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 UK 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.

  • 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.
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  in the UK found that the preferred salutations 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 fitful those competencies. “

Civil Service

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

  • 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:

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.

 

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