What Is a Cover Letter?
Cover letters (or covering letters) are a crucial part of the recruitment process. They are your first opportunity to talk about yourself in your own words and tell employers why they should hire you.
But it won’t always be easy to get noticed. On average, employers spend around 30 seconds looking at a cover letter. So, you need to do two things: first, make those seconds count and, second, encourage them to read for longer.
- Bespoke to the role and company you’re applying for
- Complementing your CV, not repeating it
Essentially, a cover letter is your chance to persuade a recruiter that you should be hired for the role. It should show your interest in the company and how your skills and experience will benefit them; that’s why it needs to be specific to the role.
- First, Research
- Format and Appearance
- Tailoring Your Cover Letter
- How to Address a Cover Letter
- The First Paragraph: Introduce Yourself
- The Second Paragraph: How You Fit the Role
- The Third Paragraph: What Can You Bring to the Organisation?
- The Fourth Paragraph: Summary and Request for Action
- Key Tips for a Great Cover Letter
- Additional Resources
The first step in any application is research.
The best cover letters are engaging and written with enthusiasm and energy. They market you, the candidate, as the person who will best fit not only the role, but also the company itself and the team you’ll be working with.
To give yourself the best chance, it’s important that you take the time to understand the role, the business and the sector.
If you take the time to do this research, the employer will immediately see you as someone who is engaged, interested and willing to find things out for themselves. You also show yourself to be someone who does their research and looks ahead, rather than someone who runs in head-first.
Your initial research should include:
- Understanding the company. What does it do? How did it get to this point? How does it make its money? What are the main things going on right now? Who are its competitors?
- Understanding the sector. Who are the major players? What does the future hold for the sector? What are the opportunities and challenges of that future?
- Understanding the role. The job description is the best place to start and should be studied carefully, but it’s not everything. Look at similar roles within the industry. Look at the makeup of the company. What might this specific role at this specific company look like?
- Understanding the people in the company. You’ll need to work alongside them every day, and vice versa. It’s crucial that you get a feel for the organisation. How do they present themselves? Formal and structured, or more casual? What feeling does their use of language evoke?
This research will allow you to figure out if this is a place where you want to work and show the employer that you’d fit within their team.
Don't skimp on research when it comes to your cover letter.
Format and Appearance
Your cover letter should look business-like and professional. It needs to be clean, tidy, readable and consistent. With that in mind, here are some basic tips you should follow:
- Use a simple, readable font such as Arial, Calibri or Times New Roman. This isn’t the place to experiment with wacky fonts, even if you’re applying for a creative role.
- Use font size 11 or 12. Smaller becomes harder to read, bigger is unnecessary and looks a little childish.
- Use a business letter format. That means putting your name, address, telephone number, email address and the date in the top-right corner of the page. Begin with “Dear Mr/Ms/Mrs/Dr [Name]” and end with “Yours sincerely,” if you used their name, or “Yours faithfully,” if you couldn’t find their name and used “Sir/Madam” or similar.
- Be consistent with your text alignment. Left-aligned is generally the easiest to read.
- Try and keep your letter to one page. To help with this, you can make the margins narrower, though try to keep a balance as if the text is too wide it becomes more difficult to read. You can also play around with line spacing; don’t go below 0.9 or above 1.5, however.
- If you are attaching your CV and cover letter to an email, make sure that your email also makes a good first impression. Use the subject line to list the vacancy title and/or reference number. Make sure your attached files are clearly labelled with your name, for example, Joe_Bloggs_Cover_Letter. Double-check the email for spelling errors and make sure you use the correct name at the top.
Tailoring Your Cover Letter
Generic cover letters won’t cut it. Employers read many applications and it becomes very easy to tell when someone has just copied and pasted a template and changed the details slightly.
To let the company know that you’re serious about the role, you should tailor your cover letter to the application.
There are three things you need to know so you can tailor your cover letter for the best chance of success:
1. Applicant Tracking Systems
70% of jobs are filled by an Applicant Tracking System (or ATS). An ATS is an automated software that reads applications and uses algorithms to make decisions about them.
Have you ever wondered why you sometimes have to fill out a long form that simply repeats a lot of the information on your CV? It’s because the information is being put directly into an ATS.
Some more advanced ATS’s can also read cover letters. This is typically done by scanning for keywords relating to the job description.
For that reason – and because it’s good practice in general – you should refer directly to the attributes, values and responsibilities that the employer uses in the job listing. By using those keywords, not only do you make sure that an ATS will notice, but you will also show that you’re focused on exactly what the employer wants.
2. The Job Itself
While ATS’s are often used, your cover letter will get read by someone at some point, if it goes far enough. Some people will read them quickly and rely more on the interview, while others will read them thoroughly.
In any situation, it’s worthwhile to tailor your cover letter to the specific role you’re applying for.
Again, make sure you refer directly to the job description. Discuss why and how you can fulfil those specific requirements, as well as what you can bring more generally.
3. The Company
Employers aren’t only looking for someone to do a job. They’re also looking for someone to fit in well in their organisation. You’ll need to work with others in the company and, some time down the line, you might change roles or be up for a promotion.
So do your research on the company’s values, culture and goals and talk about how you would fit into those.
Format, appearance and structure are key for a good cover letter.
How to Address a Cover Letter
This can be tricky – who do you address the letter to? Most people go with a generic “Dear Sir or Madam”, or “To whom it may concern,” but that’s not the most engaging way to start.
If possible, try to address the letter to someone specific. If the name of the person hiring isn’t given, you can try emailing or calling the company to find out.
Make sure you have the correct spelling of the name and that you know whether they are a ‘Mr’, ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’ or something else such as ‘Dr’ or ‘Ms’. Making a simple error like that is not a good way to kickstart your application.
The First Paragraph: Introduce Yourself
The first paragraph is where you tell the hiring manager who you are, where you’re coming from and why you’re interested in the position and company.
Always begin by writing which position you are applying for and how you discovered the opportunity. This immediately gives the hiring manager some context and clarifies that you’re talking about the specific role in question.
Remember, a hiring manager may have several roles open at once and they don’t want to double-check every cover letter they read for the position the person is applying for.
Then, present some basic information about yourself. This is good for adding context but be careful not to repeat your CV too much here. For instance, talk about your degree and your particular areas of interest within that.
Add to this basic information by discussing why you’re interested both in the role and in the company. Talk about the company’s values and how you align with them. Tell them what you find exciting about the job opportunity.
The Second Paragraph: How You Fit the Role
The second paragraph is down to business: why are you the best candidate for the role?
The best way to structure this is to use their own wording. Look at the requirements for the role and explain why you are the person that can perform that job.
Here is where you discuss your previous work experience, education and other activities (like volunteering) and how they have given you the necessary skills to be a valuable member of their team.
The key to this section is to provide examples that evidence the attributes you say you have. Anyone can say they’re a great team player who takes initiative – what matters is whether you can back that up. Talk about specific examples and events within your education and work history that demonstrate the skills they’re looking for.
However, there’s also a balance to strike here. If you sell yourself too aggressively then you might come across as arrogant; too humbly and you won’t get across the skills they’re looking for.
Show your relevant skills using concrete examples, but also demonstrate that you’re eager to learn more and improve yourself within the company.
The Third Paragraph: What Can You Bring to the Organisation?
For the third paragraph, zoom out a bit. Change your focus from the role to the organisation as a whole. What can you offer them in the longer term?
It’s also important for this paragraph that you do your research. Find out exactly what the company does, what its goals are, what its values are and what its place within the industry is.
Talk about how you would fit into their plans and show you’re committed and engaged. Talk about how you align with their interests and long-term goals.
This is a good opportunity to bring in any particular ideas you might have regarding the role. What challenges do you think the company faces? How would you overcome them and how could you help?
Tell the hiring manager why you’re a good long-term investment for the company and not just somebody who will fill the role in the short term.
Think of the cover letter like a sales pitch. Your goal is to convince them that not only are you a good fit for the role but that if they didn’t hire you, it would be a mistake and they would be missing out.
The Fourth Paragraph: Summary and Request for Action
Always end with something that invites action on the employer’s part.
Many people close off their letter with something like “I look forward to hearing from you.” This is a mistake as it’s an open invitation for the employer to say, “no thank you” (if you even get a reply) and move on. It’s passive.
Instead, say something more active, such as “I look forward to discussing my application with you in further detail.”
This is more confident and invites action immediately. It lets them know that you are serious about your application and that you really believe that hiring you is an opportunity for them.
For smaller companies, it can also be useful to state when you are and are not free for interview.
Finally, sign off politely with “Yours sincerely,” (or “Yours faithfully,” if you didn’t use their name at the beginning) and remember to list any other documents that might be enclosed, such as your CV.
Key Tips for a Great Cover Letter
1. Avoid Clichés
“I’m a great team player and am passionate about my work.”
What’s wrong with this sentence?
First, it doesn’t actually say anything that any other candidate couldn’t say. Second, the recruiter has probably read that same sentence many times today. Third, there’s no evidence provided to back up the claims.
Back up your claims with examples, be specific about your skills, and avoid clichés that an employer has heard many times before.
2. Remember to Proofread
Everyone hits the wrong key once in a while, and we all have those words that we never seem to spell correctly.
However, poor grammar and spelling will reflect badly on you. It can show an employer that maybe you don’t quite have the attention to detail they’re after.
Make sure you carefully read your cover letter several times. If possible, also have someone else read it through carefully – another set of eyes is always helpful.
3. Keep It Professional
The cover letter isn’t the place to show how friendly, funny or creative you are. It’s the place to show you’re a serious, competent and professional person, capable of doing the job at hand.
While that doesn’t mean you have to be stiff and overly formal, it does mean you should keep the tone, style and formatting professional.
4. Use Concrete Examples
Anyone can say they’re a great communicator. Make sure you provide evidence in the form of concrete examples.
For every point you make about yourself or your skills, be sure to follow it with a tangible example.
5. Tailor It
There will be plenty of candidates who show a real enthusiasm for that specific job at that specific company. So why would they hire someone who has clearly taken a scattergun approach? Are they sure that this person even wants the job?
Show the employer that you’re excited about the opportunity they’re offering and show them that you can fulfil their specific needs. You’ll stand a much better chance if you take the time to tailor your cover letter to the specific role and employer.
6. Keep It Concise
As Mark Twain famously wrote: ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long letter instead.’ Keeping a cover letter short, concise and to the point doesn’t mean you have less to offer.
In fact, employers tend to prefer shorter cover letters, so never use more words than needed.
7. Don’t Repeat Your CV
Your CV is more of an overview of important information about you and your career and education history. The cover letter is there to elaborate, explain and persuade the employer that you’re the best candidate.
8. Be Active and Confident
If you’re too passive in your writing, you might come across as someone who lacks confidence and initiative.
Be confident in your abilities and demonstrate that you’re able to be proactive and can take charge of your own work.
9. Incorporate Key Terms
By doing this, you kill two birds with one stone. First, you make sure the company’s ATS notices the right things about your cover letter. Second, you demonstrate to the employer that you have read and understood the job description, and that you fulfil the requirements.
10. Don’t Be Too Humble
This is your chance to sell yourself and persuade the employer why they need you in their company. Being too humble and playing down your skills and experience won’t help you do that.
Of course, you do need to balance that approach with the risk of sounding arrogant. The key here is to back up your skills with concrete examples, but also to emphasise your willingness to improve, listen to feedback and learn new skills.
Don’t let this be the beginning and end of your research into writing a great cover letter. Other perspectives are always worthwhile. Reading widely will allow you to develop your own distinct style that will help you stand out from the crowd.
Here are a few other resources that are well worth looking into:
- Cover Letter Examples And Common Mistakes
- How To Start a Cover Letter
- How to End a Cover Letter
- 10 Killer Tips For Your Graduate Cover Letter
- How to Write a Cover Letter for an Internship
- How To Write A CV: Tips And Examples
- Application Advice
- How to Write an Employment Verification Letter