Essentials: cover letter
Your cover letter works with your CV to help an employer understand your skills, why you want the job, and why you are interested in working for them. They take time and require research to construct but once you know how to write a great one, you can market yourself effectively for any job.
Start with the video here - Essentials: covering letter to get an overview of how cover letters are structured then use the sections below and downloadable resources for further support. There are downloadable resources, including the Quick Guide to Cover Letters, and the Panopto recording of CVs and Cover Letters that work.
Cover Letter Tabs
The purpose of the covering letter is to create a favourable impression in the recipient’s mind. It will be sent along with a CV, either in application for an advertised vacancy or when making speculative applications enquiring about possible job or work experience opportunities.
A covering letter should:
- Clearly and succinctly present the highlights of your application
- Focus on targeted, relevant information - write a new letter for every position for which you are applying
- Look inviting to the reader – use space well and avoid very long paragraphs
- Convey enthusiasm for the job/organisation and be written in a positive tone
- Fit easily into one page of A4
- Be addressed to an actual person where possible, i.e. Mr Brown rather than 'Dear Sir'
- Conclude with either 'Yours faithfully' (if addressed to Sir or Madam) or 'Yours sincerely' (if addressed to a named person)
- Be written effectively - there is a useful list of ‘Action Verbs’ to help you in the Careers Service handout on How to write a CV [pdf]
1. The introduction
Explain who you are and why you are writing. This will include some or all of the following:
- Where you are studying and the course which you are taking
- Your expected grade (at least if it is a good one!)
- The job/position that you are applying for, and where you saw the advertisement (web site, newspaper etc.). If you are making a speculative application then state what you are looking for (e.g. vacation work) and, if appropriate, for how long you would be available
- If you have had contact with the company before (perhaps through meeting their representatives at a careers fair) then mention this in the introductory part of your letter
2. The ‘selling’ paragraph
"Review this section carefully for every single application you make as the requirements will differ from employer to employer. Relevance is key to success."
This is a key section in the letter. Think about what to highlight and make it clear to the reader why you are a strong candidate for the job. Be selective with your examples however, and don’t try and cram everything in.
- Summarise each point briefly - don't copy word for word from your CV. Back up claims of having relevant skills with hard evidence. As an example, "I have strong communication skills, developed liaising between academics and student peers to highlight and resolve issues in my role as Year Group Representative"
- Draw on examples, where possible, from different parts of your background, for example, academic, work experience and other activities
- Review this section carefully for every single application you make as the requirements will differ from employer to employer. Relevance is key to success
3. Why you want to work for them
Make sure that you tell an employer why you want to work for them.
- Outline how your interest in the career area and organisation has developed – through work experience, attending a presentation by the company etc. How have you developed your interest and knowledge?
- Do some research and thinking about why this organisation attracts you. Try to go beyond the obvious. e.g. nearly all large employers offer 'challenging opportunities', 'team based environment', or 'international opportunities'. What are the unique features which draw you to them?
4. The ending
- State that you enclose or attach your CV or application form as requested
- Mention that you are looking forward to meeting them in an interview, or a similar positive statement
- If there are certain periods when you are unavailable for interview, let them know
Sometimes you may wish to explain special circumstances which might be important in your application, for example, grades not being as good as required.
For research students
As a research student or postdoc writing a covering letter, what you choose to highlight will depend on whether you're applying for a role within or outside of academia.
What to emphasise when applying for different kinds of work
When applying for a postdoctoral or lectureship position, you may want to emphasise the following :
- Research interests and experience
- Research techniques you are familiar with e.g. subject specific lab-based, software, modelling, simulations, GIS, risk assessment, and any other analytical problem-solving techniques
- Teaching, demonstrating, tutoring or supervising experience
- Publications – papers, book chapters, peer/journal club reviewing
- Conferences – presentations, including poster presentations
- Administrative experience e.g. helping with College/Department Open Days, welcoming new students, managing Health and Safety in your lab
- Financial/commercial awareness e.g. writing grant applications/proposals, buying supplies/equipment for the lab, managing lab or other budgets
When applying for an industry based position in research, you may want to emphasise the following:
- Research interests and experience
- Administrative experience
- Research techniques relevant to the post
- Key skills e.g. project management, creative problem-solving, negotiating and persuading, achieving results
- Commercial awareness e.g. from work experience, research collaborations with industry or courses run through the Staff Development Unit for Postdocs in 'Commercialisation of Research' and 'How to Patent your Work'
Sometimes, you might need to explain certain areas of your CV more fully to an employer. The most common examples are gaps in your CV and grades not being as good as required/expected.
- Explain gaps, beyond a couple of months, in your CV, otherwise employers are most likely to jump to negative conclusions
- If the gap was caused by an accident or an illness, it is useful to explain this.
- Cite, if possible, any problems, as an example of your resilience or your ability to overcome adverse circumstances
- Explain any justification for disappointing A level grades, otherwise your application may be rejected. For example, illness or accidents or family problems or even a good teacher leaving can all have an impact on results which employers can appreciate
- Highlight academic achievements from your current course, where appropriate, if A-level grades are a weaker area on your CV
- Don't focus heavily on negatives, but don't give a weak excuse and don't lie! Show how you have turned a potentially negative situation into a positive one
- If the situation is personal or complicated, you could touch on it but state that you are happy to discuss it at interview