Cover letters (or covering letters, as they are sometimes known) are an important, if often under-used, part of the recruitment process. They give you, the candidate, the opportunity to tell the employer in your own words why you are the best person for them to employ. This is the time to really sell yourself, and your skills and experience, in an engaging manner. But you don’t have long to make an impact. Employers will spend on average around 30 seconds looking at a covering letter, so you need to make that time count.
Let’s look at ways of doing so.
Do Your Research
No employer wants to read a generic or poorly formulated cover letter. Great covering letters are written with passion, enthusiasm and market the candidate (you) specifically to the employer, in terms of the skills, qualities and competencies the employer is looking for. To get a recruiter’s attention, you must set yourself apart from other candidates.
Taking the time to understand their business and sector can help you tailor your letter to meet their interests and needs. If you’re smart, you can weave this information throughout the letter and really stand out from the crowd.
Ideally your research should include:
- Understanding the company. What do they do? How do they make their money? What is their history? What is going on at the moment?
- Understanding the sector. Who are the major players? What are the opportunities and challenges within the sector? What are the priorities?
- Find out as much as you can about the role. Look at the job description and person specification. Find out what such roles typically involve, and if possible take the time to contact the organisation to talk to someone about the role.
- What is the tone of the organisation? Use your research to get a feel for the organisation. How do they present themselves? Is it very formal and structured, or is it more creative and flexible? What sorts of words and language do they use on their website and/or other materials?
Don't skimp on research when it comes to your cover letter.
Use Your Research in Your Letter
This is a technique that will set you apart from most other candidates; being able to skilfully reference your research within your cover letter can really help establish your credibility and sell your skills in a way that is relevant to the work context. Here are some examples which illustrate this:
"My experience working within the public sector, which has faced dramatic cuts to both funding and staffing levels in recent years, has given me the experience of using resources creatively, doing more with less, and negotiating great deals with suppliers. These are key skills that I feel would be useful in an organisation like yours, which is going through a period of consolidation with a stated aim of reducing overheads by 10% in the next 2 years."
"One of the things that attracts me to your organisation is your commitment to environmental sustainability. This is a subject that I take very seriously; in fact, I have led projects to improve the environmental performance of my current employer’s office buildings. This has given me experience of project management and stakeholder management, and an understanding of environmental regulations. These are skills I feel would be useful in the role of xxxx."
Another way of using this research is to apply it to your style and tone of writing. If you are applying to an organisation which is very formal, use a formal style, (i.e. don’t use contractions like don’t, I’ll, isn’t, or what’s). If the organisation is very informal and creative, use a more conversational style and approach. If you can do so naturally, try to include a few industry buzzwords too, as this can help the employer feel you’re on their wavelength.
Writing Your Covering Letter: Format and Appearance
Whether you are sending you covering letter as an attachment, an email or a physical letter, it is important that it is formatted appropriately. You need to make it as easy as possible for the employer to skim-read and identify the key information. Some tips for achieving this:
Use a professional font like Arial, Calibri or Georgia. Use font size 11 or 12.
Use plenty of white space. Don’t cram words and paragraphs together. You will be better off cutting out some words than narrowing the margins.
Keep it brief – it absolutely must fit on to one side of A4.
Ensure it matches your CV. They need to look like they belong together.
If you are sending the covering letter as an attachment, try to use a PDF, as most people can read and print PDFs, plus you safeguard your content and layout.
Remember to check your spelling and grammar are correct, and that you have the correct job title and organisation written down. It can often be worth getting someone else to quickly look over your letter and check whether they spot any errors.
Format, appearance and structure are key for a good cover letter.
Writing Your Covering Letter: Structure and Content
Successful covering letters typically follow a reasonably standard structure:
Put your address, with postcode and phone number, in the top-right of the page. Then use a line break, and put the job title, address and postcode of the recipient on the left. Add another line break, then put the day's date on the right. And one more line break, then begin with a greeting (See point 2 below).
A greeting. Make sure you send your CV to someone. Try and find out who the best person is (check the advert details, LinkedIn, use your network, or call the organisation and find out). If you can’t find a specific person, use the most relevant job title, e.g. Head of Sales or Finance Manager.
First paragraph: explain why you are contacting them (and if relevant, where you saw the job advert or who referred you). State who you are, (e.g. My name is Sam Sanders and I am currently studying for a BA in Geography at the University of Manchester) and make sure you point out where you found details of the vacancy you are applying for and if appropriate, mention that you have enclosed your CV. Specify what draws you to the job and industry, when you first became interested in them and why you are interested. Explain why you have applied to them specifically; mention what sets them apart from their competitors. It is important to make it clear you have done your research, and understand the role you are applying for, the company culture, and what they are looking for.
Second paragraph: explain why they should hire you. Talk about your qualifications, experience, skills and competencies; if there are skills listed within the job advert, make sure you demonstrate how you meet all of them. You need to tick the recruiter’s boxes and make it clear you can add value to an organisation. Be positive, be engaging and be enthusiastic. Try not to sound arrogant or exaggerate too much, as if you are invited to interview you will have to back up any statements you make here! Don’t just say you’re a team player with initiative, as everyone says that. Provide some evidence that demonstrates that this is true of you. Use this opportunity to tell the employer something different from your CV.
Third paragraph: explain what you think you could bring to the organisation. How do you think you could help them? This is a great point for weaving in your research and any ideas you might have. Some people find it helpful to think of the cover letter as a sales pitch, as this is your opportunity to explain why they absolutely must hire you.
Fourth paragraph: ask for an action. Close off your letter politely and request the opportunity to discuss the role with them further. Do not close with the phrase “I look forward to hearing from you” because this is an open invitation to your prospective employer to write back and say “thanks, but no thanks”. State: “I look forward to discussing my application with you in further detail” or “I look forward to discussing my skills, competencies and values in greater detail”. For smaller organisations, it can sometimes be useful to state when you are free for interview, or dates when you are not available, such as holidays already booked.
Close the letter. End the letter with ‘Yours sincerely’ (if you know the name of the recipient) or 'Yours faithfully' (if you don't) and sign it. If you have enclosed anything with the letter remember to include an enclosures line at the bottom.
Remember that the purpose of a cover letter is to pitch yourself to an employer; you must be positive and engaging throughout and try to lead your recruiter to want to call you right now to invite you for interview.