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Applying for jobs: writing a covering letter

Updated on January 8, 2017
Follow these tips and don't panic under a mound of applications.
Follow these tips and don't panic under a mound of applications. | Source

What is a covering letter?

A covering letter is your chance to sell yourself. It is where you explain why you are the person that the company wants.

Many qualified highly employable people don't get jobs, just because they don't understand how to write a decent covering letter. Here are some top tips for how to:

  • Make sure you tailor your letter each time
  • Structure your letter correctly

When do I need to write a covering letter?

The two main situations in which you need to send a covering letter:

1. Applying for a job

You are applying for a job you have seen advertised that asks you to send in your resume or curriculum vitae. If this is the case you need to write a covering letter to go with it.

2. Speculative applications

You are applying for jobs speculatively. You have identified a company you want to work for and send them a CV, without them advertising.

The first rule of covering letters: tailor to the job

Above all tailor your cover letter each time. Many people make the mistake of writing one covering letter and then reusing it for every single job. This is not good enough. You need to explain why you want the specific job in the specific company, and of course, what skills and experience you have that makes you perfect for the job. This will be different each time. It is not enough just to change the name of the person who the letter is addressed to, or add in a couple of sentences about the company. It will usually be obvious. Of course you can reuse some text from previous letters, especially if you are applying for similar jobs in similar industries, but don't be lazy about it. It can be easy to tell.

You are more likely to be successful if you send out 5 good well thought out applications, than 100 of the same letter.

Find a named person to address the covering letter to

Never send a cover letter addressed to 'sir/madam', or 'to whom it may concern'. Always try to find out the name of the person to address the letter to.

If a name is not provided on the job advert, or you are sending a speculative application, try phoning the company to ask for a name. This could also be a chance to make a good impression on the employer and help them to remember you when they receive your application.

How to structure a cover letter

See the below guide for a step by step guide on how to structure your cover letter.

Example introductory structure

I am writing to apply for the job of [deputy manager] at [your company] as advertised on [website]. I have five years experience of [assistant managing]. I enclose a copy of my resume.

1. Introduction

Your opening paragraph should be short and to the point, making it clear who you are, and what job you are applying for. Say how you heard about the opportunity, and mention the documents you have enclosed.

This section should be about 10 percent of the body of the letter.

Example 1 of an application that was thrown out

One candidate wrote 'I am looking to work in a fast paced, dynamic international company such as [name of company].' This might work for some companies, but the candidate had sent this cover letter to a very small firm of accountants who were not international, or especially fast paced or dynamic. In one sentence the candidate demonstrated that they had no idea about the company they were applying to work for, that they wanted to work for a different sort of company, and had probably just fired off a resume to every accountancy firm in the phonebook.

The employer did not read further and threw the application out.

2. Why you are interested in the job

The next step is to explain why you are interested in the job. Include

  • why you are interested in the type of work
  • why you want to work for the particular company

Research the company. Look at their website, or try phoning them up to work out what their ethos is. Are they a big company with a corporate ethos, or a small family run business? You want to demonstrate that you understand their identity, and would fit into it.

This section should be about 30 percent of the body of the letter.

3. Why you would be great at the job, and how you meet its requirements

Before writing this section read through the job advert, and make a list of what is required for a job. Then make a list of how you meet the requirements.

If you are applying for jobs speculatively try and think about the sort of person they would be looking for. You could also try using google to find adverts for similar jobs to the one you are seeking speculatively, and working out what kinds of skills are required.

Once you have the list try and make sure that all the requirements are covered either in your resume or the cover letter.

Remember the cover letter should not just repeat your resume, it should complement it, and highlight the most relevant points.

This section should be about 50% of the content of the body of the letter.

4. Final paragraph

End by mentioning your availability for interview, and that you look forward to hearing from them.

This section should be about 10% of the content of the body of the letter.

Signing the letter

Rules about how you should sign a letter vary. In the UK accepted practice is to use 'yours sincerely' if you are addressing the letter to a named person. (If the letter is addressed to an unnamed person you should use 'yours faithfully'.

If you are sending the letter in paper format make sure you physically sign it, and put your name underneath.

Sending applications electronically is increasingly popular. If you need to email the letter you could either put your text in the body of the email, or attach it as a separate document. If you send the letter as an attachment the best format to use is pdf. In most cases unless otherwise specified it is better to put the text in the body of the email because it is more likely to be read. (Attachments require slightly more effort to open - don't assume the recipient is keen to read your CV)

Before you click send

  • Read over the letter checking for spelling or grammar mistakes.
  • Or even better get someone else to read it over with fresh eyes and check it makes sense.

Good luck!

If you don't hear back try contacting the company and asking for feedback. Be proactive.

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