Many employers will ask you to submit a cover letter to provide complementary information in support of your application. This cover letter is your chance to express more directly and personally why you are interested in the role and the skills you bring.
You can highlight and expand on particular elements from your CV – work experience, academic experience or extra-curricular activities – and provide further detailed evidence of specific skills and motivation. You can show your personality and writing ability and, importantly, your enthusiasm and knowledge about the role and organisation you’re applying to. Your cover letter offers you the opportunity to ensure you stand out and will help move you one step closer to that interview invitation.
Preparing to write your cover letter
An effective cover letter will always start with the employer’s needs in mind. Don’t just write down all the key achievements and the academic successes that you think set you apart – and of which you’re particularly proud. An effective cover letter will be framed around what the employer wants (and needs) to see and learn, rather than what you want to tell them.
Before you start writing, thoroughly research the employer and think carefully about why you want to work for them.
As you go through this process, ask yourself why you’d be a good match for the organisation and the kind of evidence you could use to back up your claim that would be likely to resonate with them.
Explore their website – making sure you go beyond the career pages, even if there’s a lot of useful information there too.
Read up about them in the press, in industry blogs – know what’s going on in their sector.
Make contact with current or former employees.
Ask to speak to the hiring manager or HR to get more information about the role and what they’re looking for.
Build a picture of what they value in their employees, get extra insight into current work priorities to help you write a stronger and more focused pitch in your letter.
Familiarise yourself with any person specification and job description you’ve been given. Think about the key skills needed and which examples you can draw on from your past experience that show you have used these skills effectively. We would expect to see evidence that you meet all the core criteria across both CV and cover letter, but the cover letter itself should highlight and develop three or four core skills – or those where you are able to provide the most convincing and relevant examples and evidence.
When you don’t have a detailed job description, or you’re making a speculative application, it’s particularly important to do some more detailed research to ensure your application is as strong as possible.
Structuring your cover letter
There are of course different ways you can structure a cover letter; whatever approach you decide to take, it’s important that your letter is personal, targeted and authentic. Steer clear of using any cover letter templates or proformas. Employers can easily spot these. A useful starting point – particularly if you are new to the business of cover letters – is to use the approach we outline below.
Begin by mentioning the role you’re applying for and where you saw it advertised. Next, you want to catch the reader’s attention. We’re looking for a hook, something specific about you that immediately relates to the role or organisation and will resonate with the recruiter – perhaps an element of your experience you know will interest them because of what you uncovered during your research.
It’s important not to just repeat information that they can see on the CV – you should always be using the cover letter to add something extra – not just the fact that you are studying for a particular degree at the London School of Economics, but the reason you chose that course of study, or your particular area of specialisation or focus.
Start by articulating your motivation and enthusiasm. In other words, provide very specific reasons why you want to work in this sector, for this employer, in this role. Again, your prior research will put you in a strong position. What points stood out from what you learned, what recent work have they done, what sets them apart from their competitors? Why does this resonate with you? How do the points you make relate to your earlier experiences?
Be careful of simply repeating what is written on their website or copying out lines of text you’ve read online. The employer wants to know why the facts you include interest you. Don’t just mention how interested you are that they’ve opened an office in X country in a particular location without explaining why and how that’s of interest to you. Perhaps you speak the language, have lived there, have some regional expertise or have noticed that investment in this location distinguishes them from their competitors. Don’t just tell the employer what they already know about themselves, explain why it connects to you.
The next one or two paragraphs are focused on showing the employer that your skills, competencies and experiences match their role. We would generally recommend that you choose three or four key skills they have listed in the person specification and provide evidence of how you’ve demonstrated them in the past. The employer wants to see detailed examples setting out precisely and clearly what you did.
It can be helpful to link back to the job description, illustrating how these skills will help you deliver and perform in their role. For example, if the person specification mentions effective stakeholder management, you might choose to refer to your time managing clients and donors at a corporate client’s charity during your marketing internship, and detail your specific involvement, how you worked with them and secured their cooperation. You could then set out how you would be able to draw on this experience to contribute to the new position.
Finish up your letter with a short paragraph, reiterating your enthusiasm for the role and if requested, your availability for any interview. This section does not need to be longer than a few lines and should avoid anything generic. Rather than ‘it would be a privilege to work for you and I believe I have the necessary skills and abilities for the job’, confirm your interest with reference to something very specific and perhaps summarise some concrete points you have made in the letter to create a unique and convincing conclusion.
Dear Sir/Madam/Named person
Why them? (one paragraph)
Why me? (one/two paragraphs)
Yours faithfully (if you don't know the person)/Yours sincerely (if you do know the person)
One of the reasons employers ask for a cover letter is to see an example of your written communication. Expressing yourself succinctly (usually no more than one page) and clearly is important. Writing clearly means avoiding complicated clauses, overly lengthy sentences and abbreviations. Writing professionally means avoiding any slang or colloquialisms (eg, undergrad instead of undergraduate).
There are of course cultural norms that you need to respect; as well as international differences, we also see that individual organisations adopt a communication style that can be more or less formal; seeking to match that can make sense.
Frame your experiences positively. Don’t use negative language to talk about skills gaps you’re concerned about (eg. lacking, unfortunately, don’t); use the positive to explain how you can build or develop the skill. It’s a fine balance though, so don’t overdo the positive descriptive language (overjoyed, honoured, love, adore) - it’s much more powerful and convincing to give specifc reasons why you would love to work somewhere/for someone than to say it would be an honour to do so.
Write in a simple, direct style and keep your language active rather than passive.
- Avoid using too many general, imprecise descriptive words e.g, various, some, many, lots, several. Beware of clichés and buzzwords.
Where you can, quantify your achievements with results: if you met a target give the numbers; if you raised money say how much.
Look out for qualifiers such as ‘I feel that’, ‘I believe I could’. You need to sound confident.
The more targeted and tailored your letter, the more likely it is to grab the attention of the recruiter. Tailoring authentically takes time so think about quality over quantity – four well written letters will put you in a stronger position than eight generic ones.
Try swapping out one employer’s name for another in your cover letter. If it still makes sense, then you either need to do some more research to identify more specific points, or reconsider how you are expressing your thoughts.
Make sure you read carefully what the employer is looking for. Have they simply asked for ‘a cover letter’, or have they suggested specific points they want you to include? Have they asked you to describe how you meet all criteria for the role? Have they specified a particular length or word count?
Your cover letter is much more than a prose version of your CV so don’t simply detail all your experience and expect the employer to sift through and establish what’s important. Think about the three or four areas you want them to know about; your CV can cover the rest. Remember, the cover letter also needs to address your motivation and enthusiasm for the role and organisation; it’s not just about you.
You might feel as though you have a lot to say, but brevity is greatly appreciated by employers! Try to stick to one page, unless the employer requests otherwise, and don’t use a font that’s too small to read easily, or make your margins very narrow in order to squeeze more into the page.
Presentation is important. Remember to use business letter format and the same font as your CV.
Is your language professional, positive, in the active voice and specific? Does the reader get a sense of your achievements, impact and enthusiasm? Always proofread to check for any language or grammatical errors.
Remember to back up claims with specific examples that demonstrate how and when you've used your skills and experience.