What makes a great CV
A cover letter accompanies your CV application (and/or completed application form). Unless you are asked to apply by letter of application only, you should always include a cover letter (even if applying by email).
A cover letter should be brief, well written and highlight the main points why you are a good candidate – your key strengths, job-relevant skills, experience and knowledge.
A covering letter should summarise what’s in your CV and provide specific examples to support your ability to do the job. It should not introduce anything new that’s not in your CV. It is a good idea to think about what competencies the role is asking for in candidates and to make sure the covering letter (and your CV) highlights your capabilities in these areas.
Make sure you tailor your covering letter according to each job application rather than have a ‘one-size fits all’ letter. Many candidates do not spend enough time on their covering letter, so having a personalised, well-written covering letter will help you stand out from the crowd.
Why is a covering letter important?
Including a covering letter with your CV can boost your chances of getting a reply.
The way you write about yourself, the layout of your letter as well as your grammar and attention to detail forms part of the impression a recruiter gains from your application. In fact, some recruiters can place more emphasis on your cover letter than your CV. This is because the way you write a covering letter can help tell an employer if you are articulate and have a good command of the English language or whether you demonstrate logical thinking or are organised with a good eye for detail. These are all very valuable qualities that most employers would want to see in any good quality candidate. So it is vital that you take care to produce a good covering letter to go along with your good CV.
How to write a good covering letter
A covering letter should be concise, clear and easy to read. It should be no more than one side of A4 paper and should include:
- your name, full address and contact details to enable to recruiter to respond to you – hopefully inviting you for an interview.
- a heading and an opening line to make it clear which job you're applying for (eg, 'In response to your advertisement in XXX magazine of ZZZ date for the role of XYZ, I write to enclose my CV for your consideration'.
- an introductory paragraph about you / why you think you are right for the role that is being offered followed by bullet points or short statements relating to your skills, experience or capabilities for the role in question.
- a few specific examples.
- say when you are available to start (be as flexible as possible).
Please note that in some international locations, conventions regarding CV styles and covering letters are very different to the format we know in the UK. So if you are applying for a job outside the UK, please do your research regarding the accepted style and format of applications in the country you are applying to.
You can find a suggested covering letter structure at the end of this article.
How do I start and end a cover letter?
- If you know the name of the person you need to send your application to, then you should address the letter to that person and begin the letter (eg, ‘Dear Mr Edwards’ and end it with ‘Yours sincerely’, Helen Smith).
- If you don't know the name of the person, but have a job title, such as the HR Director, then you should address your covering letter to the HR Director and address them as ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. You should end this letter with ‘Yours faithfully’, Helen Smith.
- Make sure to include a final sentence that ends positively, politely and looks ahead to the next stage, for example, 'I would be happy to provide further information at interview' or 'I thank you in advance for your consideration and look forward to hearing from you'.
What about a cover letter for a job that's not advertised?
If you are planning to send a speculative application (ie, applying to a prospective employer without knowing if they are actually recruiting or not), simply follow the same rules as mentioned above: concise, no more than one side of A4 paper, enthusiastic in tone and highlight your strengths.
One key difference however, is that because you’re not applying for a specific job advert or known vacancy, you will need to do some research about the organisation, any of their previous job adverts, the values of the company or the competencies they ask for from applicants and then tailor your letter accordingly.
Try to find out the name of the correct person or their job title to send you application to. Otherwise, use your common sense. If you are applying for a finance-based role (as an example), it is probably going to be someone in the finance team that you could send your speculative application to.
Unless asked, you should avoid sending your speculative application to the Managing Director or Chief Executive. In most companies, they are unlikely to be the correct person to receive your unsolicited mail.
Points to remember
- A good covering letter is vital to support your CV.
- It is a summary of your capabilities, qualities and your suitability for that specific job.
- No more than one side of A4 paper – it is not an essay.
- Keep it concise. Avoid jargon and don’t use five words if two will do.
- Tailor your covering letter to each job application, rather than have a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.
- Use action verbs.
- It demonstrates your writing style (far better than your CV), so many employers will place just as much importance on your covering letter as what’s on your CV.
- Make your letter easy to read for an employer. Content, grammar, spelling and layout are all vital – double check everything you write as spell check won’t pick up ‘from’ instead of ‘form’. Take time and care with your letter.
- Relate your skills (eg, communicating, leadership, team working, problem-solving, resilience and self-motivation) to the job and the qualities or skills that the employer is looking for in candidates.
- If you are emailing your application (CV and covering letter), then paste the content of the covering letter into the email body and attach the CV. If you attach both and don’t write anything in the body of the email, then it may be misidentified as spam.
- If you are applying for a job in a country that requires a work permit or visa, you need to include whether you are eligible to work or whether you are looking for an employer to sponsor you.
Covering letters – Top 10 crimes
1. Too long
One employer received a covering letter that was just as long as the CV. Needless to say, the application went straight into the bin. Remember to keep it concise.
2. Too generic
No attempt has been made to personalise the CV or covering letter. It is obvious to an employer when you have sent a standard letter rather than attempting to match your skills and strengths to those that the job or company is looking for. Remember to tailor your letter according to the skills and attributes that the employer is looking for.
3. Poor spelling
Incorrect spelling (eg, ‘there’ and ‘their’ or ‘to’ and ‘too’), poor grammar and use of jargon. Visit the BBC Skillswise website for grammar and spelling tips.
4. Poorly formatted
Inconsistent style or formatting (eg large bullet points in some places and smaller ones in other places or inconsistent use of full-stops, hyphens etc).
5. Poorly researched
Wrong spelling of company name or person you are writing to. Worse still is leaving the name of a company you have previously applied for in the letter.
6. The show off
Complicated, pretentious language and rambling structure.
7. The shouter
Unless asked to do so, don’t write in upper case – it’s like shouting at an employer!
8. Not proof read
Don’t just spell check your letter, make sure you carefully re-read and double check every word. Spell check won’t pick up the difference between ‘form’ and ‘from’ for example.
9. Not being positive
Negativity, lack of confidence in your approach or suggestion of neediness (eg, ‘I don’t have any relevant experience but I’m sure with lots of mentoring I would be OK.’)
10. Remember where you're applying to
For UK applications, don’t Americanise your letter. Many automatic spell check systems will change words to the American spelling (eg, ‘organize’ is American spelling vs ‘organise’ which is English spelling).