A cover letter is your chance to address a prospective employer directly to show them why you’d be perfect for the role they have on offer. It’s your chance to stand out from the crowd, and if an employer asks for a cover letter it really is essential that you include one, as this is often used as a means of filtering out applicants who haven’t read the application process correctly.
Normally, a cover letter forms part of an application along with a CV, application form, or online application submission, so the main purpose isn’t to repeat too much of what’s on your CV or application, but instead to give a sense of who you really are and show your commitment to the company and the job.
Today, cover letters are more likely to be in the form of an email or document you upload and submit rather than a physical letter - but the purpose is the same.
5 key things to include in your cover letter
Here are the 5 key things you should always include in a cover letter:
- The role you are applying for - always include the name of the job you’re applying for, the recruiter may be hiring for multiple roles so they need to know which one you’re interested in
- Why you’re applying - a little about your current situation and why you want the job you’re applying for
- Knowledge of the organisation and role - show that you have researched the organisation and know something about the specific requirements they may have
- Why you think you’d be right for the role - give a brief justification linking your skills, knowledge, and/or experience to the job requirements
- Enthusiasm - say that you’re keen to progress to the next stage in the process
What do career experts say?
We asked Chris Webb, a Registered Career Development Practitioner currently working in the HE sector, for his advice. He says:
‘From a Student and Graduate Employability Service perspective, we often advise students to consider the following three questions and how the responses to these questions can be synthesised together to create a compelling cover letter:
Why the company? (What attracts you about the company's values/culture, any past, current or future projects they are working on and/or the opportunities for development? How well do your own values match to them?)
Why the role? (How well do you understand the specific role you have applied for and what attracted you to apply for this position? What value do you feel you will be able to bring to the role itself?)
Why you? (How would your skills, interests, knowledge and experience help to add value to the company and the role being applied for?)’
What do employers say?
We also spoke to a range of employers - the people who will be reading your cover letter. Here’s what they said they look for...
Eriana Gourmos, Campaigns & Content Manager
"What achievements they have made which match the position they are applying for and why they are applying. Something a bit more elaborate than 'I'm passionate about xxxx which makes me the perfect candidate'. What is it about their passion and how will or can they make a difference to the company? Short and to the point works best. Hiring people don't have a lot of time to read long cover letters"
Mark Blackmore, Programme Co-ordinator
"It should be concise"
Russell Fenner, MD at Revolution9 Consulting
"1) Passion about what they are hoping to do with the company and the role (always nice to see the letter look bespoke to the application)
2) Indication of how their experience (from work or outside) helps them to address the job criteria requested. This is especially important if they are applying for a role outside a next obvious career path - I will be more inclined to take a chance and interview them if they have shown they have thought about how their skills would be useful in the role rather than a speculative application
3) Ideally, something which marks them out from the competition. That is hard to quantify, but if a sense of their personality comes through, it really helps to warm to the candidate and judge their company fit ahead of a potential interview."
Structuring your cover letter
Following a structure can help. Here is a typical cover letter structure containing what you need to get started writing. This example is for a physical letter or word/pdf attachment. If you’re sending an email or attaching a doc/pdf cover letter then you don’t need the top section and can go straight in at ‘Dear ….’.
A the top, include:
- Your name
- Email address
- Phone number
- Linkedin handle (optional)
Below on the left-hand side, like a letter, include the recipient or company's address, along with the date.
[Use the person’s name if it has been given - if not you can put ‘Sir/Madam’ or other title. We'd recommend trying to find out the name of the person who's hiring, either via LinkedIn, or reaching out directly to the company to ask]
[State the position you’re applying for, and where you found the vacant role (as the recipient of your application may be sifting through applications for multiple different job roles). Mention also that your CV (or other information they’ve asked for) is attached or has been submitted.]
[This section should briefly describe your current situation and why you’re applying for this particular role. As full details of your background will have been covered in your CV, try not to be too repetitive, and just highlight the most significant points that relate to your application.]
[This is a good section to state any knowledge you have about the organisation you’re applying to, specifically what interests you most in the role and what you can bring to it. Refer to any experience that you feel will be specifically relevant to the job role you’re applying for.]
I look forward to hearing from you.
Your first name and surname
Breaking up your letter into short paragraphs will really help the recruiter spot the key information they are looking for so try to make each paragraph not more than a couple of sentences long.
How long is a good cover letter?
The employers we spoke to all said that you should keep it reasonably short. As a rule of thumb, somewhere between 250 and 500 words is a good length. Long enough to show that you’ve made an effort, but short enough that a busy recruiter won’t skip over sections.
Can I write a generic cover letter and send it to lots of organisations?
Not really. Your cover letter should always be specific to the job role you’re applying for, rather than writing one generic cover letter and using it for multiple applications. Even if job roles are similar and it seems easier to copy and paste, referring directly to a company and what interests you in the role is what will make you stand out. Ensuring that you have researched the organisation you’re applying to will also mean you can write in the right tone of voice and style to show you’ll fit.
That’s it - it’s time to get writing. Sometimes a cover letter can make or break your application and will be what attracts an employer to your application in a pile of hundreds of CVs - so it’s really important to spend time on each letter to tailor it to the specific role. Good luck!