How to: write a covering letter


Feb 11, 2006
COOL, firm handshake or a big wet kiss accompanied by a bum tweak? Either introduction would be remembered at head office, but only one in a good way. And it’s much the same with covering letters. Here’s how to say “choose me” without leaving your DNA behind.

1. First impressions count. “A covering letter is read before a CV, so make sure that it grabs the reader’s attention,” says Paul Laurie, the operations manager at the employment consultancy Manpower UK. Sloppy spelling and punctuation, copying a generic e-mail to rival firms, forgetting to include your contact details and omitting a job reference are all common, fall-at-the first-fence bloopers.

2. It’s not an optional extra. “Even if you have just been asked to e-mail your CV, always send a covering letter,” says Scott Foley, the student recruitment manager at Manchester University. “It introduces why your CV is there and what you stand for. It sets the scene for your CV.”

3. Dear who? If the job advertisement doesn’t name a contact, call human resources to find out who will be scrutinising your application. “It’s more personal, and if you want to inquire about the application process (later) you have someone to follow up with,” Foley says.

4. Be brief. “Keep it punchy,” Laurie says. Three or four paragraphs should be sufficient to convey your motivation, experience and personality. A covering letter should not replace your CV but summarise your suitability for a role by matching your experience to the job advertised.

5. Be factual not arrogant. Don’t cross that fine line between expert and muppet. “There is selling yourself and then highlighting what you have done,” Laurie says. Avoid statements such as “I am the ideal candidate” for example, in favour of “I believe I have the skills and experience that make me a strong candidate”.

6. Get noticed. “Give a reason for writing,” says Lynn Williams, a career coach, even if your application is speculative. Perhaps you recently read something in the trade press or met someone from the firm at a networking event? “It shows that you have been actively looking at the company,” Williams says. If you are applying for a specific role, say so at the start of your letter so that the application doesn’t go astray.

7. Tailor your letter
. Recruiters are impressed by evidence of research into their company’s goals, ethos and achievements, Laurie says. If the company prizes customer service, show that you have delivered excellent client care, but don’t go overboard. One such statement suggesting spiritual kinship is enough.

8. Be e-mail aware. Writing a good e-mail requires just as much patience as a legible handwritten letter. “Make sure that the key bullet points are in the first screen, so that you don’t have to scroll down,” Williams says. “You can also use the subject line to put your key point forward. Say ‘engineering graduate’ for example.”

9. No ifs or buts. Don’t point out any weaknesses and then attempt to justify yourself. As Williams says: “You are giving them reasons to interview you, not excuses to bin you.”

10. Sign off with confidence. Be upbeat and ask for an interview, Foley says. “I’ll expect your call” sounds overly confident but write that you expect to meet to discuss the role.

  • Directly address the job advert by picking out your skills, experience or personal achievements that best fit the requirements.
  • Think “how can I help the interviewer to select me”, not “how do I hard-sell myself?”
  • Never start your letter “Dear sir/madam”. Find out who will be reading your application if it is not in the job advert.
  • Break up long paragraphs. Solid blocks of text can be daunting for the reader.
  • Ask a friend to read your covering letter to make sure that the content is relevant and the tone professional.

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