Your CV or résumé is ready to go. Now all you have to do is write that most essential part of the application, the covering letter.
The covering letter is far more than just a note saying ‘Please find enclosed my CV'. In reality, this is the part of your application that really sells you to your potential employer and shouts out ‘Me! Me! You want me!” louder than anyone else's letter.
Without a good covering letter, your résumé is unlikely to be read.
The precise form of your letter will vary from sector to sector, but there are certain principles that are common to all, and one absolutely fundamental rule.
Rule Number One
Your covering letter must be tailored to the sector, to the employer, and to the job.
You cannot cut and paste successfully from a previous application, so don't try. Your covering letter needs to demonstrate that you understand the needs of this company, and this particular post, so it has to be written with the job in mind.
The only possible exception is if you are making a number of speculative applications to very similar organisations in the same sector, wanting the same kind of work. But even then, it's best to tailor your covering letter, at least slightly.
These general guidelines will help you with the overall structure of your covering letter.
- Check whether you're going to apply by post or email, and whether the company wants a letter, created as a separate document, a statement of suitability or a covering email. Sending the wrong format could be enough to get your application binned.
- If you've been asked for a letter, even if you're sending it by email, then include:
- Your address, including your email address, in the top right hand corner.
- The name and address of the person you're sending it to. If you're sending it by email, then it's not essential to have the full postal address, but you should at least have the full name and job title, with “By email” underneath.
- It's not essential to include your phone number, especially if it's already on your CV.
- If you know the name of the person you're writing to, then write use their title when you address them: ‘Dear Mr/Ms/Mrs/Miss X'. Do not write ‘Dear John Smith'. If you really can't find a name, write ‘Dear Sir'. If their name is ‘Sir John Smith', write ‘Dear Sir John'.
- If there is a job reference number, or a given job title, make sure that you include it underneath the ‘Dear X'. For example, “Administrative Assistant post (Ref AdAsst)”.
- Use a standard, easy-to-read font, and don't make it too small. As a general rule, Times New Roman should be no smaller than 11 point, and Arial no smaller than 10 point for readability on screen.
- Keep your letter to two pages of A4 or less.
The Content of the Covering Letter or Statement of Suitability
The Introductory Paragraph
This needs to strike the right note to introduce you in a way that fits the job, the company and you. Its tone will depend on the job and the sector. It might, for instance, say something like:
Please find enclosed my CV in application for the job of [insert job title], advertised in/on [publication or website]. I believe that my combination of skills and experience [and particularly my experience at x, or my ability to do y] make me the ideal candidate for this post.
Alternatively, if you're applying for a very unlikely career change, then you might want to make more of a ‘splash' with your first paragraph, and say something like:
You may be wondering why I'm applying for this job when, on the face of it, my skills and experience are likely to be very different from most other candidates. However, I believe that this would be a great job for me, and my unique approach to it, bringing as it does [skill x] and [experience y] would be a great benefit to your company.
Don't be afraid to be bold but, just as with your CV or resume, don't lie about your skills or experience.
The Main Section
The main section of your covering letter should be structured around the job description and person specification. You should describe what you have done, and the skills that make you suitable for the job.
Use examples to show how you have previously demonstrated the requirements of the job. Be as specific as possible about your action, the result that you achieved, and how you knew it was a success.
Spend as little time and space as possible on a description of the situation, and more on what you did. The evidence of success may include concrete outcomes such as:
“200 people attended the ball and it raised a massive £y for charity.”
It may also include what others said, such as:
“I have received feedback that staff feel comfortable bringing problems to me.”
“My manager praised my persistence in seeking a solution until a compromise could be found.”
You may want to structure the main section of your covering letter into sub-sections, with headings, to make it easier for the recruiter to see how you meet each requirement. Alternatively, if several of your examples are useful for several requirements, ‘name-check' the precise words from the person specification, by saying:
‘I demonstrated my ability to do x', or ‘This also demonstrates my experience at y'.
Other useful phrases include:
- “My ability to manage/run/achieve [x] speaks for itself: I have [list of achievements in x].”
- “I hope it goes without saying from my list of previous jobs that I am [extremely flexible/good at timekeeping/whatever you want to demonstrate].”
- “I first developed [skill y] in [job x], but have honed it since in [mention jobs].”
when you've finished writing everything, go back over it, and make sure that you have mentioned every skill or piece of experience that is described as ‘essential' on the person specification, and as many as possible of the ‘desirable' ones. If you haven't, your application will probably be rejected automatically.
You'll probably find that it's now too long. Edit and polish until you have said everything that you need to say within two pages of paper (if a separate document) or approximately that if sending as a covering email. Potential employers or recruitment panels may have many covering letters to read in a limited time.
The Closing Paragraph
This needs to wrap up your letter or statement neatly, and make clear what action the reader will be taking as a result of reading it, but without sounding arrogant.
So it might say, for example:
“I hope this convinces you that I have the necessary skills and experience to achieve as [insert job title]. I look forward to hearing from you.”
If this is a letter, sign off with “Yours sincerely” if you have addressed it to someone by name, and “Yours faithfully” if you started “Dear Sir/Madam”.
Check and Send
When you've finished your covering letter, read it over thoroughly. Then get someone you trust, who has a good eye for detail, to read it over for you, looking for typos, grammatical errors and inconsistencies.
It is also helpful if you can get somebody who knows something about the sector and/or job, to check your letter. They may spot potential problems or suggest ways that you could tweak your letter for maximum effect.
Last, but definitely not least, remember to submit it in the required format, whether letter, attachment to an email, or in the text of the email.
Remember, the more applications you send, the more interviews you are likely to get, so don't be disheartened if your first few applications are unsuccessful.
You may not even hear back from many organisations, but just keeping sending off targeted applications, and seeking feedback on them wherever possible to improve the next one, and you will hopefully start to get interviews very soon.