A Guide to Writing a Cover Letter
What You Need to Know
- Make sure you address your letter to the most relevant person and make every effort to find out their name. “Dear Sir/Madame” is never the ideal start.
- Don’t be scared of sending speculative letters. Remember, half of the jobs that are available are never advertised. Tap into this hidden market.
- Be succinct. Your letter, in almost all cases, needn’t be more than a page in length.
- You need to include your contact details, but make sure they don’t reflect badly on you. Novel email addresses send a bad message and putting your work number down could show a lack of respect for your current boss.
- Cover letters are always written in the first person, so you need to beware over using “I” or the whole thing will drag.
- Always back up your claims with anecdotal evidence from your professional career, using memorable facts, figures and percentages wherever possible.
- Learn from the advertising world. Always end with a ‘call to action.’
- Get somebody else to help you proof read it. It’s always easier to spot other peoples mistakes!
- When sending by email, include the covering letter in the body of the message, not as an attachment.
The vast majority of job applications you will make during a job search will require both a CV and a covering letter, both of which are equally important in creating a great first impression and securing a formal interview.
Unfortunately, whilst most people understand the importance of putting together a solid CV, many neglect to put the effort it in when in come to their cover letter. As a result they seriously reduce the chance of their CV ever being read! Using these tips you’ll be able to avoid a similar fate;
Target the Right Person
Anyone who’s ever had a job in sales will tell you, the key to success is getting in touch with the decision maker. Likewise, when applying for a job, you want to direct your efforts towards the person who’ll actually be responsible for hiring you.
If you are applying in response to a job ad you’ve seen, especially one in a job centre, the details of who to contact will most likely be included. If they are not, or if you are making a speculative application out of the blue, you can often find contact details for the relevant person on the company’s website or by giving them a ring.
As long as you don’t go overboard, there is little harm in sending multiple copies in the event that you unsure you best to contact. For example, in the case of larger business, you might send a copy to both the head of HR and the head of the department you’d like to work in.
In general, you should not be sacred of making speculative applications. Bear in mind that, due to the expense involved, half of employers won't advertise a job in any major way even they have an opening.
It is always best, unless a handwritten application is specifically requested, to word process your letter using a conservative font such as times roman in font size twelve.
You should include a letter heading at the top of the page, including your name address and other contact details including your telephone number and email account. If you put down more than one number, designate which is which. It’s best not to include your work contact details, as it can imply a lack of respect for your current employer (not something recruiters like to see…)
You should also ensure your email address doesn’t send off a negative message. Many people set up an email account as a young teenager, choosing an address they think sounds good at the time such as rudeboi or bunny_girl, for example.
You might choose to stick with this address for personal use for the sake of convenience, but you should create a new account with a more professional sounding address to use in your job search.
Always use black ink on white paper and try to make the letter as spaced out as possible, to enhance its readability. Leave a space between paragraphs and centre justify the text to give each line a nice even spacing between your margins. The same applies to creating a professional CV.
Laying your letter out correctly will encourage recruiters to actually read it, meaning what you say becomes equally important. Here’s how to go about structuring your content.
1. The Beginning
Ideally, you’ll have found on the name of the exact person you are writing to and will be able to open your letter “Dear Mrs Brown,” or similar. However, if you don’t know the name, go with “Dear Sir/Madame,”
(As a side note, when signing off, use “Yours Sincerely” when you know the recipient’s name and “Yours Faithfully” when you don’t.)
You do not want your letter to be longer than a page, therefore every word counts. Your first paragraph should inform the reader why you are writing to them and what you can offer them.
“Having seen your advertisement for a Sales Manager, I am writing to outline the professional experience and qualifications I would be able to bring to bear in such a role.”
If the job ad included a reference number include this as a heading for your letter. Remember, you don’t need to waste time with statements such “I am writing to you to apply for the role of….” That’ll be evident from what you write.
If you are sending a speculative letter rather than a responding to an advert, you may want to find some other reason to explain your sudden decision to write to them. This could be anything from having read a news item on them, knowing somebody within the organisation or merely being aware of their reputation.
2. The Middle
Here is where you get down to really selling yourself, in the three to four paragraphs that follow your introduction. Use this to outline your professional profile, your most relevant achievements and the skills you have that would relate to the role.
You don’t want your letter to regurgitate your CV, you want it to support your CV. Therefore you pick three key points which make you perfect for the job and expand on them.
In doing so you need to explain why you want to work in that particular role, that particular company. This is where doing your research counts. Wherever possible try and demonstrate a good knowledge of the companies particular practices/ethos and relate them to the points you’re using to sell yourself.
Avoid making empty statements about yourself such as “I possess highly developed organisational skills”, instead aim to provide examples that would prove that statement, such as “In my current role as Events Coordinator I’ve organised fundraisers attended by up to 2,000 people…”
As in this example, try and use figures to back up your points, as these stick in the mind easier than with words, even if they mean the same thing. For example the statement “I doubled our turnover” is less memorable than “I increased turnover by 100%”. Furthermore, figures have a greater visual impact then words.
Ultimately, the aim of the letter is to get the reader to look at your CV, so feel free to reference it. For example you might say;
“Whilst conducting a marketing internship in Spain (see the attached CV for details) I developed language skills which would be invaluable in this role…”
Finally, in the last of your central paragraphs, you should outline your motivations for applying in that point in time. For example;
“Having recently graduated from a top university, I believe this roll will provide the perfect chance to apply all I have learnt.”
“Having increased profits year on year for the best part of a decade, I am looking for a new and exciting challenge.”
3. The End
Have you noticed that adverts tend to end with an instruction, such as “try it now!” or “book early”? This is what’s known as a ‘call to action’. Studies show that adverts that end with a call to action are more likely to get a response.
Your letter is effectively an advert (selling your skills as a potential employee) so it makes sense to end with a call to action. This would typically read something like;
“Do not hesitate to call me in order to discuss my application further…”
When you sign off leave a space between “Yours Sincerely/Faithfully” and your name in which to put your signature. Four spaces will normally be enough.
Unlike a CV, a covering letter should be written in the first person, something most people are much more comfortable with. However, whenever you write about yourself in the first person, there is a danger of using the pro noun “I” so much that it seems gratingly repetitive, or even egotistical.
This is a hard problem to get round, but one thing you can do is to try and avoid starting every sentence with “I”, instead you can burry some in the middle. For example;
“I have great interpersonal skills and a natural aptitude for PR.”
Could be rephrased as;
“My natural aptitude for PR is enhanced by great interpersonal skills.”
“Having great interpersonal skills, PR is highly suited to me.”
It is also a good idea to use a bit of industry jargon to show off your knowledge of the job, although don’t include so much that you’d alienate the uninitiated. Remember, the people reading it may work in HR or for employment agencies rather than in your field.
Don’t hold back on positive verbs, such as “achieved” or “improved”, and adjectives, such as “dedicated” or “creative”. Beware of clichés though. Just saying that you are hardworking and enthusiastic won’t hold any weight unless you have concrete examples of these traits.
I would be nice to think that the fact that you should proofread work thoroughly goes without saying. However, according to some studies, more than half of covering letters and CVs contain a linguistic error.
You should be aware that your spell check won’t pick everything up and, if you use it without paying attention, it may correct misspelt words to different words entirely which, though perfectly spelt, aren’t what you meant to say at all.
You also need to look out for words with similar spellings. For example, giving someone a message is very different from giving them a massage, but the difference comes down to a single letter.
Words that sound the same but mean different things also provide potential for mistakes, effect and affect being one such example.
Read carefully for grammatical mistakes. Apostrophes are one are on which people often fall down. They should be used as follows;
- You’re = you are
- Your = belonging to you.
- Mike’s = belonging to Mike
- Animals’= belonging to animals (plural)
- It’s = it is or it has
- Its = belonging to it
Bear in mind that it is often easier to proofread from a printed copy than from the screen. Always try and get someone else to help check it. You know what you meant to say, so are likely to see past your mistakes. A friend reading it will, just like its intended recipient, notice them far more prominently.
These days it is far more common to send your cover letter as an email. There are two schools of thought when it comes to how a covering letter should be sent. Some believe that you should send it as an attachment, to ensure that you can maintain the formatting styles discussed above. However, most experts recommend you paste the content of your letter into the main body instead.
For one thing, it is more likely to be read this way. In asking someone to consider employing you, you’re asking a favour. You want to make life as easy as possible for them and, unfortunately, some people will consider opening an attachment to much effort.
Secondly, the point of the covering letter is to encourage someone to read your CV. If you send it as an attachment you then have to write a note in the email encouraging the recipient to read your attached covering letter, in the hope they’ll then read the attached CV. You’ve essentially placed another hurdle in their path of your CV!
If for any reason you do send your letter as an attachment, give the file a specific name, such as “Ryan Faulkner Application for Sales Manager Role”, rather than something generic like “covering letter”. If you do this the recipient may download it to read later and delete your email. Of course, their download folder will be full of files called “covering letter”, so yours may be lost.
- Once you’ve written a great cover letter, ensure you have a perfect CV and a winning interview technique, using these helpful guides.
- You can’t apply for jobs until you know what you want to do. Get help with career planning here.
- Finding work is great, but you should remain aware of your rights as an employee.