An illustration of a formal letter

Our guide to writing a great cover letter

A cover letter is not a CV. It’s the apéritif before the meal, designed to whet the appetite and capture the attention of the recruiter.  Its sole purpose is to leave the recruiter(s) thinking - "Wow, really interesting! I want to meet and interview this person as they sound great".

The bottom line: if a company is asking for a cover letter, it will form a key part of the selection process for interview. Therefore, getting your cover letter right is just as important as perfecting your CV. It’s your chance to inject some personality into your application and to stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons. Sending a generic cover letter is a sure fire way of getting your application rejected at the first hurdle.

Here are our 9 top tips for producing a cover letter that stands out from the crowd. 

1. Think of the cover letter as a gift, not a chore! 

Most job adverts do not require a covering letter so when they do request one, see it as a gift – this is your opportunity to stand out from the crowd of applicants and capture the attention of the person(s) who is going to hire you. 

2. Do your research 

Before you even begin writing you need to do carry out the following research;

  • Review the company’s website and specifically look into its culture, objectives, and challenges
  • Who are their competitors and be clear on their market position
  • Review recent sector a news and or trends
  • Make every attempt to find out the name of the person who will be receiving and reading your cover letter. If it is not on the job advert, call the company up and ask. 
  • Highlight the key skills and experience they’re looking for in this particular role (detailed in the job description) so that you can tailor your letter to these
  • Think hard about why you’re applying for this position and what value, experience and/or transferrable skills you will bring to the role. Make a list before you start writing

Building up a good knowledge of the company and industry will not only help you tailor your cover letter but prepare you for the interview itself.

3. Don't just duplicate your CV

Do not regurgitate your CV (although, for consistency, do use the same lettering style on both documents). Instead, be sure to personalise each and every cover letter (and CV) for the specific role you are applying for. 

The purpose of a covering letter is to address the ‘why me’ by highlighting your salient skills and experience, and why your character and personality makes you a great fit for the role in question. This is where you get to shine. Use the opening paragraph to explain why you’re writing to them and what it was that drew you to their company. Highlight the keywords in the job advert and as succinctly as possible, explain why you are the right person to carry them out. 

Give examples from your career when you have done similar work, show them that you have the skills they are after and explain to them why here and now this role is ideal for you. Demonstrate that you are genuinely excited by this role – even though you might well be applying for lots of jobs, your cover letter needs to signal that this position is the only role that you are pursuing at the moment. 

You can use the Star method to help you build a strong case for interviewing you

4. Structure it like a formal business letter

Even though it will almost certainly be submitted online, your cover letter should be written like a conventional business letter. 

  • In the top right-hand corner write your address and contact details - make sure you have a professional email address for them to use, together with the best number to contact you on.
  • Left hand side - write the address of the company you’re applying for together with the date and if they have given a reference number add this on the line after the date. 
  • Always start with ‘Dear …’ and do your best to find out how they would prefer to be addressed. If in doubt, address them by their title and surname (e.g., Mr Jones, Ms Robertson, Mrs Farley) – and make sure it is spelt correctly.  
  • Sign off with ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Best regards.’ If you really can’t find out the name of the person then address the letter Sir/Madam and sign off with Yours faithfully.
5. Use the right tone of voice

The purpose of the letter is to demonstrate your professional capability and relevance for the role. Its tone needs to remain professional throughout. Do not use the covering letter (as we have sadly seen) to vent your frustration, or to explain that you enjoyed playing dinosaurs or making cupcakes in your career break. The letter is about your professional experience. 

6. Don't forget to inject your own personality

A cover letter is like meeting someone in person; first impressions count, not only in what you say but how you say it. Professional etiquette shouldn’t mean you should feel stilted or robotic – bring your authentic tone and voice to the table, make it fresh and different, more conversational than formal. Avoid corporate jargon, buzz words and generic phraseology. Have fun with it. Be a bit creative in your approach, as long as all the information is in there and it’s not distracting. Be enthusiastic but don’t gush. Attitude is as important as aptitude, so be yourself.

7. Remember not to waffle on!

Keep your letter to a single A4 page and about 3 to 5 paragraphs.  Remember that the prospective employer could be reading hundreds of applications so keep it short and sweet. Resist the temptation to write a long essay or tell your life story. And remember, it’s about what value you will bring to the company that needs to sing from the page so that having read your cover letter and your CV, the two together make the recruiter want to invite you for an interview. 

8. Triple check EVERYTHING

Read it through carefully before hitting send. Ideally, have someone else proofread it too. Nothing is more likely to consign your application to the bin than sloppy spelling, grammatical or punctuation errors!

9. Save it and send it

Make sure you save a copy with your full name  (and ideally the company name too) in the file name and that when you make your application, submit both your CV and covering letter together. If you are invited to go for an interview, make sure you take a copy of your covering letter and CV with you.