A cover letter is your opportunity to explain to an employer why you are applying to them, and how your skills, knowledge and experiences fit the role and organisation.
You should communicate effectively to the reader:
- why you want to work in their organisation
- why you want to work in that particular role
- why your strengths, skills and experience make you the right candidate
Ideally your cover letter and your CV will be read together but you can never be sure, so try to make sure they can each stand alone. That means your cover letter should refer to key facts from the CV but should amplify rather than duplicate. Your CV should present more detailed evidence to back up the points you make in the cover letter.
Structure and content
There is no ‘magic formula’ for cover letters, but the following outline can provide a helpful structure. Think of sections rather than paragraphs, since some aspects may require two paragraphs. These sections may appear in different orders for different applications. Keep it to one side of A4.
Always try to find a name, rather than a job title, as it demonstrates that you researched the organisation. ‘Dear Ms Smith’ is much better than ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ (avoid ‘To whom it may concern’). Remember the signing off rule of ‘yours sincerely’ if it is addressed to a named person and ‘yours faithfully’ if not.
Include who you are, your degree subject, university and situation – recently graduated, about to graduate, penultimate year. Explain why you are writing (to apply for X position/looking for work experience) and where you saw the position advertised or, if it’s a speculative application, where you heard about the organisation.
Gill Lambert, Careers Consultant
This blog focuses on how to research a company, an activity which is needed to make your cover letter stand out and also to answer the inevitable interview question “Why do you want to work for us?”
I wrote this blog because my daughter recently asked me how to research a company. She graduated last summer and is looking for work through for graduate schemes. I advised her to use the checklist below to organise the information and then I suggested a number of ways of gathering it.
- Basics: what the company does, who its customers are, who its competitors are
- Size & Reach: how many employees they have, where their offices are
- History: origins and defining moments
- Industry: trends, opportunities, threats
- Financials & Operations: how, where and why it is growing (staying stable or shrinking), future plans
- Reputation: what it offers that’s unique compared to its competitors, its market share, its reputation in the industry
- News: press releases and articles
- Structure: the names of executives and advisers profiled on their employees page, how the company is organised, how the department that you are applying to impacts on the company’s business,
- Ethics: values, aims, personnel policies
Application Adviser Emily gives us 10 top tips for preparing an application for a banking/finance role …
- Check closing dates: The deadlines for applying to graduate jobs in this sector are very early in the academic year – sometimes October of the year before you would start the job. Internships too are advertised in the autumn semester. Start researching job and internship opportunities ASAP so that you don’t miss out. And don’t leave applications until the deadline; some graduate schemes and graduate jobs will close earlier than advertised if enough applications from qualified candidates have been received.
- Understand the sector: Many students have a vague idea that they want to work in finance because the industry has a reputation for high salaries and challenging, exciting work. But you need to fully understand the way it works and the type of role you would be suited to. Research on the internet, read the financial news (for example the Financial Times) and consult the resources in the Careers Information Room. Attend networking events, where you can also get first-hand advice from companies’ recruiters. Your answers to questions about motivation in application forms and at interviews will be far more persuasive if you really understand the field and the requirements of different roles.
- Read application forms carefully: Make sure you understand what is required by the application process of each company you apply for. Banks often have similar but slightly different application forms, for example – although the difference of emphasis in a question might seem minor, it might call for a quite different response. Also, some employers ask you to fill in a form, some ask for a CV, some for a CV and form, some for a CV and a cover letter – and there are many other variations! Make sure you have enough time to answer all the questions and prepare the necessary documents.
Application Adviser Emily takes us through some of the common mistakes students make when it comes to cover letters. Remember, you can book a 1-2-1 appointment for feedback on your cover letter, CV or application.
- Misunderstanding what a cover letter is: A cover letter can be a confusing document and so it’s important to understand its purpose. The most crucial function of a cover letter is to convince the employer of your motivation. When writing it, you have the opportunity to address some topics which won’t feature in your CV at all: why you want to work for the company and why you want that particular job/internship.
- Prioritising CVs and forgetting about cover letters: Sometimes students I meet in the Careers and Enterprise Centre ask whether cover letters or CVs are more important to recruiters. It is difficult to give a definitive answer because different employers treat applications differently – some might spend time focusing on the cover letter, while others focus primarily on the CV; some might weight both equally. But if you are asked for both documents, you should write your CV and cover letter in such a way that they work together to present an overall impression of you as a well-qualified candidate. Students often fear repetition – they don’t want to bore employers by talking about the same experience on their CV and in their cover letter. While you certainly shouldn’t repeat exact sentences or phrases, you can mention a particular project or period of work experience on both your CV and cover letter. The key difference it is that while both CV and cover letter should be tailored to the job description, explicitly showing how your previous experience has given you the skills required by the position you’re applying for, the CV will be a record of your relevant skills across your education, work experience and voluntary activities. In the cover letter, on the other hand, you can highlight the particular projects or work experiences you most want the employer to notice, and highlight your most impressive accomplishments, your most relevant skills and your key selling points.
Applications Adviser Emily Hogg takes a look at 5 common mistakes students make when writing their CV, and how you can avoid them.
- Formatting problems: Different industries have different CV requirements. For example, banking and finance CVs should be one page long, and engineering CVs should include details of projects you have worked on during your degree. Research the particular requirements for your career area. If you are an international student applying to jobs in the UK, note that British CVs should be 2 pages maximum (except for banking and finance CVs), they should not include a photograph, and they should describe explicitly how you have the skills the employer is looking for. Also, it’s best not to use the Europass CV to apply for jobs in the UK – have a look at our online resources for examples.
- Including long paragraphs of text: You want to be detailed in your CV and ensure that you give the employer all the relevant information, but you also need to make sure that they read it and notice all your excellent experience! Because recruiters tend to receive many applications, they prefer easy-to-read formats. Blocks of text look like they will take a long time to read. Instead, use bullet points to break up the information and short sections to highlight the key details.
- Sending generic CVs: Don’t send the same CV to every job you apply to. This might seem like a time-saving approach, but it is less effective than tailoring your CV to each vacancy. Employers are different and similar-sounding jobs have different requirements. Take the time to explicitly show how your previous experience has helped you to develop the specific skills the employer is looking for; you can find these skills in the job description and person specification.
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter (sometimes called a covering letter or supporting statement) allows you to personalise your job application and explain your CV, explaining your motivation for the job, your enthusiasm for the particular role and, most importantly your understanding of the organisation that you are applying to. You should always send a cover letter with your CV unless you are told otherwise.
- It’s a single page letter, which is a tailor-made personal statement for a particular job and organisation.
- A cover letter is not just a repeat of your CV.
- The advice below is also applicable when completing an application form and responding to: ‘Please use the space below to indicate why you feel that you are suitable for this post, including details of relevant skills and experience’ (but this will not be addressed to a named individual).
How do I write a cover letter?
Your cover letter should have a clear beginning, middle and end.
- Address your cover letter to a named contact whenever possible to show you have sent it to them personally. You will usually find these details in the application pack – make sure you have spelt them correctly!
- A clear introduction – explain who you are (e.g. a recent QMUL graduate), what position you are applying for, and how you heard about the role.
What is a CV?
A curriculum vitae (CV) is a record of your experience, skills, achievements and education, and is an important document which is a crucial part of applying for a job. It’s not simply a list of everything you have ever done, but instead a way of “selling” your skills and experiences to an employer, in relation to a particular role.
CVs for most jobs in the UK should be two sides long, however there are two exceptions to this rule: if you are applying for a job in the financial sector, or for a position in the USA. Check the individual job application in these cases, but unless otherwise stated, your CV should be only one side long for these applications.
The golden rule for writing a CV is that it must be tailored to the role you are applying to, i.e. you write a new CV for each role and demonstrate how you match what an employer is looking for.
What should you include?
- Your full name should come at the top of your CV, preferably in bold and in a larger font than the rest of your CV.
- Next comes your address, but try to fit this on one line if you can – space is valuable! On the next two lines include your telephone number and email You do not need to include your date of birth.
- You do not need to write ‘CV’ or ‘Curriculum Vitae’ at the top, as it is clear what the document is.
- You may wish to include a short profile (or personal statement). While this is not compulsory, it can make your CV stand out from the crowd by providing employers with a summary of your key skills. It’s also an opportunity to highlight any particularly relevant achievements or experiences you want to draw the recruiter’s attention to. Make sure that this is relevant to the role you are applying for.