Although there's no such thing as the perfect letter, following a basic formula will help you on your way and make your cover note a worthy build-up to your CV.
Each application should be tailored to suit the job you’re applying for. It’s up to you to make sure you demonstrate you’re the right fit for the right job.
Search through your own career history for specific examples of how you can demonstrate you have what the employer is looking for.
For example the advertisement might say: "This position requires an outgoing person with demonstrated capacity to work in a team". The keywords here are "outgoing", "demonstrated" and "team". Show you meet these essential criteria to increase your chances of an interview.
Your cover letter should be in line with your CV by highlighting the most relevant aspects in relation to the position.
Don’t rush writing the cover letter. If you don’t impress with the cover letter you are leaving yourself open to being passed over for the job as another candidate had a well written cover letter.
The four stages of writing
1. First paragraph
Explain why you are writing; make sure it entices them to read on. If you're replying to an advert, say where and when you saw the advert and if there is a reference number, quote it.
Ensure you have researched the company, job and current industry trends before writing the cover letter.
2. Second paragraph
Briefly explain your job and, if applicable, qualifications (professional and/or academic). Don't give too much away or they may not want to go on and read your CV.
If you are replying to an advert, make sure the skills you specified are reflected in your CV.
3. Third paragraph
Say why they should employ you and why you would be a good employee. Tell the company a little about themselves (e.g. "As the largest publishing company in the North West"), to demonstrate you know something about them.
4. Fourth paragraph
Lay down an action plan; say you would like the opportunity to meet them for an interview and you'll await their response, or that you will call in a few days to see if this is appropriate.
You don't have to leave the ball in their court, although be wary of seeming to 'pester' - and if you do say you are going to call, then make sure you do.
Other points to keep in mind
Make sure your letter, email or note is addressed to the right person at the right address, and that you spell everything correctly.
Never use ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. Review the contact on LinkedIn for more information.
Put all your contact details on the cover email, including address, phone numbers, email address. Make it as easy as possible for your prospective employer to contact you, if they can't get hold of you, you won't get your interview.
- If you are posting your CV write or print your cover letter on good quality paper that matches the paper of your CV. Coloured paper should be avoided – for best results, stick to good quality, white or cream paper.
- Use bullet points where possible - it will be easier and quicker for the reader to scan. You should still include a proper introduction and ending though - bullets should be framed by proper paragraphs.
- Make your letter bespoke, customised to the job. Pick out specific traits or skills mentioned in the job advert and demonstrate why you think you are suitable.
- Always always check for spelling mistakes, typos, strange grammar and bad punctuation, one mistake could mean your application is rejected before you’ve even got started.
- Ensure that your note is short, succinct and to the point; there is no reason to duplicate the details shown in your CV.
- Don’t use long words simply to impress – if you are using words you wouldn't normally use, then don't bother, if you can use a simpler word, then do it. Similarly, don't get someone else to write the note for you.
A cover letter is similar to the ‘further information’ box on a job application form. It’s your chance to demonstrate how well you fit the requirements of the job and it’s at least as important as the CV it accompanies.
What to include in a cover letter
A CV cover letter should be no more than one page long – around four or five brief paragraphs.
Always include the name of the person, not 'Dear Sir/Madam'. This is particularly important when you're making speculative applications because you want your letter to reach someone who can act on it.
Specify why you are writing (eg in response to an advertisement or on a speculative basis). If it's about an advertised job, state the job title you are applying for (and reference number, if there is one) and where you saw it advertised.
State briefly why you want to work for this particular organisation and why they should employ you. Don’t repeat what is in the CV, but highlight your ‘unique selling points’. Be as specific as possible about how your experience matches the job. (If the letter is accompanying an application form rather than a CV, this is not always necessary as you will have used the form to make these points.)
Give details of your availability for interview. If relevant (eg if the employer has several different graduate schemes), state which other positions with the organisation you would also like to be considered for.
Finish with a keen but professional sign-off.
How to write a business letter
As with all types of communication, there are conventions for business writing. If you're not used to writing business letters, the following tips will show you what to include and how to present the information.
Your name and address
Put your contact details at the top of the letter – right-justified (ie lined up against the right-hand margin) or centred. Include your postal address, telephone number and email address.
The recipient's name and address
This is usually left-justified (ie lined up against the left-hand margin).
Leave one line space below the recipient’s address, then put the date you are writing the letter.
Always start ‘Dear’ followed by the person’s title (Mr, Ms, Dr etc) and surname, eg ‘Dear Mr Smith’.
If you don’t know their name, start ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ (NOT ‘Madame’ – that means something different!). But it is always best to find out the name of the person who you want to read your letter.
If the recipient is a woman and you don’t know her marital status, don’t make assumptions as this can cause offence; use ‘Ms’.
Leave one line space below the salutation, then put the subject of your letter, underlined. For example ‘Application for graduate trainee position’. Include the job reference number if there is one. This makes life easier for the HR person reading the letter. In an email, this will go in the subject line.
The body text
Write clearly and succinctly. Check out the Plain English Campaign website for tips.
Normally, a business letter should not be more than one side of A4. Structure your letter with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Use business-like language: this should be closer to the essays you write at college than the letters you send to your parents.
Finish the letter ‘Yours sincerely’. Leave a space for your signature, then type your name.
‘Yours faithfully’ is traditionally used when you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to, but is becoming less common.
Cover letters by email
If you are asked to send your application by email, the email will become your cover letter. The same rules apply about the style of writing. Keep it formal. Write words in full: ‘text speak’, abbreviations or emoticons are a no-no. Always check your spelling and grammar.
Use the subject line of the email to say what your letter is about, eg ‘Application for graduate trainee position’. Include the job reference number if there is one.
As with a letter, you should begin with ‘Dear’. Instead of ‘Yours sincerely’, it is acceptable to end with ‘Best wishes’ or ‘Regards’.
Cover letter checklist
- Are your contact details up to date?
- Have you spelt the employer's name correctly?
- Have you included the job title, reference number and where you saw the advertisement?
- Have you signed the letter?
- Have you kept a copy?
Cover letter tips
- Use good quality, white writing paper and a neat layout on one side of A4.
- Convince them you want the job: demonstrate that you have researched the company and know why you are applying.
- Use a business-like, professional tone.
- Sound confident and provide a clear message about your fit for the job.