How to write the perfect covering letter: ten top tips
Twenty seconds. That’s all the time you’ve got to impress a potential employer. You can’t even boil an egg in that time – not even close. And even if you could, it almost certainly wouldn’t help.
Research shows that if employers don’t like your application in that kind of timeframe then you’ve had it.
With dozens – often hundreds – of applicants for most jobs the vast majority will fall by the wayside long before interview stage, which means you have to stand out from the crowd from the very first whistle.
The cover letter is generally the first thing the employer will see so if it doesn’t cut the mustard you may as well not have bothered in the first place.
1 Research the job in depth and tailor the letter accordingly
Study the job advert so you know exactly what sort of person they are asking for and write your letter accordingly. It’s a good idea to have the advert next to you when you get cracking.
Spend plenty of time researching the company’s website, competitor websites and the latest issues in the industry. List the three or four things you think they are most looking for and try and cover all those bases.
You might have experience that is directly relevant so a brief reference to that in the cover letter should give your application a major boost.
2 Send it to the right person – and address them correctly
You’d be amazed how many applications go missing because they’ve ended up being sent through to the wrong person.
If people are busy or disorganised they might not pass it on. Even if it does end up with the right person it’s hardly a feather in your cap that you didn’t send it there in the first place.
If you are applying for an advertised vacancy, address the cover letter to that person – and make sure you spell their name correctly. If you aren’t, use your common sense when deciding who to address it to.
3 Begin and end your covering letter in the right style
If you know the name of the person you are writing to, begin it “Dear Mr / Mrs XXXX”. If it’s a woman and you aren’t sure if she’s married, start with “Dear Ms XXXX”.
In either of these cases, ending with “Yours sincerely” followed by your name and signature is the way to go.
If you don’t know the name of the recipient, “Dear Sir/Madam” will have to do. In this instance end the letter on “Yours faithfully” – again followed by name and signature.
4 Nail the first paragraph – you won’t get a second chance
Our CV writing team is full of fully-qualified and internationally-published journalists and writers. They are the best in the business at getting your message across accurately, succinctly and powerfully.
And there’s a phrase in journalism circles that goes something like this: “Who the XXXX reads the second paragraph?”
In other words, if you don’t make an impact straight away, you’ve had it. So keep it snappy and get to the point. “I would like to apply for the position of …” will do nicely. It’s not rocket science.
5 Structure your covering letter correctly
Use the second and third paragraphs to briefly outline your most impressive professional achievements and academic qualifications.
Make sure these are relevant so bear in mind what your research has told you about the company and what they are looking for.
The fourth paragraph should indicate your desire for an interview, demonstrate you are willing to meet at a convenient time for them and politely make it clear you’ll follow up your application at some stage if you haven’t heard anything.
6 Less is more so stick with four (paragraphs)
Keep to a maximum of four paragraphs – long letters are draining and a turn-off. Employers are likely to be reading your covering letter in the workplace, which means there’s a decent chance they’ll be busy.
Try and make every word count so don’t say something in two or three words if you can say it in one.
You’d be amazed how much we’ve been able to trim some of our clients’ letters and you wouldn’t believe the difference it’s made when it comes to getting them jobs.
7 Format your covering letter properly – and space it out
Your address should go in the top right-hand corner – just like it would on a standard formal letter. Then miss a line, put the date, miss another line and put the recipient’s address on the left.
Make sure you space your letter out correctly so it’s spread out evenly throughout the page.
We’d recommend you typed the letter and signed it below but there is some personal preference here and if your handwriting is clear enough then go for it!
8 Get the tone right – passionate but not pretentious
A covering letter should be formal but that doesn’t give you a licence to write reams of conceited jargon. Be passionate and enthusiastic but not pretentious or pompous.
The use of industry buzzwords can be fine but avoid using hackneyed old phrases that the employer has seen a million times before. You want your letter to stand out.
You will almost certainly need to use the word “I” once or twice – that’s fair enough – but don’t go over the top. You don’t want every paragraph to start like that, for example.
9 Never, ever make a mistake – it could be the end of your application
If you miss your chance to impress any given employer you won’t get another one so be absolutely certain there are no mistakes anywhere on your CV or covering letter.
A simple apostrophe in the wrong place, a double space or rogue short dash used when the rest are long can be enough to put an employer off. I know – I am one and it puts me off.
It sounds harsh but if a candidate can’t get it right on their application, how can they be trusted in the long run? Employers have enough applicants to choose from so why should they take the risk?
10 Get the nuts and bolts right to give yourself the best chance
If you are sending your CV and covering letter in the post, you should paper clip them together – you want them alongside each other when they are first opened.
Include your phone number and email address on your covering letter as well as your CV though – just on the off chance they are separated.
If you are sending it online, we’d recommend a PDF as it’s often easiest to open across different devices – but if you are speaking to a recruiter first they might want to tweak it, so have a Microsoft Word version handy.
OK well there’s so much more to say about covering letters – this is just a taster really but we hope it helps.
You might want to follow your application with a polite enquiry after enough time has passed. But be careful, there’s a very fine line between (a) keen and organised and (b) pushy and rude!
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