We take a look at everything you need to know about cover letters and how to write them, providing tips and examples as we go.
A cover letter helps to support your CV, resume or job application, adding further context to your skills and experience. But how do you write a cover letter? And what should it include? We take a look at some of the ins and outs of cover letters and how to write yours.
As well as exploring some of the key questions about cover letters, we’ll also look at the various different elements you should include and how it should be structured. Finally, we’ve got some cover letter example segments to give you some inspiration.
What is a cover letter?
Let’s start with the basics – what is a cover letter? Essentially, it’s a document or letter that you send to accompany your CV or resume when applying for jobs. It could take the form of a standalone electronic document, an email, a section of an application, or even a physical letter.
A cover letter should highlight some of your relevant skills, competencies and experience. Although it will, in part, be based on your CV, it should complement it rather than directly copy from it. As highlighted on our open step on career skills, ‘the cover letter is an opportunity for you to tell your story on your terms, and for you to share the aspects of yourself that you want your future employer to know.’
Cover letter FAQs
Although cover letters aren’t the longest part of the application process, they can be tricky to master. If you’re wondering about some of the specifics of cover letter best practices, we’ve answered some of the general questions asked about them:
What is the purpose of a cover letter?
As outlined in our skills for job seekers open steps, the purpose of the cover letter is to introduce yourself to a prospective employer and provide an overview of what you can offer. It’s often the first thing a hiring manager will see before they read your CV or resume, so it is important you make a good impression by creating a letter that is well written and looks professional.
How long should a cover letter be?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, employers received around 25 applications per vacancy. What’s more, recruiters only spend between 6-8 seconds looking at an application. As we explore in our post on how to write a great CV, you want your information to be as succinct and impactful as possible.
So, when it comes to cover letters, you should aim for somewhere between half a page and a page long. If you’re wondering how many words a cover letter should be, this works out at around 250-300 words, divided across 3-4 short paragraphs.
Is a cover letter necessary?
On the whole, unless an application specifically asks you not to send a cover letter, you should think about sending one. Many online applications will have space for you to include one, while if you’re applying directly via email or through LinkedIn, the contents of your message can act as your cover letter.
However, a 2017 US survey found that only 26% of recruiters considered a cover letter important in their decision to hire an applicant. That being said, other studies have shown that they can help to boost your application.
Ultimately, if you’re writing directly to an individual to apply for a role, you should introduce yourself and your CV with a cover letter of some form. Similarly, if a particular job requests a letter, you’ll definitely need to send one. Writing a cover letter is an essential skill for your career development.
How to write a cover letter
Now that we have some context as to what cover letters are and why they’re important, it’s time to look at how to write one. As with many aspects of succeeding with a job application, there is a skill to writing an effective cover letter.
We’ve highlighted some of the key areas to consider, taking you through each step of writing a cover letter, including some examples.
First, let’s consider the cover letter format and why it’s significant. The exact style that you choose will depend largely on the type of application you’re sending. For example, if you’re applying directly via email, you should type your letter directly rather than attaching a separate document.
However, if you’re applying via an online portal, it may ask you to attach a cover letter. In such instances, a document or PDF file would be appropriate, and you should use a more traditional letter style.
When it comes to the overall structure of a cover letter, there are several elements to bear in mind. Below, we’ve outlined how you might want to structure your cover letter, providing more details further down:
- Header. Your address and contact details (if you are sending a more traditional-style letter)
- Opening. Use the recipient’s name in your greeting line, such as “Dear[contact name]”
- Paragraph 1. Explain why you are reaching out to them.
- Paragraph 2. Outline some of your key skills and experience, relating them to the job role you’re applying for.
- Paragraph 3. Highlight how, through your knowledge and experience, you can add value to the business.
- Paragraph 4. Express your availability for an interview. Thank the reader for their time and consideration of your resume.
- Ending. End your cover letter with a formal “Yours sincerely” and give your full name.
How to address a cover letter
Ideally, you’ll want to address your cover letter directly to the hiring manager or person who will review your application. Of course, this is easier said than done depending on the job role and organisation you’re applying to.
If you can, take the time to review the job posting to see whether it has a name attached. You can then address them in the opening line, such as “Dear [First Name Last Name]”. If you can’t find the name, you might opt for “Dear [Department] Hiring Manager”.
Terms such as “Dear Sir/Madam” and “To Whom It May Concern,” both seem outdated, and the former isn’t inclusive.
Cover letter openings
Your opening paragraph should briefly explain why you’re reaching out to the hiring manager. A statement of intent or motivation can help here. A few sentences explaining what about the job/company appeals to you shows that you’ve considered and reflected on the role in question. You may also want to let them know when you’d be available to start.
“I’m writing in support of my application for the role of [job role] as advertised [where you saw the job]. I’m excited at the prospect of working at [company], and I believe I could bring [relevant skills/knowledge] to the organisation.”
What to include in a cover letter
Along with your opening and introduction, you’ll want to want to use the remainder of your letter to promote your skills and gain the hiring manager’s interest. Remember, you have a relatively short amount of space, so you’ll want to make each line count. You can find out more about the hiring process on our work-ready skills course.
Here’s what you should include:
Outline your skills
Here, you can pick out some highlights from your CV. You don’t want to simply repeat what’s in there, but a summary of the most relevant skills and experience can certainly help. You can also mention your current responsibilities.
“As you can see from my attached CV, I have experience working in a variety of different roles in the [x] industry. In my current position with [company], I am responsible for [areas related to job advert], and I have skills in [relevant skills].”
Highlight your past achievements
The exact contents of this section will depend on the seniority of the role you’re applying for. If you’re fresh out of school or higher education, you might want to focus on your academic achievement and any work experience you have. However, if you’re already working within an industry, focus on some notable successes, particularly those that link to the role you’re applying for. You could even use bullet points here to help create a concise overview of your selling points:
“During my career, I’ve had a number of successes. Some of the most notable include:
- [exceeded specific performance target]
- [enacted a change in a past role]
- [another relevant achievement]
I understand that the role of [advertised role] requires similar successes, and believe my strengths in these areas would be ideally suited to [company/team you’re applying to].”
How to end a cover letter
When you’re writing your cover letter ending, you want to reiterate your interest in the role and express your desire for an interview. You can mention your availability here as well before finishing with your thanks and a formal sign-off.
“I’d love to have the opportunity to discuss the role further with you, and I am available for interviews [state your availability].
Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Cover letter tips
So, we now know the elements and structure of a good cover letter. However, if you’re still looking for some inspiration when writing your own letter, we’ve got some top tips below:
Tailor each letter
Although it’s fine to have a template for your cover letter, you should make sure that you tailor one for each position you apply for. Look at the job listing and requirements, and link your skills and experience to that employer. It can take a little longer, but the extra effort is often worth it.
Check for mistakes
A 2017 YouGov survey found that 87% of senior executives considered spelling and grammar errors as the worst CV mistake an applicant can make. You should spend time double-checking your cover letter, making sure it’s free from errors. You could use a spelling and grammar checker to make sure you’ve covered your bases.
Focus on hard and soft skills
As with your CV, your cover letter can highlight some of the hard and soft skills that you possess. Employers like to see a well-balanced individual who has practical knowledge as well as interpersonal skills. Highlight attributes such as teamwork, communication, and problem-solving alongside the job-specific requirements.
Use plain English
Your cover letter should be clear and succinct. Although you do want to sell yourself to potential employers, you don’t want to overly complicate matters. A letter that is readable and brief, using workplace English, is easier for the hiring manager to scan and digest.
Do your research
It always helps to show that you’ve looked at the company you’re applying to ahead of sending your application. If you can, find out about the organisation and its aims and values. You can then refer to this on your cover letter and link it back to your own skills and achievements.
Ultimately, your cover letter should make the recruiter or hiring manager want to look at your application in more detail. Don’t be afraid to promote your skills and experience in a positive light. If you can, use quantifiable achievements such as ‘grew revenue by x%’ when listing your successes.
A cover letter is an important document when it comes to sending job applications. Writing your own covering letter is a skill in itself, but with a bit of know-how, you can soon master it. Although they’re often short, they can be effective in securing you an interview. As such, it’s worth spending some time on each one.
By using some of the examples we’ve provided here, you can soon start crafting cover letters that will impress employers. Good luck!