How to write a speculative cover letter

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A job application form and pen

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If you’ve just left school or college and you’ve decided to make a go of it in the working world, finding your way onto the first rung of the career ladder can be tough.

A speculative cover letter can be a good way to get your name in front of an employer and show them your enthusiasm. The main aim is to convince them that you would be an asset to their company and that they would reap the benefits if they took you on.

A speculative application is also about creating opportunities – even if you don’t know what those opportunities are yet. And while employers might not invite you in for interview straight away, they might be able to recommend some training, offer you unpaid work experience, or at least give you some useful pointers.

1. Address it to the right person

This is crucial. Why? Partly, because it shows you care enough to do your homework. If your speculative cover letter is going to be taken seriously, you need to show your reader that you’re not just sending out the same letter to company after company in the hope that the numbers game will pay off. It’s about the impression you create.

It’s also important because you do actually need to get your cover letter in front of the person (or people) calling the shots. That means someone who cares about the future of the business, who wants to take on talented young people who might require some training, but who will excel and give back to the company in the long run.

This will depend on the company:

  • If it’s a small company, find out the name of the CEO or founder.
  • If it’s a big company, send it to the hiring manager.
  • If you’re interested in working in a particular area of the company, find out who heads up that department and address it to them.

You might need to make a phone call to get this information. Nerve-wracking as this may seem, it can be a great way to get yourself noticed and remembered, especially if you’re able to speak to the person directly. You’ll also show that your determined and proactive, qualities that employers prize.

Finally, the employer will be more likely to give your application proper attention if they’ve talked to you, like you, and are expecting it.

Ask for a direct email address but don’t push too hard if the person you speak to is unwilling to give it out. Just put “FAO [name]” at the top of the message body when you email in your speculative application.

2. Get the basics right

Treat your speculative cover letter as a piece of work – the first the employer will be receiving from you. Getting the basics right shows professionalism and pride in your work, and makes an impression about the kind of employee you would be. The content might be great, but if it’s sloppily presented, you’ll turn people off.

Crossing the Ts and dotting the Is is crucial, so take a look at our guide to what makes a good cover letter. Here are some key reminders:

  • Sign your letter off “Yours sincerely” if you include the addressee’s name. If you’re unable to get it, sign off “Yours faithfully”.
  • More is less! Keep it as short and snappy as possible. Go through your first draft with a fine-tooth comb and chop any repetition or waffle.
  • Use our template to make sure your cover letter looks professional.

3. Find the right tone

This is a tough one, especially in a speculative cover letter. You should aim to be professional and formal, but not stuffy or pompous.

It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your communication skills, which isn’t the same thing as showing off the breadth of your vocabulary. While your writing shouldn’t be patronising, it should be possible for a 14-year-old to understand.

Finally, you should check the company website to see what their own tone is like. If they’re a fresh, youthful-sounding start-up, you could maybe drop the formality a notch, without lapsing into chattiness. If they’re a fairly traditional company, however, stick with the usual formal style.

4. Decide what you’re applying for

Although a speculative application should keep your options open by being broad, you need to tailor it to the kind of work you’re interested in and capable of.

If you’re applying for a small company which specialises in one particular area of work – such as running social media platforms for other companies or making mobile apps – this will be relatively straightforward.

However, if you want (say) an engineering job and are applying to a large engineering company with lots of departments, you need to make clear what specific line of work you’re applying for. Don’t make your application wishy-washy by trying to encompass everything. If the reason you’re applying is because they’re a civil engineering company and you want to be a civil engineer, you don’t need to appeal to the HR team, the communications department and the finance team as well.

On the other hand, don’t be unrealistically specific either. Many paths lead in the same direction, so don’t give the impression that you’ll only settle for your ideal job description.

5. Show them what you have to offer

It’s really important not to make your speculative cover letter too much about you. Remember, they haven’t asked for it, and what they really need to know if they’re going to take you seriously is what you have to offer them. Having already spent time reading your cover letter, why should they invest even more in speaking to you?

You’re making a speculative application because you want to work in the area of work they specialise in. Don’t just list your skills, experience and qualifications, relate them to the company’s activities and demonstrate how you can help them achieve their goals for the future.

6. Do your research

Closely related to the last point, make sure you know who you’re contacting.

Find out about the company’s ethos, values and what they are trying to achieve. Do they have any ethical objectives?

If “a spirit of excellence” is a core value, don’t just say “I also believe in excellence”. Try to be more subtle, and use evidence to back up your claim. Give a brief example which shows how you always go the extra mile to achieve the best you possibly can.

Don’t refer to the company’s values for the sake of it. They won’t believe you if you try to convince them you're made in the mould of the company, but they do need to see that you want to work with them because you share the same broad principles, not because you’re after any old job.

Make sure you’re accurate. The worst thing you can do is make a silly mistake like spelling the company’s or addressee’s name wrong, or missing out their key value while mentioning all the others.

7. Don’t be pushy

Don’t sign off “I expect to hear from you by the end of the week”. This kind of approach comes across as rude, sends all the wrong signals and will just ruffle people’s feathers.

Be polite and gentle while showing your enthusiasm – “I very much look forward to hearing from you” should suffice.

8. Follow up

Although pushiness is to be avoided, you should make sure your application is being looked at. When you email it off, ask for confirmation that it has been received.

If you don’t hear back within a week, make a polite phone call and ask again if your application was received. If so, ask whether you can expect a reply and when that is likely to be so you’re not waiting on tenterhooks.

No speculative application is complete without an outstanding CV – check out our guide and make sure yours is top notch.

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