The covering letter may vary depending on how you are intending to use your CV but a covering letter must always accompany a CV. You might be using your CV speculatively – in which case it might feel a little different than if you were applying for a particular job where you have been asked to ‘apply in writing’ or send your CV.
In general, its purpose is to get the reader’s interest so that they will want to read your CV. This is certainly the case with speculative applications and in this respect it is very much a marketing device, ideally one side of A4 in length. It should highlight the areas of your CV most relevant to the position for which you are hoping to obtain. If you are applying for a specific post which has been advertised, there is a suggestion that you can make the covering letter two sides maximum, using the extra space to provide detailed evidence of the skills, knowledge, experience and personal qualities you possess which relate to the requirements of the job. However, the best covering letters are usually no longer than one side of A4 and strike an appropriately enthusiastic but professional tone; remember this is a business document that demonstrates to an employer that you can be taken seriously.
Aims of a Covering letter
Remember your key aims of a covering letter:
- Express clearly and succinctly who you are, what job you are applying for, why you're suitable for that job and why you want to work for them.
- Highlight your specific strengths, motivations and reasons for applying.
- Convey a confident, competent, enthusiastic and professional attitude.
- Avoid any spelling, grammatical or typing errors. Ask a friend to check your letter before you post it off.
- Covering letters are also a suitable opportunity to positively explain any gaps or apparent weaknesses in your CV, such as poor A-level results due to illness, for example.
Treat the covering letter as a ‘business letter’ even if sending it by email. The layout of the typical covering letter will include your address in the top right hand corner, with the employer’s lower down to the left-hand side of the page. Place the date above the employer’s address or below your own. If you know the person’s name then use it, otherwise write ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. It may be advisable to create a heading line next (possibly in bold font) which should indicate what the letter is about. This might be something general such as ‘Graduate vacancies’ or something more specific eg ‘Application for Graduate Trainee vacancy Ref. No. XXXX’
Your covering letter should contain 4 broad sections:
Section 1: This is your introduction.
Why are you writing? Where did you see the job advertised (if there was one)? Maybe make some statement about your interest, enthusiasm for the job / the company.
Section 2: What are you offering – why you?
This is essentially your ‘sales pitch’ and there are two possibilities here:
In general you should pick out 4 or 5 key points that you wish to promote to the employer – your ‘unique selling points’ if you like. These might come from your skills (particularly if you know these are particularly important to the employer), your experience, your knowledge (from your course or about the industry), your interests etc. Be specific and relate them as closely as possible to the employer requirements. This is certainly the approach you should take for speculative applications since you should try to confine your letter to one page.
An alternative approach might be taken if applying for a specific vacancy, particularly if you have a ‘job description’ or ‘person specification’ available. In this case, you might decide to expand this section to cover each of the aspects required by the employer (a good tip is to take these in the same order as they appear on the person specification). If there is no detailed information available you might yourself consider what are the important aspects of a job like this and then provide evidence that you possess these features. Evidence is an important word in all applications, but particularly graduate recruitment. Employers are looking for ‘evidence’ that you can do the job not your ‘opinion’ and almost certainly not a ‘plea’ to be given a chance! If you require more than one side to effectively provide this evidence then it may be argued that you could go onto a second page but you should certainly not go onto a third. That said, however, some would argue that your covering letter should be strictly confined to one page.
Section 3: Why them?
This is the section where you should make some sort of statement about why you are applying to that company; that job(if there is a specific vacancy); that kind of work. This is extremely important if you are making speculative applications. You do not want to leave the impression that this is some kind of mass mailing which has gone to many different employers. If possible, you should try to make at least one statement here which implies that you have selected them. Even if this statement is fairly superficial such as ‘I am keen to work for a large multinational company’ or ‘a small specialist consultancy’ or ‘an organisation with strong roots in the local community’ this might be sufficient.
If your second section is a long one, with various short paragraphs following the job description for example, then sections two and three might swap places. Why are you applying for this job, this company etc followed by your sales pitch about why they should take you.
Section 4: This is your conclusion.
Try to make this as positive as you can eg make a statement ‘I am available for interview at any time’ or finish with a statement such as ‘I believe I can make a positive contribution to your organisation given the opportunity’ or ‘I believe I can demonstrate the skills and qualities you require’. You could then tie this statement with something like ‘I hope to be hearing from you soon’ which indicates that it is a two way process – you have something to offer as well as the employer.
It may be that you wish to use some of your covering letter to deal with problem areas. A failed “A” level, a change of course or a health problem can be mentioned here. Only do so if you feel the problem area is significant.
Finish the letter appropriately. Remember it should be ‘Yours faithfully’ if you have ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ at the top and ‘Yours sincerely’ if you have the person’s name at the top.
Overall, try to make your covering letter sound as enthusiastic as possible so that you come across as positive and committed, e.g. in place of “I feel I would be well suited for this position...” make it more positive by saying “I consider I am well suited for this position, because ...”. In this way your confidence in your own ability is conveyed to the reader.
Final Top Tips
Presentation - This is very important; remember your covering letter is a business document and needs to be clear, well-presented and visually attractive. Don't cram too much on the page and use good quality A4 white paper. Always word process the letter as it looks more professional; however, if a handwritten letter is specifically asked for, make sure that it's legible.
Use positive language - The phrasing of your covering letter is important so choose your language carefully. Try to use 'power words', such as key action verbs or phrases that illustrate your experiences in a really positive light. For example, Initiated..., Instrumental in..., Succeeded in.... For more useful phrases you may find the power word list at http://www.prospects.ac.uk helpful. However, don't be tempted to completely fabricate previous successes! This information may form the basis of an interview question and you need to be able to describe it in convincing detail.
Complement your CV - Remember that your covering letter is not just a regurgitation of your CV; think of it as a tailor made statement for a particular job and organisation, which allows you to highlight your particular suitability for the post by providing evidence of specific skills. Also, remember you are persuading an employer to pay you to do a specific job, not just provide you with useful training, so reassure them of your employability value and strengths.
Get it checked! - A careless spelling error or common grammatical mistake can be lethal for a covering letter, so make sure you ask someone with a good eye for detail to proof read your letter before you send it off.