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
- 42.9% wanted candidates to submit a cover letter for each position.
- 29.8% felt that they were not important ("I don't have the time to read them anyway")
- 27.4% had no preference
How long should your covering letter be?In the same survey above
- 19% of employers preferred a full page
- 46% preferred half a page
- 11% had no preference
- 24% felt the shorter the better!
The key point here is that it should never be longer than one page long.
Find a quiet place to write your letter .....
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 survey by Saddleback College in the USA found that the preferred salutions of HR managers were:
- Dear Hiring Manager, 38.1% (I'm not so sure that this is right for the UK!)
- Dear Sir/Madam, 17.9%
- Dear Human Resource Director, 9.5%
- To whom it may concern, 26.2%
- Leave it blank if you don't know the name. 8.3%
"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. "
The writing rules of George Orwell
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive voice (e.g. "Bones are liked by dogs") where you can use the active voice ("Dogs like bones").
- Never use jargon if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
Does your surname matter?
Researchers at Cambridge University found that, if your surname is King or Prince, you are more likely to be a manager, whereas those with more “common” names such as Cook or Baker are more likely to end up in blue-collar jobs.
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)
- 33% Tailored skills from the job description
- 26% Clarity (well-written, formatted, specifying job applied to)
- 20% Details from your CV (additional accomplishments, explanation of any gaps, etc.)
- 19% Your value, not the basics, why we should hire you
- 18% Spelling & grammar
- 17% Personal vision & uniqueness
- 12% Brevity
- 10% I never read them!
Suggested structure for your covering letter:
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".
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)
- Now see our Covering Letter Examples
- Also see our other pages on making applications including on-line applications.
- If you are having difficulty with any part of your CV or covering letter, you can consult the duty careers adviser from 10.30a.m. - 12.30 p.m. and from 2.00 - 5.00 p.m., Monday to Friday.
How not to write a covering letter: