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How to analyse a covering letter

Written by: Pamela Buxton
Published on: 5 Nov 2018

When you’re wading through tens, even hundreds of applications after a job advertisement, it can be tempting to skip the covering letters and turn straight to the CV. But these letters can be highly illuminating, even if only to make it far easier to narrow the field down.

Firstly consider the content. Has the applicant managed the basics such as stating which job they are applying for and why they are interested, and summarized what stage they are in their careers? If the answer is no, it may not stop you looking at their CV, but it’s certainly worth bearing in mind when shortlisting for interview. If yes, then the applicant is off to a good start.

Consider whether they have addressed the letter properly to the correct person and tailored the application to the practice. If the applicant hasn’t made the effort to do this, even if you don’t discard the application immediately, you may at least think twice about their ability to show care and attention in their own work.

‘I’ll read a short covering email. But I do like it to be addressed to me and not obviously have been sent around 20 or so practices in one hit. I want it to be for us, rather than a mailshot,” said Ann Lakshmanan, director of Shepheard Epstein Hunter. ‘I like it when they mention our projects and show an interest in what we specialise in, as it shows they’ve done their research.’

Likewise, consider the standard of English. While the occasional awkward phrasing and slip-up, if the applicant does not have English as a first language, might be forgivable, it is reasonable to expect all applicants to make use of spellchecks and be intelligible when they write.

Presentation can also offer useful clues.

‘There’s a lot that can be understood about a candidate in architecture from how they set out their letter and CV,’ says Mark Doohan, director of London and Bedford practice Benchmark Architects. ‘I skim read it to check that they are applying for the right job and have addressed it to the right person. Then I judge it on its graphic and presentation quality as well as how it reads - I will often assess it as an image composition.’

A covering letter can also reveal an aspect of the applicant’s profile that might not come across on a CV, as Simon Cottingham of London practice MEPK Architects found when recruiting recently.

‘I do read all the covering letters, even when they don’t look as if they’re going to be the right candidate,’ he said. ‘We recently received one from someone who didn’t quite tick all the boxes with the necessary experience, but who had sent a beautifully written covering letter in good English even though that wasn’t her first language. That attracted us to interview her to find out more.’

But however sparkling the covering letter may be, it’s only the first hoop in the recruitment process. As Shepheard Epstein Hunter’s Ann Lakshmanan says: ‘It doesn’t easily sway me – if I’m not convinced by their portfolio and CV, the covering letter is irrelevant.’