Covering letters

A covering letter is the very first glimpse that a potential employer will get of your potential - so make sure you stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons.

Covering letters

There are no set rules about the form your letter should take, but there are certain basic things you’ll need to include. Our guide below should help you to get it right.

The salutation
A covering letter is a formal piece of communication, and when in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of formality. So write “Dear Dr Jones” rather than “Dear Claire” unless you know the recipient personally. “Dear Sir or Madam” should only be used if you don’t have a name and “To whom it may concern”, can be used, but it is used less often now.

The opening line
It’s important to establish exactly what your letter is about right from the start. If you’re simply replying to a job advertisement, say so, referring clearly to the position you’re interested in.

If you’re sending your CV out on spec, you’ll need to think more carefully about your opening line. The recipient will be getting your letter out of the blue, so it’s vital to write something that will grab their attention. Focus from the outset on the reader. Put aside your own objectives for a moment and think what they will want and need from a potential employee.

Say, for example, that you want a job as a researcher. Rather than starting like this:

  • “I am interested in working for you as a researcher …”

It would be better to start:

  • “I am aware that your organisation is recruiting for researcher in nanotechnology, I have several years’ experience in this field ...”

Selling yourself
Next, pitch your skills to them in a way that clearly meets the criteria they’ve set out in the job description. It’s surprisingly rare for a candidate to make direct links between the qualities an employer is after and their abilities and experience. Doing so will really help you to stand out.

Start by listing the qualities they’re looking for. Then think of examples from your working life when you’ve displayed those qualities really strongly. For example, if they say they want someone with good team-working skills, think of incidents in which you have personally helped a group to work better together, solved differences or boosted co-operation.

Boil down each example to a sentence or two, and focus on concrete, measurable achievements wherever possible. You needn’t cover the whole person spec exhaustively; stick to four or five areas where you know you are particularly strong.

Call to action
If you’re replying to an advertisement, this won’t be necessary, but if you’re writing to them on spec, you should specify what the next steps will be. Will you telephone them in a week’s time, for example, or ask them to contact you?

Sign off
“Yours”, “Yours sincerely” or “Yours truly” are fine. Sign offs like “Best wishes” or “Best regards” are too informal unless you know the person well. “Yours faithfully” is only correct form if you’ve begun your letter “Dear Sir or Madam”.

Other points to remember

  • Don’t make it too long. If you write more than two pages of A4, the chances are they simply won’t read all that lovingly crafted prose
  • Indicate enthusiasm. Say why you’re keen on the job, and how it fits in with your career goals
  • Mention enclosures, such as your CV, written references or examples of your work, in the letter
  • Typos will count as an obvious black mark against you. So check your spelling, grammar and punctuation

last edited: October 01, 2012