How to Write a Cover Letter

How to Write a Cover Letter

How to Write a Cover Letter

Updated 21 September 2021

Written by the WikiJob Team
Fact Checked by Bianca Praino MA pgDip

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.

This article will show you how to write a cover letter that does those things. But, broadly speaking, your cover letter should be:

  • Bespoke to the role and company you’re applying for
  • Concise
  • 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

The first step in any application is research. Regardless of whether you're applying for a job in the medical industry such as pharmacy work or nursing, an engineering position, a role within the legal sector or you're interested in a teaching post, it's important to understand the role and company, as well as the sector as a whole.

Even if you are sending a speculative cover letter instead of applying to a specific advertised role, researching the company you are applying to is crucial.

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. This applies whether you've been in the sector a long time, are looking to relocate or are considering a career change.

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 organization. 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.

How to write a cover letter

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 labeled 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.

These example cover letter templates are a useful reference for constructing your own cover letter in an appropriate format. Remember, however, that a cover letter should always be tailored to the specific role and company you are applying for.

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.

Don't copy and paste content from one cover letter to another thinking it will save you time. Sometimes mistakes and oversight can occur; you may forget to change details such as the company or position you are applying to or your circumstances may have changed since the last time you wrote a cover letter.

To let the company know that you’re serious about the role, you should tailor your cover letter to the application. For instance, a position for an accounting cover letter role will require different skills and experience to an architect role, bartender position or opening within the dentistry sector and a cover letter should reflect this relevant experience accordingly.

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.

For instance, if the job requires data analysis, mention the term 'data analysis' in your cover letter. A social worker role may state it requires someone with empathy who has good administration and organization skills, in which case ensure you include these key terms in your cover letter.

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 fulfill 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 organization. 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.

How to write a cover letter

Format, appearance and structure are key for a good cover letter.

How to Start a 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’. Making a simple error like that is not a good way to kickstart your application. When addressing women, if you can't determine their marital status, use the title 'Ms' instead of 'Miss' or 'Mrs' to avoid confusion.

If you know the name of the hiring manager, using the salutation “Dear” will be sufficient, along with their title and last name. If you are not sure what gender they are (for example, Alex Smith could be male or female), then address them by their full name.

If you don’t know the name of the hiring manager, then the cover letter opening salutation should be addressed to “The Hiring Manager” of the department you are applying to.

If you need to, you may use “Dear Sir”, “Dear Madam” or “Dear Sir/Madam”, though it's always better to use the more specific "Dear Hiring Manager".

What to Include at the Beginning of a Cover Letter

Before you start writing the first paragraph of your cover letter, you should research the company’s recent accomplishments. Identifying the company’s activities and future needs is a great segue for introducing your particular skills and explaining how your experience can contribute to the company.

Find out what the company’s mission statement is and link your skills with the company’s goals. Remember to change any research into your own words, so it doesn’t appear copied straight from their annual report. If a hiring manager considers you to have a sincere belief in the company’s mission, your chances will be better.

State a recent accomplishment from your last job that is related to the position you are applying to. Personalize your cover letter to the specific position you are applying for.

If someone from the company invited you to apply for the job, then mentioning the contact is wise; always check to make sure that the contact consents to you mentioning them.

How to Write a Creative Cover Letter Opening Sentence

You may want to do a little background research on the hiring manager to find some common ground. Keep your remarks on point but relevant to the company’s operation. It always pays off to find out more about your audience.

Starting off with a relevant news article or a personal story on why you want the job can also be effective ways to show passion and enthusiasm.

A creative cover letter opening sentence could be the difference between having your entire application read or being ignored from the first paragraph. Here are a few sample sentences to give you an idea of what could be effective:

  • “I decided to be a doctor when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer eight years ago. When I heard that your hospital has a research project on lung cancer, I wanted to become a part of the team.”

  • “While I was at college, I created the viral mobile phone game 'Happy Pigs', which was downloaded over 5 million times in one fortnight.”

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.

Sample Cover Letter Openings

If you are in need of ideas, here are a few cover letter opening paragraph examples to get you started. Each one of these is suited for a different professional context, so be sure to customize your cover letters as appropriate.

  • “I started trading stocks in my senior year of high school and paid my way through college via my investing. Achieving an average of 96% in higher-level finance courses is testament to my passion to enter the finance industry. If given the opportunity to work at your firm as a junior analyst, I’m sure that I can yield the same results to improve your bottom line.”

  • “Ariana Lopez, an associate at your firm, has informed me of an exciting new job opening in your department. With a track record of winning 78% of my cases at the district court level and having co-counseled on several cases in federal court, I’m confident that I can contribute to building new successes at your law practice as a senior associate.”

  • “I am writing to apply for the position of marketing manager at [your company]. I have developed several large-scale TV campaigns as a marketer for ABC company and XYZ company in the past, with two of my campaigns being aired on national. I look forward to having the opportunity to create engaging marketing content for your company.”

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 outline why you are suitable for 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.

When you write about your past accomplishments, make sure that you show what you can offer to the company you are applying to.

Don’t focus on what position you held in your previous place of work and for how long, as this information is easily found in your resume. Instead, use your cover letter to show how your skills and experience tie into the company's goals.

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.

An example of an effective way of mentioning your skills:

“I was just another rookie at ABC Bank when I came fresh out of university three years ago, but I’ve since built a track record of converting 68% of customers from a competing bank to ABC Bank – the highest in the entire region. I would hope to build an even larger customer base for your company.”

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 Organization?

For the third paragraph, zoom out a bit. Change your focus from the role to the organization 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 company goals/strategy 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.

How to End a Cover Letter

The fourth paragraph brings your cover letter to an end and performs several vital roles. The ending of your cover letter will leave a lasting impression and could be the difference between being invited to interview and the termination of your application. As such, it should contain a few key elements detailed below.

The Fourth Paragraph: Summary and Request for Action

1. A Call to Action and Interest in Progressing

Always end with something that invites action on the employer’s part.

Let the employer know that you are interested in moving forward to the next phase of the application process by politely requesting an interview.

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, be confident and direct and say something more active, such as “I look forward to discussing my application with you in further detail.” Another example would be “I am excited to meet with you to discuss further how my expertise in the position of Executive Manager will contribute to growth at your company.”

This approach is 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.

2. Demonstrate the Value You Will Bring

This is where you take a couple of sentences to reiterate what you can offer the company, in terms of your experience, skill set and other qualifications.

It is important to understand the goals of the organization and the role that it plays within the community or global market.

Make a link between the company’s goals and your past work experience, skills and relevant achievements. This will send a concise message to the employer that you could add value as an employee.

Remind the employer or hiring manager why they should choose you for the job and not another applicant. Since you are only highlighting what you have already mentioned in the first or second paragraph of your cover letter, it is best to use your request for an interview to briefly outline specific skills and experiences that are relevant to the position.

Example:

“I am excited to meet with you to further discuss how my knowledge-based approach, specifically my Master’s Degree in Human Resources and previous experience in an executive management role as a team leader, can be an asset to your company.”

Avoid:

“I am happy to meet with you to discuss how my organizational and leadership skills can be an asset to your company.”

3. Appreciation and Sincere Gratitude

Take the opportunity to thank the person who is reviewing your cover letter for the time that they spent looking through your application. Screening applicants for a job can be tedious, so it is polite to show your gratitude for their consideration.

4. Professional Sign-Off

It is best to end your letter formally and stick to the conventions of letter writing. End with ‘Yours sincerely’ if you started the letter with their name or ‘Yours faithfully’ if you used ‘Sir/Madam’ or a job title to address the letter.

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Need some help with CV and cover letter writing? CV Centre can help you polish yours to a professional standard.

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Sample Cover Letter Closures for Different Contexts

Example 1: Web Developer

“Thank you for your consideration. I welcome the opportunity to speak with you further about my approach to back-end technologies, and how my experience in application testing and security can benefit your company now and in its future ventures.”

Example 2: Sales Executive

“In my previous role as Sales Executive, I launched and distributed several products and liaised with clients and suppliers to ensure that the target margin for orders increased by 10%. My accomplishments confirm my ability to add value to your company, drive up sales and generate revenue. I am confident that I am the best candidate for this position and I am excited to meet with you to discuss how I can further benefit your company."

Example 3: Office Administration

“With more than 8 years’ experience in project management, preparing scheduled meeting reports and presentations, I am confident that I will excel in the role of office administrator. I would be thrilled to meet with you to discuss how I can assist you in meeting company goals.”

How to Demonstrate Enthusiasm Sincerely

Employers want to hire someone who is not only qualified for the position but enthusiastic about the job. Showing passion in your cover letter will let the employer know that you will want to come into work every morning, will work to the best of your ability and can contribute fully to the company’s goals.

Lack of enthusiasm sends the opposite message: that you are not really interested in the job and don’t care that much about your tasks.

Point out to the employer exactly which responsibilities attract you or which details about the company interest you. Use the specific keywords mentioned in the job description.

Example:

“I was happy to see that my responsibilities as an Office Manager will include organizing office operations and analyzing special reports.”

Next, show why you would be better at performing these duties than another applicant. Mention specific skill sets, work experience and accomplishments that demonstrate your ability to perform the tasks that you have selected from the job description.

Be sure to only mention job tasks that are of particular interest to you, and refrain from mentioning tasks that will exploit your areas of weakness.

Don't Appear Desperate

Sometimes you might be applying for your dream job, or you may have been looking for a long time and are desperate for an interview. As already mentioned, it's important to show your enthusiasm for the job in your cover letter – but remember not to take it too far and appear desperate.

When ending your cover letter and requesting a callback or interview, be confident that you are the best candidate for the job without appearing overly eager.

Avoid:

"I very much hope that you contact me soon, please, to further discuss how my skills and experience would be beneficial to your company."

Avoid words like 'please' or 'hope', which give the impression that you are not sure whether or not you are going to get an interview. This simple phrase may be enough to put doubt in the employer’s mind. It is better to appear assertive than passive.

Don't Sound Egocentric or Too Ambitious

Employers are interested in hiring individuals who demonstrate confidence. A person who is confident in both themselves and their abilities is able to communicate better with the people around them, and perform their tasks independently and to a higher standard.

When ending your cover letter, remember to be polite and request an interview, but do not demand one or offer to schedule an interview with the hiring manager yourself.

Illustrating enthusiasm and confidence will definitely get your cover letter acknowledged, and it may even cause it to stand out from the others, but never make remarks when ending your cover letter that make you appear egocentric.

Avoid:

"I will contact you on Monday morning to schedule an interview with you, so that I may speak more about how my skills and expertise will benefit your company."

"I am confident that my talents are peerless and I will not only meet your expectations, but will exceed them and climb the corporate ladder in no time. Please schedule my interview at your earliest convenience."

How to Point to the Bottom Line

If you can, it is important to illustrate how your contributions to the company as an employee will make operations more efficient, contribute to profits or save money.

Employers are attracted to candidates that can clearly align their abilities with the five principal factors that are crucial to any company’s success – strategic focus, operations, marketing, p****eople and finances.

Analyze your resume and carefully determine which of these categories you can contribute to most. Here are a few questions to consider when thinking about what you can contribute to the company’s success:

  • Strategic Focus – What have you done at your previous job to demonstrate leadership or management skills?

  • Operations – How have you introduced strategies that contributed to innovation and the overall efficiency of systems, and how will you do that at this job?

  • Marketing – How have you implemented marketing strategies to increase revenue and attract prospective customers?

  • People – Have you assisted with training or coaching employees? How have you promoted team dynamics to boost employee morale and build on professional work relationships?

  • Finances – How have you managed transactions with clients or suppliers that resulted in your company saving money?

Graduate Cover Letter

It is understandable that graduates will have less work experience than those who have been in the working world for several years. However, a graduate cover letter should still follow the format and advice outlined above, but with a different focus.

As a graduate, your cover letter should focus on your academic background. Include the full name of your course and where you studied.

The key is to highlight any major achievements that make you stand out, along with any relevant periods of work experience or voluntary placements you may have undertaken. It is also good to highlight valuable and relevant skills you can bring to the role.

For instance, perhaps you have technical skills associated with software or graphic design. You may have useful receptionist experience demonstrating your communication and organization skills.

Even if you do not have paid work experience, you may be able to draw on voluntary work or extracurricular activities to demonstrate your skills and achievements.

Graduates may also wish to apply to study for a PhD. Whether you've recently graduated and would like to continue your academic studies further or you've been working for several years and are keen to increase your expertise and skills through obtaining a PhD, a suitable PhD cover letter is an important part of the application process that can help you stand out from other candidates.

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.

Use a spell checker before you send in the cover letter, so you know there won’t be any mistakes.

Read your cover letter out loud several times after you’re finished writing it, to make sure the words flow naturally. Sometimes you won’t notice minor errors until you hear how it sounds yourself. If possible, get a friend or family member to read over it for you, to get a fresh perspective.

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.

Don't use generic qualitative words to describe your successes. Instead of saying that you signed up “a lot” of new customers, say that you managed to improve the monthly customer acquisition rate by 34%. Instead of saying that you “added to” the company’s profit margin, show that you increased the profit margin by 8% in 12 months.

5. Tailor It

There will be plenty of candidates who show 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 fulfill 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

The employer has already seen your CV. They probably have it out in front of them as they read your cover letter. They won’t take kindly to simply reading the same information twice.

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 fulfill 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.

Additional Resources

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:

Articles

Books


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