CVs & Cover Letters

What Is a Cover Letter?

June 25, 2021

Although cover letters are not always required when applying for a job, many recruiters still rely on them to gauge a candidate's skills, experience and background. By submitting a cover letter even when it's not mandatory, you show the employer that you are genuinely interested in the opportunity and that you will go above and beyond in your role. In this article, we explain what a cover letter is and provide some tips on how to write an effective cover letter.

Related: How to Write a Cover Letter

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a document that is around three to four paragraphs in length which details your interest in the opportunity and the company. It also lets you show how you are a good fit for the role in question. Cover letters are generally one page long and are submitted alongside your CV.

Your cover letter should highlight your achievements, experience and skills in relation to the position you are applying for. It differs from your CV, since it enables you to highlight aspects of your professional career in greater detail. A well-written cover letter can make you stand out from the other candidates.

How to format a cover letter

You should format your cover letter like a business letter. Below is the format your cover letter should follow:

1. Header

Include a header with your contact information and the date.

2. Greeting

You should always open with a greeting. You can use Dear Sir/Madam or To Whom It May Concern. It is a good idea to try and find out the name of the hiring manager, however, if you cannot, these options will work.

3. Opening paragraph

Here you should refer to the role and the company. You should align this information to why you would like to work in the business and role.

4. Middle paragraphs

In the middle paragraphs, you can expand on your interest in the role and the company, referencing your achievements to date, experience and education.

5. Signing off paragraph

In this paragraph, you should summarise what you have said above and thank them for taking the time to read your cover letter.

6. End the letter and add your signature

Finish off the letter with your signature.

Cover letters should generally not exceed one page. For best practices, you should opt for a professional, simple font, such as Times New Roman or Arial in 10 to 12 points in size. Ensure you choose left alignment for your document and have single spacing one inch wide margins.

Related: 7 Powerful Ways to Start a Cover Letter (With Examples)

How to write a great cover letter

Follow the below steps to write a great cover letter. These steps cover how to write your cover letter from start to finish and detail what you should include.

1. Begin by adding a header to your cover letter

Just as you would with any other business letter, be sure to include a header on your cover letter. This header should include your information and the company's information. For your section, include your name, phone number and email, and the date. For the recipient's section, include their name, title, the company name and address, and their contact information.

2. Open with a greeting

When researching the company you are applying for, try to figure out the name of the hiring manager. This looks a lot better than writing the generic 'To Whom It May Concern' or 'Dear Sir/Madam' and as a result, will help you to stand out. If you cannot manage to find out their name, use a greeting such as 'Dear Hiring Manager', while this is not their name, it will still help you stand out from those who write the more generic openings.

3. Opening paragraph - mention the role you are applying for & express your interest

In the opening paragraph of your cover letter, write the job role that you're applying for and mention where you first saw the job. Once you have mentioned this, you can start to get into why you would like to work in this role and express your interest in the position. Be sure that when you speak about your interest that you not just mention why you would like the role but that you also bring the company into it.

For example, you could say that the company has a great reputation, seems like an excellent place to work, or mention the culture. Once you have expressed your interest, you should briefly state the main qualifications and experience you have that makes you feel you are a good fit. Remember that this part of the cover letter is where the hiring manager will form their first impression of you so it definitely counts.

4. Second paragraph - speak about your background and how it is relevant to the role

In the following paragraph, you should draw on your career background and try to align that with the role for which you're applying for. In this section of your letter, you should speak about your skillet, achievements, and specialties that make you an excellent fit for the position. Ideally, you should try to focus primarily on one or two and give specific details about your success, for example, measurable impacts you have made working as a salesperson.

Another rule of thumb here is to closely analyse the job description. By doing this, you can see what words are being used to describe the ideal candidate and inject some of these into your cover letter. In the cover letter, you should only speak about a couple of your professional experiences, your CV will tell them about the other places you have worked.

5. Closing - focus on a relevant skill or achievement

Your closing paragraph can focus on another skill or achievement that is particularly relevant to the role. Rather than just repeating what is on your CV, you should try to expand on specific anecdotes or stories that illustrate your fitness for the position. This section can be a great opportunity to mention transferrable skills if you're making a career change also.

6. Sign off professionally

Similarly to a college essay, you should sign your cover letter off with a paragraph that summarises all the main reasons that you are applying for the job and why you are a great fit. You should try and keep this conclusion to the point and brief. After you have done that, say that you are looking forward to hearing from them. Finish by adding your signature to the bottom of the letter.

Related: 10 Best Skills to Include on a CV

Cover letter tips

Below are some useful tips for writing an effective cover letter:

Do your research

Beyond being a piece of paper that highlights your talents, a cover letter is also where you show your knowledge of the company and the industry it is in. You should always do your research before writing up your cover letter. Look at their website and their social media accounts to get a good impression of who they are and their culture. If you can connect this research with the reasons you want to work in the role, you are sure to impress the hiring manager.

Be okay with speaking highly of yourself

Your cover letter is supposed to be about you and hiring managers are on the hunt for those who can prove their worth to the business. The last thing a company expects when reading a cover letter is selfless employees, they are not going to hire someone who cannot display exactly how they can benefit the company. So, speak about your relevant skills, experience, and how these attributes will enable you to help the business going forward.

Don't be afraid to be compelling

Since hiring managers read so many cover letters, they often have limited time to spend on each candidate. Therefore, you need to ensure that your letter will grab their attention and that they will engage with it. Try to use proactive language and be very direct.

Show off your enthusiasm

All companies are looking for energetic and enthusiastic individuals to join their teams so it is important that your energy jumps off the page when they read your cover letter. Since you will be up against lots of other candidates with similar experience levels and qualifications, showing off your enthusiasm for the role could be the one thing that sets you apart.

Try to keep things brief

The biggest challenge when it comes to writing a cover letter is trying to keep it brief and to one-page in length. Try to keep in mind that the hiring manager has to go through numerous applications and that they do not read everything. Therefore, try to keep things short to increase the chances of them reading your entire application.

How to tailor a cover letter

It's not good practice to have one generic cover letter for every job you apply for. Ideally, you should have a generic one, which you tailor for each individual job opportunity. When tailoring a cover letter to fit a specific role, you should do the following:

1. Mention why you would like to work in the role

Rework your opening paragraph about the role and the interests to get across your passion for the opportunity.

2. If you are not the perfect candidate as described in the job spec, explain why you would be an excellent choice regardless

Draw on any relevant achievements or skills that could back up why you are a great applicant for the job.

3. If you are technically overqualified for the position, ensure you mention this in the cover letter

If you don't mention that you are technically overqualified in your cover letter, the employer may think you don't understand what the job requires.

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