How to write a cover letter

Introducing your job application and curriculum vitae

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is written when you’re applying for a job. You send it along with your personal details ( your curriculum vitae or CV) It’s quite a specialized form of communication, because it does three things at the same time. It provides –

  1. Information – your formal job application
  2. Presentation – your interest in the position
  3. Advertisement – your suitability as a candidate

You need to express each of these items as briefly as possible. You should strike the right tone – formal but engaging. And most important of all, you should not merely repeat what’s in your curriculum vitae.


Length

The cover letter should be brief – certainly no more than one A4 page. Nobody is going to spend a long time reading it – but the letter must be well composed and presented so that your application will be taken seriously. Its purpose is to lead your reader into the full curriculum vitae.

You should be able to cover everything required in no more than five or six short paragraphs. Short sentences and paragraphs are important, because they are easy to read. Give the reader enough white space for easy reading.


Style

Write in short, clear sentences. These will be easy to read, and you are less likely to make grammatical mistakes. Use a plain style of writing, and keep your statements brief and straight to the point.


Purpose

The cover letter introduces you to the prospective employer. You’re hoping to obtain a personal interview, so you need to make a good impression.

Getting your application letter right is crucial to making a good first impression and is often the only opportunity to position yourself prior to being selected for an interview.

However, the employer’s decision will be largely based on your experience and qualifications, which are listed in your curriculum vitae. So there’s no need to go into that detail in the cover letter.


Information

The most important item should come first – the exact title of the job for which you are applying. You can use the job title as a centred heading in the letter to make this quite clear.

If there is a job reference number quoted in the job advertisement, make sure you quote it.

Position of business development manager: Ref 2011-H405

Your opening statement may be nothing more than the fact that you wish to be considered for the job – and that you are available for interview.


Presentation

Here you need to say something about why the job is of interest to you. This might be because you are interested in the role (sales, data control, personnel management) or that you wish to join a bigger (or smaller) company.

You should try to link some aspect of your previous experience to the job in question. This will show that you are aware of what the job entails and that you have some good reason for applying.

I am very interested in developing my management skills. My previous position in the Human Resources team at Data-Tech Ltd gave me responsibility for north-west England, but I would welcome the challenge of a leadership role at national level.


Advertisement

This is where you flag up some interesting detail of your skills or experience that will make you an attractive prospect to the employer. It might be some additional expertise you have, or something unusual you have accomplished.

Keep it short and to the point, and avoid any temptation to exaggerate. Back up your skills claims with evidence of past successes. Here’s an example from the advertisement part of the letter.

I enjoy working as part of a team. In my last position as admin assistant, I trained all the departmental staff in using spreadsheets for record keeping.

This shows both initiative and co-operation at work, in addition to IT skills. It gives concrete evidence of what’s being claimed. The statement is much easier to grasp than the following version of the same thing written in an over-elaborate manner.

In all matters relating to interaction with fellow members of staff, my personal preference is for collaborative and user-negotiated decision-making. My talents and information technology skills were recognised by Burlington Industries Company when I was given the opportunity to head up staff development in the company’s training module related to office documentation.


Graphic presentation

You should present this cover letter as a formal business document. It should be typed or word-processed. Even with all the features of a good word-processor at your disposal, you will need to take care to create good page layout

Presentation
The most important part of presentation is the layout of the page. You should leave plenty of blank space around what you write. Do not attempt to cram the maximum amount of text onto a page. Use extra wide page margins.

Fonts
For the main text of your letter, choose a font with serifs such as Times New Roman or Garamond. Avoid the use of sans-serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica. These make continuous reading difficult. The size of your chosen font should be eleven or twelve points. This will make your work easy to read, and the font will appear proportionate to its use when printed out on A4 paper.

Paragraphs
If you use double spaces between each paragraph, you do not need to indent the first line. The reason for having the double spaces is that it will help the reader to ‘see’ each paragraph as a separate part of your letter.

Spelling
Use the spelling-checker before you print out your document. Remember that a spell-checker will not make any distinction between They washed their clothes and They washed there clothes, because the word there is spelt correctly even though it is being used ungrammatically. Spell checkers also don’t know people’s names. Nevertheless, it’s worth doing. Spelling mistakes always create a bad impression.


Template

Your contact information

The heading of the letter should include your full postal and email address, and phone number(s)

Employer contact information

Name and job title of recipient (if known)

Company name and full address

Date

Dear Mr / Mrs (ideally address your letter to a named person)

Dear Sir or Madam (only if you don’t know the recipient’s name)

Subject

If applying for an advertised position, insert job title and reference

First paragraph

The first paragraph of your cover letter should express your interest in the position, and indicate why the role is particularly attractive to you.

Second paragraph

Introduce your curriculum vitae and briefly summarise your strengths – qualifications and experience or knowledge of the company’s market sector.

Third paragraph

This paragraph should draw attention to the most relevant aspects of your career – making strong connections between your skills that dovetail with their requirements. Ideally, include two to three bullet pointed examples of your initiatives as they relate to the key requirements in the job description.

Fourth paragraph

This could briefly refer to experience and achievements in your earlier career, but only if relevant to the job description

Final paragraph

Express confidence in your ability to contribute to the success of the company, and indicate that you look forward to taking your application a step further at interview

Close

Yours sincerely if you know the recipient’s name

Yours faithfully if you don’t know the recipient’s name

Signature

Handwritten signature

Typed signature

© Roy Johnson 2011


Writing skills links

Cover letter Writing skills – books and guidance notes

Cover letter Writing guides compared

Cover letter How to write book reviews


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