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How to write a cover letter

Why is a cover letter important and what should you say in yours? Make the right impression with our tips and examples...

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What is a cover letter and why is it important?

A cover letter is a letter that you write about yourself and submit alongside your CV when applying for a job. Within it you explain why you’re the right candidate for that role, based on your experience and skills.

A potential employer might use it as an ‘introduction to you’ before moving on to your CV, so it’s important to make a strong impression here.

Like you would tailor your CV to the specific role you’re applying for, you should write a cover letter with a particular job in mind.

You can use your cover letter in a couple of other ways. For instance, you can address any mitigating circumstances that might deter someone from hiring you. An example would be explaining a valid reason for any gaps in your job history (such as illness).

The concise, bullet point structure of a CV can make it hard to stand out. But the narrative structure of a cover letter gives you more room to come across as a real person, rather than just a faceless candidate. Be careful about sounding too informal or standing out for all the wrong reasons, such as trying to be funny.

 

When do you need a cover letter?

A job application should explicitly say whether or not to include a cover letter with your CV. 

If you include one when you’ve been asked not to, a potential employer might just skip it and jump straight into your CV. The worst case? You’ve shown you’re not very good at following simple instructions.

If you don’t include a cover letter, you could include a short introduction at the beginning of your CV (space permitting) to do the same job. We cover introductions in our guide to writing a CV.

If a job description doesn’t say anything about a cover letter, play it safe and include one just in case. It’s an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your writing skills if this is an important aspect of the role.

University or college students applying for a part-time job probably won’t need to include a cover letter.

 

How should you structure your cover letter?

We go into more detail below about what you should include in your cover letter, depending on your experience and the sort of job you’re applying for. This includes the key information to have at the top, who to address it to and how to sign off.

It might be helpful to view your cover letter like a personal statement that you write when applying to university. However, a cover letter is much shorter: it should be no longer than roughly three quarters of one side of A4 (white) paper, and broken up into a few short paragraphs.

Like your CV, stick to a sensible font type, size and colour.

If you’re emailing over an electronic version of your cover letter, send a PDF version (so it appears as it should, regardless of the device its opened on) with a clear filename.

 

What should go in your cover letter? 

1) Contact details

You should include the same contact information at the top of your cover letter as you would for your CV, in case it gets separated. 

Like a letter, the following should be at the top of the page (left or right-aligned):
  • full name
  • phone number (home and mobile)
  • email address
  • current address (doesn't have to be in full).

Protecting your personal data: explore Which? Consumer Rights advice on looking after your personal information
 

2) Who to address your cover letter to

Like all letters, a cover letter is written to a specific person and therefore needs to be addressed to them at the start. 

The job listing should say who this is. This can be a human resources (HR) manager who's in charge of recruitment for that employer, but it could also be a manager or the person you would report to if you get the job. 

If the job listing doesn’t clarify who this is, don’t be afraid to get in touch directly by phone or email. This shows initiative and is an early opportunity to make a personal connection, which can work in your favour.

If you’re struggling to find an individual to address your cover letter to, you may write ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or ‘To whom it may concern’ instead.

 

3) Clarify the role you're applying to

Begin simply by stating the role you are applying for. Sometimes it can be useful to say how/where you heard about the role, whether it was on a particular website or through a friend or peer – the latter suggests that person is recommending you, which might give you a small advantage.

EXAMPLE –
I wish to apply for the Data Analyst position in your organisation, as advertised on your website. Please also find my CV for your consideration.

Now you’ve clarified the role you’re applying for, you can highlight why you’re the perfect candidate for it.

 

4) Describe your current status and general experience

Next, say who you are – easy, right? 

You don’t need to tack on any bells and whistles.
  • If you’re a school/college student applying for a part-time job: say where you go to school, what year you’re in and what you’re studying. You may want to drop in your forthcoming plans for the future (if you have any):

EXAMPLE – 
I’m in my second year of my A-levels at St John’s College, studying English, biology and drama. I've received a conditional offer from the University of Sussex to study English and drama in September.

This may be relevant if you’re applying to a degree apprenticeship too.
 
  • If you’re a graduate applying for that first job out of uni: say where you’ve graduated from and your qualification (including classification):

EXAMPLE – 
I’m a graduate of the University of Sussex with a first class bachelor’s degree in English and Drama.

Let them know if you’ve taken a gap year since graduating, including what you did (and preferably how it’s made you a strong candidate for this role). 

EXAMPLE – 
I’ve spent the last six months volunteering in Ethiopia, leading a missionary programme – a role that’s been personally fulfilling and empowering me with a range of skills I’m excited to bring to a role like this, including motivating a team and problem-solving.
  • If you’re currently working and applying for another job: outline the field/s you’ve been working in, including some of your key responsibilities or specific areas of focus:

EXAMPLE – 
I’ve been working in digital marketing for a charity for the past three years. My main responsibilities are email marketing, social media management and content creation for a start-up.

By highlighting a few of the areas you’ve been involved with, you may be kept in mind for another role if you're unsuccessful here.

 

4) Why you’re looking for a new role

You may want to touch on why you’re applying to this role, especially if you’re currently employed. Below are some tips about tailoring this to the role you're applying to. 
  • Do you want to move into a totally new area? Perhaps one that you’ve had a taste of and really enjoyed? 
  • Do you want to do the same role, but in a different sector? Such as moving from a marketing position for a commercial business to a charity? 
  • Are you looking for more responsibility? Which you can’t get in your current role, in order to progress on to a long-term goal? 
  • Have your personal circumstances changed? An example would be relocating to be closer to family.



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    5) Demonstrate your key strengths and achievements

    Now it’s time to show what you’ve done or achieved up to now, and how this makes you the perfect fit for the role in question (including any standout achievements or stats to back this up). 

    Don’t forget to relate these to the key skills or knowledge that have been set out in the job description, and use the extra space to elaborate on these – don’t just repeat what’s in your CV word for word.
    • If you’re a school/college student applying for a part-time job (or a degree apprenticeship): what have you achieved in your studies that demonstrates these key skills? 
    Have you won any awards or come top in your year in exams? This would show your work ethic? Have you headed up any clubs or societies where you’ve had to be organised or lead by example?

    Alternatively, are you involved in any sports teams where you’ve worked closely with and/or motivated others?

    EXAMPLE – 
    I’ve run our weekly revision clubs to help struggling students with school work. As well as organising this from week to week (eg booking rooms, promoting the club, sourcing students to help), the one-to-one mentoring has allowed me to sharpen my communication and motivational skills, and has been extremely satisfying to see their progress.
     
    • If you’re a graduate applying for that first job out of uni: like above, think about what you’ve achieved academically. For example, did you get a first class degree? Have you specialised in a relevant area?
    What about your extracurricular activities? Were you the head of a society at uni? Have you completed any internships with impressive organisations?

    EXAMPLE – 
    As editor of the university newspaper, I was responsible for overseeing the production of more than 40 issues, including sourcing exciting new contributors and managing strict budgets. In that time, the paper won several awards for its investigation into X.
     
    • If you’re currently working and applying for another job: you’ll have already mentioned the general areas you have experience in, but now it’s time to highlight the impact you’ve made. 
    This could be the breadth of responsibilities in a short time:

    EXAMPLE – 
    After just a few months of completing the company’s grad scheme, I was promoted to the role of account manager for a number of clients across different sectors, involving planning, implementing and reporting on all of their paid display activity. While it was challenging, I’ve continued to meet key targets, while my ability to manage clients’ expectations satisfactorily was pulled out as a key strength in a recent client review survey.
     

    Key targets you've achieved:

    EXAMPLE – 
    One such client has seen sign-ups climb 31% in a year since I’ve led on their account, resulting in a 5% growth in annual revenue. 

    Or being part of a project that’s been big news in your field:

    EXAMPLE –  
    I was part of the team that worked on Project X, which received critical acclaim within the X industry. I was specifically responsible for overseeing X, Y and Z in this project. This wonderful experience early in my career was capped off by winning an X award for Y.

     

    6) Why that company/organisation/field?

    This is your opportunity to show you’ve taken some initiative, done your research and are passionate about getting this role in particular. You want to prove this isn’t just another application out of a hundred you’ve churned out.

    Is there something about this role that makes it stand out from similar roles elsewhere? 

    EXAMPLE – 
    The chance to apply my skills and collaborate with Dr Jane Smith and her team is one I couldn’t let slip. Also, the opportunities to grow in this organisation through X, Y and Z fill me with confidence.

    Is the organisation entering a particularly significant period that you’re keen to be a part of (and most importantly, that you feel you can contribute to in a big way)? 

    EXAMPLE – 
    The organisation’s expansion into South America is something I would be thrilled to be a part of. My sixth-month stint in Mexico delivering the X project gave me a whole new perspective on this market, but was all too short. Returning to the continent with the experience I now have would be a fresh, exciting challenge.
     

    Is the role or organisation involved in something you’re personally invested in? 

    EXAMPLE – 
    A family member’s recent experience with X has given me a whole new appreciation of the work Y do. I have been volunteering for Z for the past six months, something that has been a great source of pride. To contribute further in a professional capacity would be all the more rewarding, while I believe my distinctive perspective would benefit the work I do and the organisation as a result.

    This is where it may help to mention any ambitions or goals you have for the future, although be careful not to take your eye off the role you’re applying for (and definitely don’t make it sound like you want to steal your manager’s job!).

     

    7) Conclusion: reiterate (with impact)

    Finish up with a short, punchy conclusion reiterating some of the key aspects you’ve outlined above – don’t drag it out.

    Do this in a way that will make an employer excited to meet you for an interview (or at least get across your enthusiasm to meet them and learn more about the role).

    If you’ve addressed your cover letter to a specific individual, sign off with ‘Yours sincerely’; if you don’t know the name of the recipient, stick to ‘Yours faithfully’.

     

    Cover letter examples

    As well as the examples we’ve given above, you can find cover letter templates on Indeed (including job-specific letters), Prospects and Reed.


    Is your CV the best it can be? Read our CV how-to guide including how to structure your CV and what not to do.

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