Whether you are applying for a job or writing a speculative letter to a company your covering letter could make the difference between getting a foot in the door to a new job or having the door slammed in your face.
Covering letters are not just sent as a courtesy, but are an introduction to your potential employer. They are designed to complement your CV and provide extra information about you. The covering letter is the first impression a potential employer will have of you and without a good impact, they may not progress far with your CV.
Introducing yourself - making an impact
A covering letter should be concise and ideally no more than three paragraphs long. It needs to introduce you to the potential employer, say what you want to do for the employer, and show how and why you are suited for that particular work. Its main aim is to get your CV read.
The style of the covering letter should be reasonably formal and business-like and match the CV or application form you are sending. It should be typed using a clear font and on good quality, plain white or cream paper, preferably the same as the CV. If you are emailing it, make it look business-like.
- Always write to a named individual, whether you are applying for a job or writing a speculative letter. If you don't know who to address the letter to, use your initiative and contact the company to find out the name of the relevant person. Make sure you check the spelling of their name, no one likes to have their name spelled incorrectly.
- The opening paragraph should let the reader know why you are writing to them. If you are writing to apply for a position with their company, make clear which job you are applying for and where you saw the advertisement, give the title and date of the publication that the vacancy was advertised in. For speculative letters outline what kind of work you are looking for.
- You need to show an interest in the position you are applying for and that you have some knowledge of the employer. Find out about the company by looking for other advertisements it may have, search the internet for its website, look through the company's literature and scan business journals and newspapers for other general information. Refer to any recent news about the company, this will show you understand what the company is about.
- Explain why you want to work there and emphasise what you can do for the company. Avoid using phrases like 'I think I could gain valuable experience with your company' or 'this is an area of my skill I have always wanted to develop'. The employer will hire you because of what you can do for the company, not because of what you think you can get from working there. Be keen, but genuine and avoid using cliché phrases.
- Don't state the obvious, e.g. 'I am writing to apply for the position, as you will see from my CV' etc. Rather reword the opening of each paragraph to get straight to the point, e.g. I am confident that my legal experience would make me a suitable candidate for this position and have attached my CV for further reference.
Why should you get the job?
Paragraph two needs to tell the employer, in more detail, why you are suited to the job and what skills you have got to offer. Why would the employer benefit from taking you on? This is the most important section of the covering letter and will probably make an employer decide whether to look at your CV or not. You need to flag up two or three of your key selling points and give some concrete information on the skills and experience you have.
Make sure you choose points that relate to the job you are applying for so you can match your skills to their needs. The covering letter also gives you a chance to show off skills that you might not be able to get across in the CV, such as maturity, teamwork or interpersonal skills. Make sure everything you say about your skills and experience in your covering letter is backed up by evidence in your CV.
Don't let your letter fizzle out at the end with just a bland 'yours sincerely'. Finish the letter with a strong, proactive phrase which sets the scene for the next stage - being called in for an interview, e.g. 'I am available for interview at your convenience and look forward to meeting you'. If you have addressed the letter to a named person (and you should have done), you should end the letter with Yours sincerely, if you wrote Dear Sir or Madam, it should end with Yours faithfully.
Here's a final checklist to make sure your letter includes everything it should do.
- Do you know which individual to send the CV to and is it addressed correctly?
- Does the letter show an enthusiasm for the position you are applying for?
- Does it show an understanding of the employer?
- Does it show clearly what you can offer the employer?
- Has it got a positive ending?
- Have you double-checked to make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors?
Dispatching a CV
There are three main methods of dispatching a CV:
With all these methods, make sure you make a follow up phone call to check that your CV has been received.
This is by far the best method. Even if you fax or email a CV be sure to follow up with a posted copy, using a hard-backed A4 envelope. It's important to print your CV on good quality paper, using a high-resolution printer. All this increases the appearance of your CV, shows that you aren't desperately sending out your CV en-masse and always gives a professional impression. Don't use manila, or coloured paper. It's quite likely that your CV will be photocopied or faxed, coloured paper only makes this more difficult.
Submitting your CV by email can be done in several ways. A data copy of your CV is a good addition, not a replacement for your posted copy. An emailed version of your CV on its own should only be sent when deadlines are pressing and your posted copy may not reach the employer in time.
Formatting your CV for email can sometimes be a nightmare. Text versions, including the CV in the main body of the email can cause all kinds of problems and should be avoided at all costs. Line breaks, tabs and all other formatting can just disappear altogether, leaving your CV looking like a random assortment of alphabetical fridge magnets.
Most computers these days can read MS Word format in some version or another. It is best to save your CV in a Word 95 document to ensure that everyone can view it properly.
Note! The trouble with Word documents is that spelling of unusual names can appear as a spelling mistake, underlined in red. Although this won't show up in the print out, it doesn't look too good on the screen. To avoid this, right click on the word and select the 'ignore' option.
An alternative to this is the Adobe Acrobat format. A plugin for MS Word allows you to save your document as a non-editable acrobat file. Most computer systems can read the acrobat format, but to be on the safe side, it should be included as well as the word document.
Fax is a rather poor, although still popular, method of submitting your CV. The output often appears blurred, and if the potential employer doesn't have a plain paper fax, it will come out as a curly roll of grease proofed paper that is more likely to be thrown away than read properly.
If you must submit your CV by fax, phone to let them know when you're about to send it. This will avoid it getting lost between everyone else's faxes.
One important thing to remember is that the received fax will have a font size one point smaller than the original. If you have reduced your font size to make it fit on one page, it's best to restore it to around 11point size and spread it over two pages. If your CV font size is less than 11, and already on two pages, it's time to start trimming it.
Doing a test by using a fax to make a copy of your CV is always a good idea. When you come to send it, put it on 'Fine' mode, as this will give a higher resolution output.
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