How to write a successful covering letter

 

Why do you need a covering letter?

“My pet hates: incomplete and inaccurate application forms, no covering letter, poor grammar and spelling, careless handwriting and letters written on scrap paper”

Partner in firm of solicitors.

The covering letter is vital to your CV. This is why it is the first page and not an addition. "Please find enclosed my CV" won't get you very far.

Your covering letter demonstrates your writing style better than your CV (which is usually more brief and factual).

The covering letter puts flesh on the bare bones of the CV. It points out to the employer the information showing that you have the qualities the job calls for, and makes a statement about yourself and your suitability for the job. It should give the personal touch that your CV will intrinsically lack.

A survey in the US of employers found that

 

How long should your covering letter be?

In the same survey above

The key point here is that it should never be longer than one page long.

  • Plain white photocopier paper is fine. It's OK to print your letter on expensive cream or pale blue paper, but content and layout are far more important! Use the same colour for your CV. Don't use lined paper or paper with punched holes!
  • If emailed put your covering letter in the body of the email. If you attach it with nothing in the email body it may be misidentified as spam.
  • Don't make the employer work to read your letter!
    Keep it clear, concise and to the point.
  • Try not to go over one side of A4: if it does, you are writing an essay instead!
  • Use your own words not formal long-winded clichés.
  • Action verbs can help to make it sound better.
  • Spell-check and then double-check your spelling and grammar. Spell checkers won't pick up form instead of from or sex instead of six!
  • Answer the question "Why should I see you?"
  • Make the person who reads it feel special: that it is addressed to them personally and not one of fifty identical letters you are sending out without thought or care,
  • You might include your understanding of the work/knowledge of the company, and how you fit the criteria required. "I have a real interest in working as a ...." will not do: you must say why you decided to pursue this career, what first brought it to your attention, why you as a History student should be interested in a career in finance.
  • Relate your skills to the job. Show the employer that you have obtained the communicating, teamworking, problem solving and leadership or other skills that are appropriate for the job. See our Skills pages
  • Say when you're available to start work (and end, if it's a placement): be as flexible as possible.

Man climbing mountain

Find a quiet place to write your letter .....

 

 

Even something as basic as the name of an employer, or an individual recruiter, is often spelled incorrectly.  The former Graduate Recruitment Manager at City law firm Mayer Brown found that 20% of applicants got the firm’s name wrong.

Who should you address your letter to?

Try to find the name of the person to write to. Research by Forum3 found that those who included a letter with their CV were 10% more likely to receive a reply and those who addressed the covering letter and envelope to the correct named person were 15% more likely to receive a letter of acknowledgement and 5% more likely to gain an interview. They also found that 60% of CVs are mailed to the wrong person, with the managing director being the main beneficiary of the unsolicited mail.

Think of a covering letter as a glass of brandy. It's a short measure, quite potent, you'll know very quickly if you like it or not, and it's very easy to judge the quality.

A CV is more like a glass of wine. It's a bit longer, and while like brandy it's basically fermented fruit juice it takes more time to grade, and probably a bit more skill.

David Welsh, Richmond Solutions

A recent survey by Saddleback College in the USA found that the preferred salutions of HR managers were:

 

"We would recommend to students that they think carefully about how to re-write at least their covering letter, and possibly also their CV specifically for the post they are applying for. The best applications were succinct and clear, with unfussy covering letters and CVs.

A survey of 500 employers and 2,000 consumers by the jobsite Foosle found that 60% of employers think CVs don't accurately represent people applying for jobs in their organisations. Many candidates use buzz words they think employers wish to hear. ‘Hard-working', 'team player' and 'motivated' were the most over-used words on CVs making them meaningless to employers and doing little to make candidates stand out.

It is also always worth checking over a covering letter before sending it, as there were silly errors such as spelling mistakes or the covering letter written for a different placement. A good idea that we saw surprisingly little of is to list the competencies that the job advert says are being looked for, and outline how and why you fulfil those competencies. "

Civil Service

The writing rules of George Orwell

 

What do employers look for in covering letters?

One survey of employers found the following
(From the brilliant 2010 Orange County Resume Survey by Eric Hilden)

 

Suggested structure for your covering letter:

 

First Paragraph

  • State the job you’re applying for.
  • Where you found out about it (advert in The Guardian newspaper etc. - organisations like to know which of their advertising sources are being successful)
  • When you're available to start work (and end if it's a placement)
 

Second Paragraph

  • Why you're interested in that type of work
  • Why the company attracts you (if it's a small company say you prefer to work for a small friendly organisation!)
 

Third Paragraph

  • Summarise your strengths and how they might be an advantage to the organisation.
  • Relate your skills to the competencies required in the job.
 

Last Paragraph

  • Mention any dates that you won't be available for interview
  • Thank the employer and say you look forward to hearing from them soon.
 

If you start with a name (e.g. "Dear Mr Bloggs") you should end with "Yours sincerely". If you start with "Dear Sir or Madam" you should end with "Yours faithfully".

 

How to write Covering Letters

Emailed letters

Put your covering letter as the body of your email. It's wise to format it as plain text as then it can be read by any email reader.

"As an employer who's just gone through recruiting a graduate, I'd say about 50% of graduates sent me a pro-forma letter and standard CV, with no attempt at matching their skills and experience to those on the job specification.

Several had either got my company's name wrong, or left in the name of the organisation that they had previously applied to. A good 30% of the cover letters were between four and six pages long and a number had used CV templates without removing the format.

But those who can write a relevant cover letter and CV stand out like diamonds and are a joy to shortlist."

Emails are not as easy to read as letters. Stick to simple text with short paragraphs and plenty of spacing. Break messages into points and make each one a new paragraph with a full line gap between paragraphs. DON'T "SHOUT" (WRITE IN UPPER CASE!) Your CV is then sent as an attachment. Say you'll send a printed CV if required.

If you don't know the name of the person you are writing to, it's probably best to use the formal Dear Sir or Madam and to sign off Yours Sincerely or Yours Faithfully (see above).

If they have already emailed you, reply back in the same style, so if they have signed their email "Jenny", write Dear Jenny, but if they have signed it "Ms Smith", write Dear Ms Smith.

If they have emailed you and addressed you Hi Dave, then it's OK to reply Hi Jenny.

Also mirror the way they sign off, if they use "regards", "best wishes", then it's safe to do the same.

For more about this see the excellent BBC article Should e-mails open with Dear, Hi, or Hey?

How should you start it? Survey of covering letter opening lines.

Here are the most common opening lines from a sample of covering letters by University of Kent students (numbers of occurrences in brackets)

  • I have just completed my final year at the University of (3)
  • I am a final year law student at the University of (2)
  • As a law undergraduate at the University of Kent I am looking for
  • Currently I am pursuing a degree in .... at the University of
  • My name is .... and I am a final year student at the (4)
  • My name is .... and I am writing in response to your advertisement
  • I am writing to apply for the post of .... in your company (5)
  • I am writing in response to your advertisement in/for (3)
  • I am writing to enquire if you have any vacancies for ....
  • I was very interested to read your advertisement for
  • I was most interested to read your advertisement for
  • Further to your advertisement in ...., I should like to apply for
  • With reference to your vacancy for a ....
  • I enclose my CV for consideration of the post of
  • Please find enclosed my application for the post of (3)
  • As you will see from my CV
  • I am seeking a placement within a 
  • I am currently looking for an entry-level post in
  • I am very keen to work for .... because of your reputation for
  • Your company has an excellent reputation for the training of graduates ...
  • I read with interest of your organisation's plan to .....
  • I open my own doors. When my peers give up, I go on.

Further Help

 

How not to write a covering letter:

  • Being a Virgoan, my sense of assertiveness and resilience has prompted me to continue with my ambitions to be a solicitor in a major city law firm…I am also a seventh generation descendant of a Chinese princess and a Sulawesian warrior, which makes me…both an amiable and energetic person.
  • Up until a little while ago I used to compete in British-Eventing competitions on my horse, from which I got a real kick.
  • Am currently reading Robbie Williams' thought-provoking autobiography.
  • Like one of your coffees, I am designed to be opened, savoured and enjoyed. (in application to Nestle)
  • I am someone who knows my own destiny, but I have no definite long term plans
  • I have become completely paranoid, trusting completely in no one and absolutely nothing.
  • Here are my qualifications for you to overlook.
  • I am applying for the post of obstacle assistant (for optical assistant post)
  • If called to interview I would like to discuss the salary, pensions and sickness benefits
  • I have excellent memory skills, good analytical skills, excellent memory skills.
  • Wholly responsible for two (2) failed financial institutions.
  • I was working for my mother until she decided to move.
  • Spelt his own name wrongly: noticeable as he'd included it at both the top and the bottom of his covering letter.

 

 

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