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How to write a cover letter

By Prospects

Friday 14 June 2019 Careers and Jobs

To give your job application the best possible chance of success you need to know how to write a relevant and concise cover letter. Graduate careers experts Prospects give us their top tips.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a document sent alongside your CV when applying for jobs. It acts as a personal introduction and helps to sell your application. A cover letter is necessary as it gives you the chance to explain to an employer why you're the best candidate for the job. You do this by highlighting relevant skills and experience; therefore you should always write your cover letter with the position you're applying for in mind.

Cover letters should complement your CV but not duplicate it. The general consensus among recruiters when it comes to the length of these documents is the shorter the better. Typically three to five short paragraphs, cover letters should not exceed one A4 page. If sending electronically, put the text in the body of the email rather than as an attachment, to avoid it being detected by spam filters.

Applications should always include a cover letter unless the job advert instructs you differently.

How to write a cover letter

Keep your cover letter brief, while making sure it emphasises your suitability for the job. It can be broken down into the following sections:

  • First paragraph - The opening statement should set out why you're writing the letter. Begin by stating the position you're applying for, where you saw it advertised and when you are available to start.

  • Second paragraph - Cover why you’re suitable for the job, what attracted you to this type of work, why you're interested in working for the company and what you can offer the organisation.

  • Third paragraph - Highlight relevant experience and demonstrate how your skills match the specific requirements of the job description. Summarise any additional strengths and explain how these could benefit the company.

  • Last paragraph - Use the closing paragraph to round up your letter. Reiterate your interest in the role and indicate your desire for a personal interview. Now is the time to mention any unavailable dates. Finish by thanking the employer and say how you are looking forward to receiving a response.

How to address a cover letter

Always try and address your cover letter directly to the person who will be reading it. Bear in mind that you're more likely to receive a reply if you send it to the right person.

Advertised positions usually include a contact name, but if not, it is worth taking the time to find out who the letter should be addressed to. You can do this by searching the company’s website for details of the hiring manager or alternatively you could call the organisation to ask who you should address your letter to. Don't be afraid to do this, many employers will appreciate you taking the time and initiative to do so.

If you're struggling to find a named contact you can use a general salutation such as:

  • Dear Sir/Madam

  • Dear Hiring manager

  • Dear Human resources director.

However, general greetings should only be used once you have exhausted methods of finding a named contact. How you sign off your cover letter depends on how you addressed it. If you include a named contact sign off 'yours sincerely'. If you use a general one finish with 'yours faithfully'.

Example cover letters

6 tips for the perfect cover letter

With employers often receiving lots of applications for each vacancy, you need to ensure that your cover letter makes a lasting impression for the right reasons. Here are some tips to increase your chances of success:

  1. Be concise - Ideally a cover letter should take up half a page of A4 or one full page if necessary. Read through the document and cut out any unnecessary words and sentences. Don't fill up available space by repeating what's already covered in your CV.

  2. Tailor to the organisation - You should rewrite your cover letter every time you apply for a position in order to target the individual company. Sending out a generic letter for all applications rarely yields positive results and recruiters can spot your lack of time and effort from a mile away.

  3. Proofread - Never rely on a computer spellcheck program to pick up every mistake. Print off your cover letter and double-check for spelling and grammar errors before passing it to family member or friend to look over. Also make sure that your own contact details and the company name are correct.

  4. Format - Presentation is important so you'll need to format your cover letter properly. Make sure the document is as uncluttered as possible, use the same font and size as you use in your CV and if you're sending it through the post or handing it in use good quality plain white paper to print it on.

  5. Identify your USPs - They're your unique selling points. Be positive about what you have to offer and clearly outline how your skills and experience meet those requested in the job description. Demonstrate why you’re the perfect candidate.

  6. Include examples - Back up the claims in your cover letter with real evidence or examples that show how and when you've used your skills and experience.

DON'Ts: Basic mistakes to avoid

1. Poor formatting

CVs that aren't clear and easy to read are a huge turn-off for employers. On average employers spend around eight seconds reviewing each CV - leaving you little time to make a good first impression.

It's therefore important to keep your CV concise so that it can be absorbed quickly. The template that you choose to follow when composing your CV should be striking yet uncluttered. Avoid confusing layouts, and beware of using different fonts and sizes.

'Use a reasonable sized font (nothing smaller than a 10), normal sized margins, make sure there's a good amount of white space, and if you can use bullet points instead of paragraphs and full sentences, do,' advises Cassie Leung, resourcing advisor at Penguin Random House UK.

Before printing or submitting your CV, save it and spend some time away from it. Peter Fox, careers adviser at Durham University, suggests going back to it for a second time to scrutinise how everything looks on your computer screen. 'Cluttered, disorganised and messy are three characteristics that your CV shouldn't possess,' he adds.

Take a look at some example CVs.

2. Failing to tailor your application

When it comes to CVs, one size doesn't fit all. Everything that you include must be completely tailored to the company and role that you're applying for. This will make it easy for recruiters to see that you're the perfect candidate.

Peter claims that recruiters can immediately sense whether you've sufficiently assessed the job requirements. Evaluating which of your skills match the job specification most effectively will give you the best chance of success.

'Don't be afraid to remove irrelevant experiences,' Peter adds. 'Even if you're applying for similar roles with different organisations, check their specific requirements and tweak accordingly.'

Cassie agrees. 'A CV is a marketing tool for you. It's the highlight reel, with all the most relevant things for each particular job you're applying for. You might have a master CV with everything on, but you should tailor what you send for each application, especially if you're applying for a variety of jobs in different sectors.'

3. Spelling errors

There are no excuses for spelling mistakes - even if English isn't your first language. An error-free CV is vital in showcasing your precision and attention to detail, so check everything - even your contact details. Spellcheck and proofread your CV yourself before asking others to cast their critical eye over the document.

Minimise the risk of making mistakes by taking your time - never leave writing your CV to the last minute. Rushed examples are easily spotted and quickly dismissed. 'Careless errors are rarely tolerated,' explains Peter. 'Avoid needless rejection by slowly and meticulously checking.'

'Even for jobs that don't involve writing, you want to make the best impression. A great way to see if there's a spelling or grammatical mistake is to temporarily change the font, size and colour - it can trick your brain into thinking it's a new piece of writing,' adds Cassie.

4. Lying

When you're trying to get a foot in the door and impress potential employers it's tempting to be economical with the truth, because who's going to check, right?

Wrong. The facts on your CV are easy to corroborate so never assume that recruiters won't make enquiries to do so.

Giving your university grade a boost, claiming to have attended university when you haven't, lying about your current job title or embellishing a period of work experience won't do you any favours in the long run. At best, your lies will be obvious and your CV will be rejected out of hand. At worst, you may be invited for an interview where you'll either trip yourself up or be asked questions that you're unable to answer. What could possibly be worse than embarrassing yourself at an interview? How about going to prison? Lying on your CV is a criminal offence. Take a look at this advice and guidance on degree fraud for students.

Instead of using your time and energy to concoct half-truths and complete fabrications, use it instead to really sell the qualifications, skills and experience you do have.

5. Lack of evidence

It's easy to make generic, empty statements on your CV when you're trying to meet a tight application deadline. However, failing to effectively evidence your skills, achievements and experiences can be a big mistake.

Peter believes that you should quantify your successes whenever possible - but never at the expense of the CV's readability. 'Recruiters will be assessing not just what you've done, but also your written communication skills,' he explains. 'Writing concisely but meaningfully is crucial, as this is a central element of many graduate jobs.'

Cassie points out that you shouldn't just focus on the things you did, but also on the things you achieved. 'At entry-level, chances are a lot of your previous experience was temporary, voluntary or part-time, with duties that might include 'sweeping the floor' or 'filing and data entry'. You want to point out ways that you took those duties and went above and beyond to make a difference. For example, the above might be 'shortened average closing time with efficient clean up' or 'kept office running smoothly with quick data entry'.

6. Not explaining 'why'

It isn’t enough to just state your credentials; you need to prove them by justifying why you've chosen to undertake certain activities in terms of your personal and professional development. You should then elaborate even further on the resulting skills you've gained.

For example, discussing your extra-curricular activities is very important - providing you pay particular attention to any positions of responsibility you've held and outline what you've taken from the experience.

As a rule, average CVs give you the 'what' - for example, the degrees or jobs that person has held. Great CVs also give the 'whys' - for example, why that person has chosen that degree or society.

7. Ignoring gaps in your work history

Gaps in employment history are fairly common and rarely a problem as long as they're explained.

You don't need to worry about gaps of a couple of weeks but if you've been out of work for months (or even years) you need to clearly and concisely explain why. Any unexplained absences of this length will be looked upon with suspicion by potential employers and will give the impression that you've been idle during this time.

Don't be afraid to let recruiters know that you took some time out to volunteer, look after a sick relative or travel the world. There's also no shame in informing employers of a period spent away from work due to an illness, medical condition or redundancy.

You'll be able to further explain any gaps in your work history in your cover letter. See our cover letter template of how to explain a gap in your CV for more advice.

Find out more

If you're a student or recent graduate you can make an appointment with your university's careers and employability service to access further help when writing your cover letter. You'll be able to talk with specially-trained advisers, get advice on what to include and have a professional eye look over your application before sending.