Cover letters are not supposed to be easy.
While your CV might only need to be tweaked and polished a little for each application you make, a cover letter should be largely rewritten each and every time.
With a given vacancy likely to attract candidates with comparable skills and experience, the purpose of the cover letter is to set each applicant apart.
Your words, put down in a ‘letter’ to your potential employer, need to make the best case for you getting the job. Even when writing is not your speciality.
A cover letter will likely be make or break for whether or not you get invited to interview. So it’s worth doing the right way.
- Why do we write cover letters?
- How to write a cover letter
- Cover letters in different countries
Each cover letter you write should be carefully crafted to fit the specific position you’re applying for. Working initially from a template and following a structured plan are both important to making a positive impression on recruiters.
While it’s vital to get some of your personality across in your writing, waffling and fluff should be avoided at all costs.
Addressing all the key points of your application while keeping your writing concise and fluid is key to cover letter success.
Here is our guide to writing a winning cover letter, from why you need to write one to how you should go about it. We look in more depth at how to find the right balance between style and substance, and what your cover letter should look like when applying for jobs abroad.
Why do we write cover letters?
The purpose of the cover letter is to challenge an applicant to make clear arguments for why they should be given the job – or at least be taken to the next stage of the recruitment process.
They’re not always designed to test your writing skills per se, but are used to judge your ability to communicate.
- Are you able to write concisely?
- Can you structure a coherent piece of writing?
- Can you communicate clearly?
- How do you express yourself in a professional context?
To make a statement
You should think about your cover letter as a single, coherent statement of your suitability for the job. A pitch for you to be chosen to fill the vacancy.
If you have prepared an elevator pitch, your cover letter will be something like an expanded version of that, tailored to fit the position you’re going for.
When writing your cover letter it will help to think about it as a written version of your best argument for why you should get the job.
As recruiters will tend to find much less to distinguish between candidates’ CVs, cover letters are essential for making a judgement on the relative strength of each candidate – using their own words.
To use your own voice
Short of conducting an interview, a cover letter is the best way a recruiter can ‘communicate’ with an applicant.
In a sense, your cover letter is a reply to what the recruiter has stated in the job advert.
It is usually a good idea to keep your CV on the conservative side, and there is little scope for demonstrating anything about your personality when listing information about your skills and experience.
Your cover letter is an opportunity for the recruiter to hear your voice, and for you to persuade them of your strength as a candidate.
To make your case
The primary function of a cover letter is, of course, to lay out in detail how your skills, experience, and personal qualities recommend you for the role.
While the CV is a simple statement of who you are, the cover letter is your chance to demonstrate your understanding of how that qualifies you to take on the job.
It’s also an opportunity for you to explain why you want the job in the first place, why you want to work for that particular company, and what motivates you personally to do what you do.
In that sense, it is a preview of what you will say in your interview – which is a chance to explain everything in further detail still. (It won’t hurt to consider common interview questions when planning out what your cover letter will address.)
How to write a cover letter?
Planning is important for any serious piece of writing, and this is especially true for those who don’t practice their writing often.
Regardless of whether or not the job you’re applying for requires advanced writing skills, your cover letter will be judged as a piece of writing.
The better you can present and express the information, the more effective your cover letter will be.
Once you have adopted an appropriate method for writing multiple cover letters, the focus can switch to ensuring you use an effective writing style, and that you include all the information you need to provide while making a persuasive argument for your candidacy.
Beyond that, continuous proofreading and editing to root out any superfluous sentences and spelling or grammar mistakes are a must.
Cover letter writing should always begin with a template. (Well, except the first time.)
Your template should essentially be your best cover letter, and may simply be the most recent one you’ve written. You could just choose a cover letter that has secured you an interview in the past.
It’s best to start each time with a fresh document, but to follow your template (copying where possible) in order to create a brand new cover letter for each position.
(Editing an old cover letter to make a new one may end up costing you more time than you think, and will often make for disjointed writing.)
Above all, the template should be well structured.
The structure might look like:
- Paragraph 1: Concise statement of what you’re applying for, why you’re a good candidate, and what motivates you.
- Paragraph 2: Brief personal summary of your motivation, personal qualities, core skills, and the relevant experience that qualifies you for the job.
- Paragraph 3: Most relevant and impressive skills and experience that are applicable to the job (this should reflect the ‘Required skills’ section of the job advert).
- Paragraph 4: Next most relevant and impressive skills and experience applicable to the job. (Repeat if necessary)
- Paragraph 5: Personal qualities that are applicable to the job.
- Paragraph 6: Your motivation for applying for the job and the reasons you are attracted to a job at the company.
- Paragraph 7: Short summary of your candidacy and re-statement of your motivation.
- Final line: Express hope to hear from them and be able to discuss your application further.
You also want your writing to flow between each of the sections, so try to avoid switching the focus to a very different topic when moving from one paragraph to the next (without breaking with the structure).
Writing with fluidity is not easy, but reading a fluid piece of writing most certainly is. Taking the time to allow for easy transitions between sentences and paragraphs will have a very positive effect on the recruiter’s reading experience.
Recruiters are eager to hear your voice in your writing, but won’t be impressed by an overly informal or conversational style.
Your cover letter is a chance to demonstrate how you express yourself in a professional context, writing clearly and effectively to make your case and communicate information.
An overly formal, academic, or literary style won’t help either.
Imagine you’ve made it to interview. The tone you adopt when talking to a potential employer is the one you want to use in your writing.
You might want to use the following rules of thumb to help find your professional voice:
- Familiar (but not conversational)
- Confident (but not pretentious)
- Clear (but not neutral)
- Accurate (but not scholarly)
To complement a professional tone, your cover letter should be formatted neatly and clearly. Don’t choose a font that will raise eyebrows (and go for one with serif – i.e. not ‘sans serif’ – to aid readability), and always use orthodox punctuation, grammar, and spelling. A type size of 10 or less may be hard to read.
A cover letter need not look impressive. Let the words speak.
Your cover letter should be concerned with answering the main question in the minds of recruiters – “is the candidate capable of carrying out the work to the right standard?”.
The central aim of your writing is therefore to outline that you have:
- the skills to carry out the tasks required
- the experience to hit the ground running
- the personal qualities to form part of a team
- and the motivation to make the most of the opportunity
All these points are covered in the structure suggested in the ‘Method’ section above. But to help you make a persuasive case for your candidacy you should try to give your writing a sense of narrative.
This will be enhanced by writing that flows, transitioning seamlessly from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph (as mentioned in the previous section, ‘Style’)
Imagine again that you have been invited to interview. Your cover letter should be something like an extended monologue on who you are, why you want the job, and how you are the right person to fill the position.
It might help to think about your writing as telling a ‘story’ of how you are the best candidate. Naturally, this would begin with a personal introduction, before telling the tale of how you have developed and applied the skills and qualities you possess, ending with a restatement of your interest in the job and the company, and your motivation for applying.
But whatever you do, avoid your story becoming an epic. More than 2 pages (at type size 12) is excessive, and will prove draining for the reader. Less than a full page may, on the other hand, feel a little brief.
Aim for something between 500 and 750 words.
Note: while narrative will help you write a compelling piece, err on the side of caution if you are finding this difficult to achieve. Clear arguments for why you should get the job are the most important part of any cover letter.
Industry and job function
It goes without saying that cover letters will differ depending on the industry and the type of job you’re applying for.
However, everything that’s been said thus far should be relevant for everyone.
Beyond the fundamentals, your cover letter should fit with the general requirements put in place for the position, and any expectations that a potential employer will have of candidates for a given role.
For graphics designers, for example, being able to communicate in writing is important but not essential – your portfolio is crucial here. At the other end of the spectrum, for jobs that chiefly involve writing, either for an internal or external audience, the cover letter is your chance to shine and show off your skills.
For every industry and job function it will be slightly different, but you (and those you’re competing against) will nevertheless be judged on your ability to write appropriately and persuasively. Improving your writing skills will help you land a job no matter what field you’re in.
Just be sure to meet the norms recruiters expect to come across. If you’re unsure, it’s a good idea to search online for cover letter examples for the specific job role and/or sector you’re applying for. (If you’re new to an industry, take your cue from the kind of writing produced and published by people and companies in the field.)
Cover letters in different countries
Cover letters are very common with recruiters everywhere, and much of what makes a great cover letter applies everywhere.
There are, however, subtle differences of focus and emphasis from one country to the next, in addition to how expectations can differ from industry to industry and job function to job function (see previous section, ‘Industry and job function’).
Here is an overview of how cover letter etiquette varies across some of the most popular job markets for Graduateland users.
UK cover letters
Keep it brief but give it the hard sell.
More akin to the norms of the American than continental European markets, cover letters in the UK should be used to talk yourself up to your employer. Not making the most of what you have to offer will result in it seeming like you don’t have much to offer at all.
In general, keep it below one page. You don’t have to get into great detail, but you must be persuasive with what you do say.
German cover letters
Stick to outlining your skills (and don’t sell yourself too hard).
In Germany cover letters are not expected to be a hard sales pitch, so refrain from talking yourself up too much.
German recruiters are typically expecting to read about what skills you have, and how these will help you fulfill the tasks required of the position. You needn’t go too much into your experience, personal qualities, or qualifications, though these may be relevant for explaining how you have developed the skills you need for the job.
Scandinavian cover letters
Focus more on your motivation.
More so than in other European markets, cover letters in Scandinavian countries are expected to be more of a ‘letter of motivation’. Your CV should outline the core skills and most relevant experience you have, and the the cover letter should support that information by demonstrating why it is you are so interested in the role.
Dutch cover letters
Be simple, straightforward, and honest.
In Holland your cover letter should not be a grand statement.
You shouldn’t try to sell yourself too hard, and are better served making a concise demonstration of how you are a good match for the role. Honesty is valued highly, so you should be careful not to try to dress your skills or experience up to seem more important than it really is.
Belgian cover letters
Be humble, straightforward and concise.
Like their Dutch neighbours, Belgians don’t expect cover letters to go overboard.
Be clear and concise in outlining your suitability for the role, showing your understanding of the demands of the role and your (realistic) ability to live up to them. Boasting and exaggeration will not be appreciated, so focus on getting to the point.
French cover letters
Focus on your qualifications (and don’t make grammatical errors).
Recruiters in France are particularly concerned with how you’re qualifications prepare you for the job in question, so your cover letter should focus more on how the skills and qualities you have gained from your education suitably prepare you for the role – and a little less on work experience.
Expect your writing to be scrutinized (at least when writing in French) more than elsewhere, so take extra care to iron out any typos and ensure your grammar and word choice is up to scratch. (If French is not your first language, get a native to read it before you send.)