How to write a great cover letter
Competition is tough, so how do you make yourself stand out from the rest of the job-seeking crowd? With an amazing cover letter, of course!
Don't get us wrong, having a great CV is incredibly important in landing your dream job. But what if employers don't even get as far as seeing yours?
Unfortunately, many companies confess that if they're presented with a sub-par cover letter, they won't even look at the candidate's CV and their application will be tossed in the bin.
Your cover letter is your chance to briefly show just how much you want and are suited to the role and company. As your CV is just a list of your experience and achievements, it's covering letters that really wow employers and show them a bit of your personality.
The beauty of this simple page of A4 is that it acts as a chance to sell yourself in a few sentences, and give off a good first impression before you've even had a chance to meet face-to-face.
On this page:
Nailing the basics of a cover letter
Before you even begin writing the cover letter of your dreams, you should make sure you have a clear idea of what you need to do...
Do your research!
Just as you would do if you were preparing for a job interview, you should be thoroughly researching the company and the role as much as possible before you even think about starting your cover letter.
What exactly will you be doing? What's the company's vision? Who are their competitors? Who are their customers/audience?
Once you're armed with this knowledge, you'll be amazed how much easier it is to get started. As you read, take some notes of the most important bits of info that you come across and how they relate to the job description.
Keep it short and sweet
People often make the mistake of using a cover letter as a space to regurgitate and elaborate on what's already in their CV. This shouldn't be the case!
Whilst your cover letter can refer to some of the info in your CV, keep it short, sharp and convincing so that the reader is pulled in and wants to read your CV to learn more.
How long should your cover letter be?
Always stick to one page, formed of about 3-4 paragraphs max (we'll cover the structure in more detail below).
Be formal but friendly
If an employer has asked for a covering letter, they're looking for the candidate to demonstrate they can communicate and present themselves professionally on paper.
As such, keep it relatively formal but don't be afraid to let your personality shine through a little bit too (being too formal can really stifle this). The job description is normally a good indication of the sort of tone you should be using.
Note that a cover letter to a startup company is likely to go down a bit better if it's more relaxed and even a bit fun to catch their attention, whereas a law firm would be looking for something a little more formal.
The key is to know your audience!
And no matter where you're applying, make sure you triple check for spelling and grammatical errors. Check that your spellchecker is well and truly activated, or think about putting your letter through an online spellchecker or adding Grammarly to your browser.
Personalise each cover letter
Try as hard as you possibly can to find a name to address your cover letter to. Most job postings will tell you who to contact, but if not it's definitely worth doing some research as this can make a big difference.
If you're unsure, you can always check LinkedIn, or even just call up and ask! Someone should be able to give you a name, and it'll show that you've gone the extra mile.
Make sure you remember to include your own address as well as the company's on the letter as well (see template below for correct layout).
Bonus tip: If you're addressing your letter to a named person, sign off with 'Yours sincerely'; if the name of the addressee is unknown, go for 'Yours faithfully'
Regarding presentation, this is one of those times when less is more. Stick to smart and simple.
If you can avoid sending handwritten letters, please do. Stick to email, unless the job specifies otherwise or your future employer is Charles Dickens.
If you absolutely have to send a handwritten letter, make sure your handwriting is easily readable. Spidery handwriting is a no-no. And try and write as straight as possible (use a stencil if needed)!
For letters sent via email, keep the text looking clean. No Comic Sans, no word art, no images, no colours. Check the spacing between lines and paragraphs and make sure everything looks uniform.
How to structure your cover letter
Now to get into the nitty-gritty! The easiest way to approach a cover letter is to consider it as four separate sections.
Keep the introduction brief – just one or two sentences. Mention the job that you're applying for, as well as the fact that you were excited to come across the vacancy and have the opportunity to apply.
Then mention who you are (as in 'a recent graduate' not 'my name is...') and point out that you've attached your CV, if requested.
Try and catch their eye with the very first line by injecting some enthusiasm and personality into the first line; the more original you sound, the more likely they are to keep reading.
Example of how to start a cover letter:
I'm reaching out with great enthusiasm in response to your vacancy for Junior Marketer at Butler's Bakes. As a recent Marketing graduate with a serious passion for cake (both making and eating!), I was really excited to come across this vacancy.
The 'I love your company' bit
Now it's time to say why you're interested in them specifically. This is where you prove that you've not just copied one of the 8,327,507 cover letter examples available online, but have actually taken the time to think about why you want to work for this company in particular.
Show them that you aren't just desperate to find a job, any job, as long as it pays, because you're sick of being a poor student.
Again, make sure you do some serious research at this stage. If you have any links to the company, or have acquired any lesser-known nuggets of information about press coverage they've had, this can only impress.
Try to mention something that shows you have an awareness and understanding of the company outside of stating the obvious.
Try something like:
As one of the UK's top graduate employers, I admire the company's efforts in creating opportunities for young talent in what is an increasingly competitive graduate job market.
The 'this is why you're gonna love me' bit
Now it's time to talk about what you can offer them. This isn't an opportunity to show off whatever you feel like telling them about, but a chance to bring up some qualities you know they are looking for and that you can prove you have.
Highlight your key skills – but only the ones that are actually relevant. The best way to tackle this bit is to write down a list of three key skills mentioned in the job description, and then have a look over your CV to see what you have to offer that demonstrates you have those skills.
If you're really struggling, check out the list of skills that employers ask for the most. Even if they haven't mentioned it in the job ad, these skills are important in most positions!
Remember at this point that no matter how impressive it is that you spent six weeks doing Camp America, unless you can show a direct relation between that and something that they're looking for in this position, don't mention it.
As always, keep it short and sweet!
Wrap things up by saying something on the modest side, along the lines of "I'd love to have the opportunity to become part of the team at Butler's Bakes, and I'm confident that given the chance to meet with you, you'd deem me a great fit".
Thank them for taking the time to consider your application and now for the big finale: the ultimate 'Yours sincerely/faithfully' (no lots of love).
Leave five spaces for your signature and then type your full name underneath. No kisses!
Free cover letter template
We realise that you might want to put in as little work as possible, and even this guide might be a bit too much.
That's exactly why we've have taken the time to make you a cover letter template that you can download and use. How kind are we?
Five expert cover letter tips
If you're really wanting to push the boat out at this stage, there are a few tricks you can pull that will really impress...
- Remember cover letters need to be tailored to the job you are applying for. Do not send the same cover letter out over and over again (employers can sniff out a copy and paste job from a mile away). When writing your cover letter, always have a copy of the job specification next to you, and keep checking back to make sure everything you're writing is relevant
- Keep it short, and resist the temptation to write your life story. A recent study of US employers found that 46% preferred half a page of writing. You're not writing an essay!
- Sending a cover letter online: if the job spec suggests emailing your cover letter, put the text in the body of the email rather than attaching as a separate file. Attaching a separate file is just an additional step for the employer to go through before getting the juicy details – make it as easy as possible for them. Don't forget that including addresses and letter layouts don't apply for email format
- Make sure you spell check and then read it through aloud to yourself a few times before sending. You'll be surprised at how much easier it is to spot clumsy sentences if you say it out loud rather than read silently. With hundreds of letters to go through, binning those with mistakes is a simple way to decide who's in and who's out.
- Avoid cliches like the plague (see what we did there?). Use your own words and your passion and excitement will shine through. And if you're using a big word when a small one will do, go for the smaller one – they're just as powerful if used correctly!
And when you do get hired, what then? Look no further – we've got a whole guide on what to expect from your first job!