of why and how you are just the right candidate for the job, but you have to pick the best ones. Keep it short. The cover letter needs to stay on one page of A4, including address headings and sign off. Potential employers already have to trawl through a two page CV, anything more than a page for a cover letter and you are asking a lot.
The ability to write well and succinctly is also a prerequisite for many roles in think tanks, so a well drafted and concise cover letter adds more credibility to your overall application. With space tight, it is best to draw out one of two specific examples as to how your skills and experience match what they require for the role but leave yourself enough space to talk about why you are applying to them.
This is where a cover letter really takes over from your CV. Your CV is all about you but employers also want to hear about what is in it for them. The cover letter gives you space to make this clear.
Consider the purpose of your letter. You are applying for a future at this company and your letter should reflect that. A common mistake is to only mention what joining the organisation will do for you. Statements such as ‘I think I would really benefit from the chance to learn about housing policy and build my policy network.’ While it is good practice to talk about why you are applying and how it will help you make sure that is not all you include. Employers want to know what is in it for them as well. Examples of how you can show interest while also emphasising why it would be a benefit to a future employer include phrases such as ‘while working on my first housing policy research I realised it was the policy area that most excited me and I see this role as a chance to expand my skills and expertise in this area while also helping to grow your unit and its impact’.
And finally, let’s talk about panache. Remember the goal of a cover letter is to get you selected for interview. The person sifting and reading your cover letter has to be intrigued enough to want to call you in to meet them. So you have to demonstrate that you tick all the requirements the job advert has listed, show why you want it and how you could be the right person to help them plus come across as a vaguely interesting human being. Do not fret. It is worth taking some extra time to go through your language and letter construction to make sure it flows, is succinct and gives a flavour of you as a person.
And of course, as always, spend some time proofreading and checking your spelling and grammar. You don’t want to spend hours crafting the message to let yourself down with a glaring spelling error. Especially if you are applying for a role that requires attention to detail and excellent written abilities!