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5 months ago by Matthew Lane

How to write a great cover letter

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While your CV is the thing that will decide whether you are given an interview or not, there is less chance of eyes being on your CV in the first place if you don’t provide a good cover letter to go with it.

But what should it include, how should it be formatted and structured, and how can you ensure yours stands out from the crowd in a competitive marketplace?

What is it?

A cover letter is a document you send with a CV when applying for nearly all jobs. You might not think it, but a well-constructed, well-written cover letter can really set you apart from the competition, persuading employers to take notice of you, study your CV closely and subsequently offer an interview.

Unlike a CV, it doesn’t merely act as a summary of your general skills and experience, and should be directly targeted at the job you’re applying for. You can make it clear, in a brief and concise manner, how your work history or qualifications make you the ideal candidate for the position.

How vital is a covering letter?

It’s often underestimated, but it’s a crucial part of the job application process. It not only gives you a chance to put across your personality, the reasons why you’re applying for a given job and what you can bring to the company, it also gives you a platform to outline the achievements and skills which make you suitable for the role.

Whereas a good CV needs to be succinct, economical with words and punchy - offering a thorough overview of your work history - a cover letter can be much more tailored.  

What should it look like?

Like anything else designed to impress, it should be pleasing on the eye and easy to read. Stick to one font style and one font colour – avoid the temptation to try and jazz up a covering letter with images, graphs, multi-coloured wording, fancy fonts or other elaborate distractions. Let the words speak for themselves.

What’s more, it’s a professional document which needs to be presented as such.

In a similar way to your CV, keeping things plain, simple and to the point will help you stand out far more than anything outlandish or deliberately shocking. It needs to be well-presented, but it doesn’t need to be an attack on the senses, which will only turn recruiters off. Given the number of applications they receive for jobs, that’s the last thing you want to do.

There is no one set template for a covering letter, but a few general rules apply. Try to keep it to one side of A4 if possible (although one page might be more appropriate, depending on the type of job you are applying for).

Whatever you do, don’t make it overlong and rambling (another active deterrent to recruiters). At the same time, a cover letter which is too short might come across as curt and won’t give you the chance to adequately outline your credentials.

Aim for brevity

Short, well-targeted paragraphs, professional fonts, and the use of clear, succinct language will give your cover letter the right layout, tone, structure and feel.

It’s also hugely important that you pay close attention to detail – sloppy grammar, spelling and sentence structure will not endear you to recruiters and smacks of a lazy, complacent approach.

To give off the right impression, ensure your covering letter reads as well as it possibly can (without any errors) before you send it to prospective employers.

You may want to get a close friend or family member to read it over, offering constructive criticism on how it could be improved. Getting fresh eyes on something can also reduce the chances of any spelling or grammar mistakes slipping through.

If you’re not sure about how to structure or format your covering letter, you may wish to use a template to help you on your way.

Don’t employ the scattergun approach

While it might be tempting as a time-saving device, using the same blanket cover letter for every job application you do will not help your cause one bit. If it feels too generic and lacks the personal touch, recruiters will soon notice.

They will also want to see that you’ve taken the time to tailor a cover letter deliberately towards them (and the job you’re applying for), so opting for a tailored approach could help you to stand out from the competition.

Include the cover letter essentials

Although a tailored approach will be required to improve your chances of standing out, there are a number of things that should always be included. This includes your personal details (address, name, phone number), why you’re the best candidate for the job, a short description of why you’d be a valuable asset to the company and a short closing statement summing things up.

You should also end the cover letter in a polite manner. This might involve thanking the recruiter for their time and saying something like “I look forward to hearing from you soon/shortly”.

You should also opt for a formal sign-off – “Kind Regards”, “Yours Sincerely”, “Yours Faithfully”, etc – rather than anything too informal or familiar.

Address it to the right person

There’s no point in writing a brilliant cover letter if you then address it to the wrong person. Most of the time cover letters will be addressed to the person handling job applications. Who this person is should be made clear on the job advert – you will typically be asked to send your cover letter and CV to a designated email address – but if it’s not clear you should simply address the letter as “Dear Sir/Madam”. If you do have the name, address them with “Dear” and then their name.  

There are an increasing number of employers with job application systems on their websites. This means you apply for a job via their website – often copy and pasting your covering letter and CV or attaching them in some way – rather than sending them to an email address.

The days of handing out cover letters and CVs directly to employees, however, are long gone, with an online approach needed for nearly all jobs.

Follow the general rules

At its most basic level, a cover letter should introduce you, outline the job you are applying for, talk about the experience and skills you have and why these match the role in question, encourage the recruiter to browse your CV, and then offer a brief closing paragraph.

A cover letter is your first chance to impress employers, so it’s important that you take the time and effort to get it right.