Top tips on how to write the perfect cover letter for your CV

A cover letter is probably one of the most underrated aspects of applying for a job, and although it’s easy to assume that your CV is the most important thing, a well written cover letter adds additional value to your overall application.

Not every employer expects to see a cover letter attached to a CV, but you’d be hard pressed to find a hiring manager that specifically doesn’t want one to be attached to your CV.

You should always be looking to take advantage of everything that’s available to you when applying for a job, so you can try and stay ahead of the competition. A professional CV template counts for a lot, but a perfectly written cover letter is another dimension you can add to your CV and it can make a great first impression. 

Writing a cover letter is not easy, and you have to be very careful not to ruin your chances before they’ve even read your CV – that’s if the employer bothers too! Of course, this means that you need to take every step you can to ensure your cover letter is up to the quality an employer would expect, and maybe even beyond.

To help you write the very best cover letter for your CV, here are some great tips:

What is a cover letter? 

A cover letter is typically a one page letter that sits on top of your CV, so the hiring manager reads this first. The letter should be addressed directly to the hiring manager, or you can address it to the HR manager if you are unsure of their name.

A cover letter aims to be much more specific than your CV, and rather than list all of your past achievements, skills and qualifications, a cover letter will only highlight the most important aspects. It will also briefly explain why the candidate is the right person for the job, and serve as an introduction to a CV.

A cover letter is designed to be more personable, and will directly discuss why the candidate has applied and what they can offer the company if they were successful.

“The cover letter gives you scope to showcase what interests and drives you, and your enthusiasm for an organisation and the role. You can use it to align yourself with the organisation’s strengths, values and culture, and highlight in a targeted way your knowledge and strongest, most relevant skills for the position.”

~ University of Oxford

How long should a cover letter be? 

A cover letter would typically be only one page long, and should not go over to two pages if you want to keep the readers attention. It is meant to be a short introduction to a CV, so the benefits of keeping it to just one page is that the reader can quickly get an idea of why you’ve applied and what you have to offer, before moving onto the more in depth CV.

Keep to around 2 – 3 paragraphs at the most, and make each sentence count. Any hint of waffle rather than being to the point could distract the reader from the message you’re trying to get across.

“It should be a ‘hook’ to encourage the potential employer to consider your CV and want to meet you; therefore it does not need to tell your life story. It must be detailed enough to make you stand out, yet concise enough to retain interest.”

~ Warwick University

Should I create a draft before I write my cover letter? 

Yes, this would be a great idea. Jot down why you want to work for the company and what attracted you to the role. Is this something you’ve done before? Do you have extensive experience in this role and industry?

Consider all the important points you want to make in your cover letter, and why you think you’d be the right person for the job. The job will require a certain set of skills, along with possible qualifications and experience. Decide which are the most important, and narrow it down to just a couple of sentences that will allow you to explain that you have what they’re looking for.

“Think about your ‘unique selling points’ – things that make you stand out from other applicants. One approach is to pick your best three-five examples and summarise these in a short paragraph. For example, aspects of any relevant work related activities (e.g. producing publicity materials, organising an event) activities undertaken during your degree and personal strengths relevant to the job. Summarise each point briefly – don’t copy word for word from your CV. Back up claims of having relevant skills with hard evidence.” ~ The University of Manchester

Should I tailor my cover letter to the role? 

Man making notes

As for your CV, tailoring your cover letter to the role is one of the most effective strategies you can use for success.

Yes, you should always custom write your cover letter and your CV to each role you apply for. It doesn’t matter if you apply to five different companies for the exact same job title, as each company will still have different needs and will create differing job adverts.

Always review the job advert before you write your cover letter and CV, and make a note of what they deem to be of importance. Only then can you write a great cover letter that will directly address what the employer is looking for and how you tick those boxes.

“If you send the same generic letter to every company and simply change the name of the employer, you won’t convince the reader that you’re keen to work for their company. Cover letters tailored to each individual company take time but are much more likely to lead to interview invitations and job offers!”

~ Aston University, Birmingham

“You need to think about the needs of the employer that you are approaching and try to present the information to meet those needs, emphasising the transferable skills that you have acquired. You do not need to focus on all aspects of your life to date in the letter, only those areas in which you feel the employer will be interested and which are relevant to the role.

~ London School of Economics and Political Science

Who should I address my cover letter too? 

Your cover letter should directly address the hiring manager if you are aware of their name. Check the job advert before you apply to see if there is a contact name, or any mention at all of whom it should be sent too.

Writing to the ‘HR Manager’ is adequate if you are unable to find out who will be personally reading your application, but we would always recommend contacting the company to get an actual name so your cover letter is more personal.

Always take the initiative, and don’t be afraid to speak with the hiring manager directly to introduce yourself and let them know that you are asking for their details because you are going to write a cover letter directly to them.

This shows passion and dedication to the whole application process, and you will likely be remembered by the manager who you’ve already made a verbal introduction to and added another positive to your chances of getting an interview.

How concise should my cover letter be? 

Keeping your cover letter concise is extremely important, as you don’t want to waffle on and use any unnecessary words, sentences or paragraphs. The employer doesn’t have the time to read a long letter when they have so many other cover letters and CVs to go through.

You also need to be careful not to make your cover letter too short, and bullet point style sentences are not a good idea. It will show a lack of care, and will have the same outcome as writing too much – a bad one!

“Identify your USPs – they’re your unique selling points. Be positive about what you have to offer and clearly outline how your skills and experience meet those requested in the job description. Demonstrate why you’re the perfect candidate.”

~ Prospects.ac.uk

Are clichés ok to use in a cover letter? 

You have to be careful when you use certain words and sentences that are so commonly seen on a cover letter and CV. Cliché words and statements like, ‘I am a fantastic team player’, are not going to hold any weight unless you are able to back that claim up within your CV.

Remember that your CV needs to clearly indicate that you are a great team player by showing examples of projects you completed and actual examples of how you have worked well as part of a team in the past. Evidence of project management and results need to appear in your employment history to add credibility to your whole application.

“Expressing things more positively can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful application. For example, “During this experience I successfully managed seven people” rather than “During this experience I had to manage seven people”.”

~ University of Leicester

Do I need to bother proofreading my cover letter? 

Not only should you proofread your cover letter, you should also get someone else to check it also. When the hiring manager comes across your application, the first thing they will read is your cover letter. If there is even just the slightest error you are going to put them on the back foot immediately.

The whole concept behind the cover letter is to create a nice introduction to your CV, and to make the whole process a little more friendly and personable. A small spelling or grammatical error could devalue everything you’re trying to achieve, and even if you are the right person for the job a small mistake could overshadow your prospects.

“Read your draft carefully for grammar, punctuation, capitalisation and spelling, and have it proofread by someone with a sound knowledge of English and an eye for detail.”

~ University of Nottingham

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About Martin Carline

Martin has been a senior manager of a large customer service team within the education services industry, dealing with all aspects of staff recruitment and management. He now authors and manages content for CV Template Master and a number of other leading websites. In his spare time, Martin is an accomplished pianist and teaches all styles with a particular focus on boogie woogie and blues.

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