How to write a cover letter

Your CV is important but it is not the only opportunity to impress a potential employer. Cover letters – or even cover emails – are a further opportunity to motivate the employer to invite you to interview. Your cover letter shouldn't tell employers everything that your CV says, but it is important to choose a few highlights from your CV that encourage them to read it. For further inspiration on cover letter writing, make sure you also visit our CareerHub+ resources.

Tips for writing a cover letter

Think of the cover letter as your shop window: you want employers to come in and find out more about the product: you. So put items in the window that you know will interest them – you then motivate them to read your CV. You’re not going to send the same letter with every job application: all employers seek different skills. Plus, the skills you want to showcase – and the order you want to showcase them in - will change with every job too. So use this as a rough guide, rather than a hard rule, for what to include in your letter. Tailoring your letter means changing the “window” display so that the employer sees the skills/strengths that you want them to see. 

When writing your cover letter:

  • Research the company online to further understand what the company is looking for in top candidates.
  • Don’t worry about using fancy words for your first draft, write from the heart then formalise the language later.
  • Avoid generic words that anyone can use (e.g. hardworking), focus on showcasing your unique strengths.
  • Don’t hesitate to show off your achievements. Help them to see just how good you are. 

Formatting your cover letter

As a general rule, let the length of the Person Specification influence your letter length. If the job criteria’s fairly brief: one page will be sufficient. If the criteria is fairly long, then aim for 1-2 pages. Make sure you pay attention to details such as grammar, spelling and presentation. Keep formatting simple with fonts such as Arial or Calibri, and use black font colour only – unless it’s for a creative role. Where possible, address the letter to a specific person. Proactive online research, or taking the iniative to call and enquire, means you ensure the letter is seen by the right manager as quickly as possible. 

Structuring your cover letter

Generally, employers want to know that you are:

  • Motivated – tell them why you’re applying for this role / organisation
  • Qualified – showcase relevant skills or experience that you’ve identified from the Person Spec as important
  • Compatible – that you are a good fit for their organisation and/or share the same values / priorities.

Essentially you need to answer: Why you? Why this role? Why do you want to work for this organisation? Some students find it helpful to structure their letter so that each paragraph addresses a different theme –e.g. paragraph 1 is why you want the role, paragraph 2 shows off work experience, etc. Others find it easier to brainstorm these themes and build their letter around them. Templates and examples are useful to review – see CareerHub+. But remember: there is no right/wrong way to structure your letter, your letter should be as unique as you are. Do company research and use relevant language to showcase your commercial awareness alongside your job motivations.

Language and tone of voice

Essentially the cover letter is a series of ‘selfies’ that shows you in action at work or study. They can then imagine you in the role, slotting into their team with ease. It needs to be readable, well written, and include keywords from the job criteria. Cover letters are also a great opportunity to showcase your good written communication skills. The employer needs to know that you have the language skills to be able to liaise well with stakeholders, and the commercial awareness of their sector that means you can hit the ground running.

Across your letter, use vocabulary which implies a good insight to their business or the role. For example, a retail employer might use the term customer, whereas a bank employer might prefer the term client. Analysing the job information, company website, and social media such as LinkedIn, will help you to identify relevant language. You also want the employer to see the energy and enthusiasm you’ll bring to the role. Use active/dynamic language which helps them to see you in action – for example, verbs such as facilitating, liaising, coordinating.