Looking to stand out from the crowd and get yourself noticed?
After all, it's what you need to do to get a job interview, right?
Well, having a perfect CV is not enough. You need to equip yourself with a cover letter, too.
But it has to be good – professional and well-crafted – otherwise you risk messing things up.
To help you get things right, here's our practical guide to writing an effective cover letter!
Here's what you can expect from the guide:
- Reasons for writing a cover letter: a quick introduction to the reasons why you need a cover letter
- Structure and content of a cover letter: who it should be addressed to and the key elements
- Style and presentation of a cover letter: how long it should be, how to write it and what tone to adopt
- Practical tips and the worst mistakes: learn 4 tips that will make your cover letter more effective and avoid the most common mistakes that could ruin it!
So, without further ado – let's get started!
What is a Cover Letter? [Part One]
Is it really necessary to write a cover letter for your CV?
Well, no, you can get by without one…
…but don't complain if your CV isn't getting any replies.
If you want to reap the benefits of all your hard work, you need to use every means at your disposal to stand out from the crowd.
And the most effective of these is the cover letter!
Always send a cover letter out with your CV.
There's only one circumstance in which it is advisable not to send a cover letter and that's when you are expressly asked not to.
If the job advertisement you are replying to explicitly says not to send one then this is the perfect opportunity to show you can follow instructions 😉
But just what is a cover letter exactly, and what role does it play in the job selection process?
Let's take a look!
A Cover Letter Is Essential: Find Out Why
A cover letter, or letter of motivation, is a one-page letter introducing your CV to a company.
Let's take a generic selection process as an example.
First, a company publishes a job advertisement.
Then a large number of candidates take part in the selection process and submit their CV, but only a small fraction send an accompanying cover letter.
What happens then?
The selector starts reading all the applications he or she has received, looking for somebody that stands out.
And guess what?
Their interest captured by a number of the cover letters, the selector reads the corresponding CVs.
The selection process includes a number of phases before hiring occurs, but the part that interests us finishes here.
It's in this phase that the aim of the cover letter, which is to capture the selector's attention, comes into play.
Think about it:
The cover letter needs to persuade the selector to read your CV, while the CV's job is to convince him or her to invite you for an interview.
So make sure that you write a winning CV, but don't overlook the cover letter, as it is of crucial importance.
Let's now see how a cover letter is structured!
Anatomy of a Cover Letter [Part Two]
Like any other proper letter, a cover letter begins with a recipient:
As this is the first thing that gets read, mistakes here are simply not an option!
Let's take a look at how to get it right.
The Key to a Successful Cover Letter
One key success factor when writing a cover letter is personalization, which should start from the name of the recipient.
If you're lucky, the job advertisement will already contain a contact name to write to.
But if that's not the case, take the time to investigate the company further:
It'll be worth your while.
For larger companies, find the company website and proceed as follows:
- Look for the “Careers” section: an increasing number of companies have a section for this purpose containing all the information you need
- Look for the Head of Human Resources. This is who you should ideally be writing to at the company
- Look for a telephone number. If you can't find the information you need, try calling the company directly and asking who you should address your letter to: simple and effective
But what should you do if you can't find a company website?
Don't be put off by this minor detail. If you know where to look there are some great alternatives!
If a company doesn't have a website, try using a business directory: they can give great results with minimum effort.
Search by category in the area you're interested in to get a complete list of company contacts.
Once you've got a telephone number, you're practically home and dry. Make a phone call and get the most appropriate recipient for your cover letter.
It really is that simple!
Do everything you can to find the person to address your application to.
If you have no luck, you can use a generic “to whom it may concern”. But this should be an absolutely last resort!
…So now you know who to address your cover letter to, you're ready to start writing it!
A cover letter is divided into four sections:
- Why I am considering you: make it clear straight away the specific position you are applying for (advertised vacancy) or the type of opportunity you are interested in (speculative application)
- Why you should consider my application: explain how you meet the needs and expectations of the company
- Closing salutations, thanks and …invitation to action: conclude your cover letter by thanking the selector and inviting them to read your CV
- Contact data: if the company needs to contact you, make it as simple as possible for them
The same layout can also be used for a cover letter by a recent graduate, since it is no different in terms of structure from a cover letter for someone with years of experience.
Let's look at things in more detail!
#1 – How All Cover Letters Should Begin
A cover letter should start with a paragraph explaining why you are writing to the Head of Human Resources. Basically, you need to say what position in the company you are applying for.
Let's dig a little deeper!
If you are submitting a CV, there are two possibilities:
- You're responding to a job advertisement
- You're making a speculative application
Writing a cover letter for a job advertisement?
You should say which advertisement you are replying to and where you saw it.
Here's how it goes:
Usually, job advertisements come with a job reference code. Copy this code into the subject line of your cover letter. In the body of the letter, however, it is preferable to indicate the complete description of the position to avoid confusion.
Writing a cover letter for a speculative application?
With a speculative application, it's even more important to indicate the position you hope to fill at the company, or at the very least the area of work you are interested in.
Because not doing so will be seen as indicating a lack of forward vision, and as such will penalize – and could even ruin - a speculative application.
Companies are not interested in somebody who applies for a job “blindfold”. They want candidates who know exactly where they want to get to!
This is the right place to say why you chose the company.
After all, there must be a specific reason that led you to them. Make the reasons that attracted you to them work for you by stating clearly and explicitly what they are.
A cover letter is also known as a “letter of motivation”.
There's a reason why it's called that. So make sure yours lives up to the name and state your motivation.
All of this information can be condensed into the first paragraph of your cover letter.
Once you've written it and are satisfied, you're ready to move on to the next paragraph of the letter!
#2 – How To Say “I'm the Right Person for You” in a Cover Letter
So here we are, at the heart of the cover letter - which also happens to be the most complicated part:
Persuading the selector that you are the best person for the company.
You may well have motivation on your side. But being motivated won't be enough if you are unable to draw effective connections between you and the company.
So how should you go about this?
It depends on whether you are replying to a job advertisement or sending a speculative application.
Let's see why:
- Replying to a job advertisement
If you're replying to an advertisement, you have things a little easier because you have a path to follow - which in itself is worth more than all the advice anyone can give you.
Think about it:
The job advertisement in fact contains a description of the ideal candidate for the job.
Comparing these characteristics with your own skills and experience will help you figure out which of your qualities you should be focusing on to achieve success.
Highlight them in order to emphasize just how useful you will be to the company!
- Speculative applications
With cover letters for a speculative application you have to work a bit harder, but don't let that discourage you from trying to personalize your cover letter.
An excellent guide is the company website, particularly the “About Us” section.
The information provided on the website can serve the same function as a job advertisement - albeit less directly - by providing you with valuable information on the type of person the company might be interested in.
Here too you should emphasize the “fit” between the company's needs and expectations and your own personal qualities and skills. Focus on connecting up the dots between you and the company.
Ready for the next part?
#3 – Closing Salutations, Thanks and… Action!
Once you have set out your arguments, all that's left to do is compose your closing statement.
This paragraph is easier to write than the previous ones but it's no less important for that.
The reason why has less to do with the standard closing greetings and thanks and more to do with the fact that just before wrapping up your letter you need to include a call to action.
But what sort of action exactly?
To contact you!
As we have already seen, the aim of a cover letter is to get people to read your CV. This is because a cover letter is too short to include enough information to persuade somebody to contact you.
However, it also represents the only opportunity you have to indicate that you are willing to be contacted, so make sure you use it!
Think about this for a moment:
If we look at the structure of a cover letter, we can see that the sequence of the various elements is very linear.
- Begin by explaining why you are writing (i.e. the position offered), then
- Show the fit between your qualities and the company's needs, and
- Close by inviting the reader to contact you to discuss your application further
And if you want to be contacted, you need to make sure you haven't left out any of the following…
#4 – The Quickest and Easiest Way to Be Contacted
At the risk of stating the obvious: if you want to be contacted, provide your contact details.
It's true that your contact details are in your CV, but that's not a valid reason not to include them in your cover letter.
After all, why make things difficult for the selector if they decide they want to call you immediately after reading your cover letter?
So put your contact details clearly at the end of your cover letter.
In fact putting them at the start is more a question of convention than anything else – unless you think people are going to be calling you before they've even read your letter!
The details you will need to include are:
- Name and Surname
- Telephone number
A few quick life-saving tips:
- Your postal address isn't mandatory: if you prefer, you can choose not to include it.
- Provide a contact telephone number that you can be reached at: don't put your home telephone number if you're never there or if you have unreliable flatmates!
- Use a professional email address: i.e. no embarrassing “funny” email addresses.
And that brings us to the end of the section on the structure of a cover letter.
Now you know what to write let's look at how to write it!
How to Improve the Style and Presentation of Your Cover Letter [Part Three]
There are a number of formal aspects of your cover letter that you need to look out for, as selectors will also be judging your letter on these.
Here's what you need to watch out for in particular:
- Conversational style: expand upon the information set out in your CV
- Length: you're not writing a novel, so stay within set limits
- Informal tone: you can be less formal, but without going over the top
- Paper or electronic format: being aware of the characteristics of these two formats will ensure you don't slip up
Let's now look at the above in detail!
#1 – Winning Structure for a Cover Letter
Remember how important it is to use bullet points in your CV?
Well, in your cover letter, you can be a little more relaxed.
Of course, the qualities you draw attention to in the letter will be the same as those you place at the forefront of your CV.
But that's the point:
Here you can afford to elaborate a little on your qualities, emphasizing the fit between the company's expectations and your competencies.
In particular, try to express your competencies using practical direct language and objective data - numbers and percentages are ideal for this!
But pay attention to how much you write.
The space you have is limited… in fact:
#2 – 70% of Selectors Want to See This Sort of Cover Letter
How long should a cover letter be?
A cover letter needs to be short and to the point. It should add to and build upon certain aspects of your CV but within certain limits.
In terms of pages this means you shouldn't exceed one side of A4.
But don't take our word for it - ask the selectors themselves! Studies have in fact shown that 70% of selectors prefer a cover letter that is no longer than one page in length!
You shouldn't need any more space than that.
To sum up:
Room for a first paragraph talking about yourself, another two at most in which you attempt to persuade the selector, and finally the closing salutations and invitation to read your CV.
And with that, we've recapped the complete structure of the cover letter!
Ready to go on?
#3 – Informal But Not Excessively So
In your cover letter you can allow yourself to be a little less rigidly formal than in your CV, and to adopt a more personal tone.
In fact, one of the reasons why cover letters are so appreciated is that it gives selectors a glimpse into the personality of the candidate.
But be careful not to relax too much - you're not writing to your mates down the pub!
…and if you want to get an idea of what you definitely should NOT do, take a look at the worst cover letter ever written!
But keep reading...
#4 – What Everybody Needs to Know About the Format of a Cover Letter
Here are a few simple but fundamental tips about the format of cover letters:
- Email: if you send your cover letter by email, don't send it as an attachment. Instead, put it directly within the body of the email
- Form: if you fill in an online form, there will be a space for writing or uploading your letter. In this latter case, use the pdf format to avoid compatibility issues between applications
- Paper: if you send your letter on paper, print it on the same paper you used for your CV
So now we've looked at the format of a cover letter too.
Don't start writing until you have read these…
4 Tips and 3 Mistakes When Writing a Cover Letter [Part Four]
If you want to impress a selector, you really can't leave anything to chance. We've put together the main cover letter Do's and Don'ts so that you can follow the best advice and avoid the worst pitfalls!
Let's start with the Do's!
4 Practical Tips for Your Cover letter (You'll Wonder How You Ever Did Without)
Here are some top tips for writing a winning cover letter and making the most of all the tools at your disposal!
#1 – The Key Factor in a Winning Cover Letter
Personalization is the real difference between a winning cover letter and a mediocre one. Just as with a CV, the more personalized an accompanying letter, the more effective it is.
14% - that's the increase seen in the readership rate for marketing emails, when they are personalized.
And if it works for advertising, then you can be sure it will work for a cover letter, too.
So you're probably now asking yourself what you can do to achieve maximum personalization of your cover letter.
Well, don't worry, because we have the answer!
Here's a simple three-step guide to personalizing your next cover letter:
- Look for a name and surname: it's much more effective to address a cover letter to an individual person than to a company in general
- Find out more about the job: the more information you have about the job offer, the better you will be able to make a winning application
- Find out more about the company: the more information you have about the company, the better you will be able to identify which of your qualities to emphasize
It sounds easy. And it is!
#2 – Write a Cover Letter Like a Professional Author in 6 Easy Steps
We can all write but only a few know how to write well.
A cover letter needs to be readable, clear and to the point.
Unsure how to go about it but want to make sure that you get it right?
Try following these 6 simple rules put together by a writer of the calibre of George Orwell:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
- Never use a long word where a short one will do
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
- Never use the passive when you can use the active
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous
Obviously, if you do write like a professional author, you'll want to avoid ruining everything by making silly mistakes.
#3 – Find Out How Rereading Will Save Your Cover Letter
Never underestimate the importance of rereading your work before handing it in – yes, that's right, just like at school.
Typos, spelling mistakes and grammar errors are not acceptable.
Carefully reread your cover letter to ensure it does not contain any mistakes.
Then get somebody else to read it, just to be really sure!
#4 – What a Selector Expects From Your Cover Letter
You're sending your CV and cover letter to more than one company.
The companies receiving them know this.
But, for some strange reason, each company likes to think it is the only company in the world you have dedicated your attention to.
Don't shatter this illusion.
In your cover letter, don't talk about any other applications you may have underway. Write to each company as if it was your first and only choice!
Avoid These 3 Beginner's Mistakes in Your Cover Letter
To conclude, let's see some of the most common mistakes that can irreparably ruin a cover letter!
Forewarned is forearmed …
#1 – The Easiest Way to Mess Up Your Cover Letter
Job adverts contain a great deal of requirements, conditions, criteria, expectations, etc. Let's be honest, sometimes not even Superman could meet them all, let alone us mere mortals…
You've decided to reply to a job ad even though your profile is not a 100% match for the company's requirements. That's fine - you're right not to throw in the towel!
But don't now use your cover letter to explain why you don't satisfy a requirement, have less experience than requested or don't know how to use the software application they asked for.
Because you can learn to use software. And you can acquire experience.
What doesn't change is your personality, your motivation and your vision of the world.
The company knows this too. If it thinks it has seen in you that ‘certain something' it is looking for, it may decide to take a chance on you in spite of all the rest.
So don't waste your cover letter making excuses. Instead, use it to show the company who you are and what you are worth!
#2 – It's Not All You You You
So we've seen how a cover letter is about how you and the company are made for each other, as well as why you are interested in the company.
Don't focus solely on your own point of view!
Of course, the company may well interest you because of its prestige or because the position is perfect for your professional career…
But hang on a minute:
The company stands to gain nothing from being a prestigious stepping stone in your route to the top and is well aware of its own standing – it certainly doesn't need you to remind it of this.
Change your perspective!
Think about how the selector would see things: what can you give to the company? What added value would you bring? What benefits would the company gain from hiring you that it wouldn't get from anybody else?
Here's the way:
If you can approach things from the right perspective, it will help you give the right answers to the selector's questions!
#3 – One Mistake That Can Ruin a CV and Cover Letter
Your CV is one thing and the cover letter another...
Even though you can't help but repeat some material in both documents, be careful not to copy sentences or whole sections from CV to cover letter (or vice versa).
If the content is the same, change the form:
Make an effort to reformulate your words, adding new details or emphasizing something different.
There's no getting out of this obligation.
Copying material is a bad sign that suggests you didn't spend much time or effort on your application…
…and certainly you aren't going to persuade anybody of your motivation if that's the message you're sending out!
Now It's Your Turn
Congratulations, you've reached the end! ?
Now you know how to write the best cover letter of your career!
With that and your CV under your belt, you're ready to start replying to job advertisements. So why not start looking for your next opportunity!
But staring at a blank sheet of paper feeling confused?
We have prepared two examples that illustrate in detail the best and worst types of cover letter.
Just make sure you only take inspiration from the first type?!