Covering letters

The basics

When it comes to writing a covering letter, you can probably learn more from the personal columns than you can from the jobs pages. Get it wrong and at best you’ll condemn yourself to a miserable, unfulfilling 40-year relationship; at worst you’ll end up, alone and unwanted, on the job scrap heap.

A covering letter isn’t just a piece of paper in which you wrap your CV: it’s the first stage in your marketing assault on the job market. Like it or not, you’re a commodity, and if you can’t sell yourself, you won’t be much use to an employer competing in the marketplace.

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. The recipient of your letter will read it and form judgments about your personality and your suitability for the job. Use it as a chance to highlight your strengths and any experience that is relevant to the job. Pick out points from your CV and elaborate on them.

It may sound like common sense, but it’s amazing how many candidates get it wrong. Shelley, a human resources officer at a TV company, has seen more than her fair share of howlers. “The best – or worst – example I can think of is the applicant who sent a letter which just said ‘Gis a job!'” she recalls. “Needless to say, I didn’t. Then there was the letter that sounded brilliant and original – until I realised that I’d read it before, on the internet. The candidate had plagiarised it, word for word.”

Bad covering letters come in all forms – from the embarrassing to the dull. “I’ve lost track of the number of letters which just say ‘Please consider me for the job as ‘x’. I enclose my CV’,” says Shelley. “The applicant hasn’t put any effort in – so however good their resume is, it’ll probably just end up in the bin, unread. Another bugbear is the standard letter: it’s always obvious when the candidate has just changed the name and job details and it doesn’t give you much confidence in their enthusiasm for the job.”

Some candidates let themselves down with messy handwriting or poor spelling. “Getting the recipient’s name wrong is never a good start,” says Shelley. “And neither is getting your facts mixed up. Don’t say you saw the advertisement in the Guardian when it was actually in a trade magazine. If you’re unsure about anything, check it.”

Before you put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – you should bear in mind ‘the three Cs’. Organisations prefer Conciseness and Clarity over Comprehensiveness.

Use just one side of A4, with no more than four paragraphs on it. Structure your letter in three parts: the first sets the scene and explains why you are writing, the second provides supporting evidence or information about you and is your chance to show what sets you apart from other candidates.

Always accentuate the positive – for example, if you didn’t get a class of degree that reflected your ability, highlight the amount of time you spent on student activities. The third part is for ‘next steps’, such as ‘I look forward to hearing from you’.

When you’ve finished your letter, read it carefully. Have you got your main points across? Do you sound like a good, interesting candidate? Then show it to someone else for comments, such as a careers adviser.

And always keep a copy of your letter, so you don’t get caught out at interview.

Want to know what Shelley considers the best covering letter she’s ever received? “It was from a guy applying for a copywriting job,” she recalls. “He wrote a story all about a man who had a hamster called Shelley. He was so sad that the hamster had died that when he saw my name, he felt he just had to apply to me. Of course that was just the beginning and the end of the letter – in the middle he sold himself very well. I thought it was brilliant. And I still remember it, three years on.”


Three examples

A covering letter isn’t just a protective jacket for your CV: it’s an advert for it, as well as for you. After all, if you can’t sell yourself (the thinking goes), you won’t be much good to a company competing in today’s marketplace. And if you don’t put any effort into a job letter, or it’s sloppily written, the chances are you’ll be a lazy, unproductive and sloppy employee.

Try using one of these three styles, but remember, they are just a guide – don’t use them as a template.

1. Standard, conservative style for sectors such as business, law, accountancy, retail. Don’t send a letter like this for a creative position – they’ll stick it straight in the bin.

Dear Mr Black,

Please find enclosed my CV in application for the post advertised in the Guardian on 31 November.

The nature of my degree course has prepared me for this position. It involved a great deal of independent research, requiring initiative, self-motivation and a wide range of skills. For one course, [insert course], an understanding of the [insert sector] industry was essential. I found this subject very stimulating.

I am a fast and accurate writer, with a keen eye for detail and I should be very grateful for the opportunity to progress to market reporting. I have not only the ability to take on the responsibility of this position immediately, but also the enthusiasm and determination to ensure that I make a success of it.

Thank you for taking the time to consider this application and I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

Yours sincerely

2. Standard speculative letter – vary according to the nature of the company.

Dear Mr Brown,

I am writing to enquire if you have any vacancies in your company. I enclose my CV for your information.

As you can see, I have had extensive vacation work experience in office environments, the retail sector and service industries, giving me varied skills and the ability to work with many different types of people. I believe I could fit easily into your team.

I am a conscientious person who works hard and pays attention to detail. I’m flexible, quick to pick up new skills and eager to learn from others. I also have lots of ideas and enthusiasm. I’m keen to work for a company with a great reputation and high profile like [insert company name].

I have excellent references and would be delighted to discuss any possible vacancy with you at your convenience. In case you do not have any suitable openings at the moment, I would be grateful if you would keep my CV on file for any future possibilities.

Yours sincerely

3. Letter for a creative job (in this case, to be a copywriter). The aim of a creative letter is to be original and show you have imagination, but understand what the job entails. Balance is essential: don’t be too wacky, or it will turn off the reader. Never send a letter like this to a conservative company.

Dear Ms Green,

· Confused by commas?
· Puzzled by parenthesis?
· Stumped by spelling?
· Perturbed by punctuation?
· Annoyed at the apostrophe? (And alliteration?)

Well, you’re not alone. It seems that fewer and fewer people can write. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people who can read. So they’ll spot a gaffe a mile off. And that means it’s a false economy, unless you’re 100% sure of yourself, to write your own materials. (Or to let clients do it for themselves.)

To have materials properly copywritten is, when one considers the whole process of publishing materials and the impact that the client wishes to make, a minor expense. Sloppiness loses clients, loses customers.

There is an answer. Me. Firm quotes are free. You can see some of what I do on my multilingual website at [insert web address]. If you’d like, I can get some samples out to you within 24 hours. And, if you use me, you’ll have some sort of guarantee that you can sleep soundly as those tens of thousands of copies are rolling off the presses.

Luck shouldn’t come into it!

With kindest regards


Covering letter no-nos

Covering letters are your first sales pitch to a potential employer. Employers receive hundreds of CVs and covering letters from people who are applying for the job you want. Your goal is to stand out from the other candidates.A good covering letter introduces you to the employer and explains why you are one of the best candidates applying for the job. By avoiding the following no-nos, you can create a covering letter that stands out from the crowd.

· Forgetting to proofread your letter for errors and tone before you send it. Make sure your letter has no spelling, typing, or grammatical errors. Job applicants are frequently deselected because of such mistakes.

· Addressing the letter to the wrong person.
Call the company and find out the name and title of the person to whom you should address your letter. It shows initiative and resourcefulness, and will impress your reader that you figured out a way to address them personally. Use their name and title and don’t try to guess their gender.

· Using someone else’s words.
Make sure that your letter sounds like you, not like something out of a book. Your covering letter, as well as your CV, should be an accurate reflection of your personality. Employers are looking for knowledge, enthusiasm, and focus.

· Betraying your ignorance about the company and the industry.
This is where your research comes in. Don’t go overboard – just make it clear that you didn’t pick this company out of the phone book. You know who they are, what they do, and you have chosen them.

· Being too informal.
Promote yourself as a professional. Your letter should be as close to a business proposal as you can get – not a plea for an interview. What do you offer that is of value? What objectives can you help them achieve?

· Talking too much about yourself.
Downplay ‘I’ and emphasise ‘you’. Try to convert ‘I haves’ into ‘you wants’ for the employer. What can you do for the organisation that will create interest and arouse a desire for an interview with you?

· Being too cocky.
If you meet all the stated requirements for the job, spell this out in your letter – but don’t lay it on too thick. Accentuate the good match between your skills and their needs.

· Lacking focus.
Structure your letter so that each part achieves a particular goal. State the purpose of your letter in your opening paragraph. Keep the letter organised. Decide on the focus of your letter and ensure that all points reinforce the topic.

· Boring presentation.
Draw attention to your skills and attributes by underlining them, bolding them, or indenting them in lists with bullets. You have to be careful with underlining because the line is often printed too close to the word, and reduces its readability. Use these kinds of emphasis sparingly just to make the highlights stand out when the reader gives your letter a quick skim.

· Droning on too long.
Keep it simple and clean – not cluttered. Use no more than seven lines, and preferably five or fewer, per paragraph. Vary the sentence length. None of the sentences should be very long, but you don’t want a staccato stream of very short sentences. One page is the maximum for letters.

· Sending photocopies.
Send original letters. Don’t send copies that look mass-produced. Don’t use typewriters or dot matrix printers and never hand-write your letter.

· Forgetting to include a copy of your CV.
Remember that the one purpose for a covering letter is to get your CV into the hands of the employer and to obtain an interview.

· Enclosing a photo.
Unless you are seeking employment in modelling, acting, or other performance industries, it is not appropriate to send a photograph with your covering letter. An employer will see what you look like, should you reach the interview stage. Until then, a photo won’t help you get a foot in the door.

· Forgetting to ask.
If you don’t ask… The primary goal of your covering letter is to get an interview. Be sure to ask for one at the end of your covering letter. Be prepared to initiate the follow-up communication yourself and let your prospective employer know you will be doing this. This may be just enough to get them to hold onto your letter and give it a more thorough reading.

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