How to write a cover letter for a job application

A speech bubble made out of green and yellow paper, with screwed up balls of paper making an ellipses

This article was written by the Great British Mag content team on 19 May 2021.

When you’re applying for jobs in the UK, you’ll often be asked to submit a British style CV alongside a cover letter. But what is a cover letter, what should you include in yours and how can you make it stand out? We’ve got all the answers you’re looking for right here.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is an important part of your job application – for some recruiters, it’s the most important part of your application. It’s a letter you write to the hiring manager about why you’re the best candidate for the job.

Cover letters are a lot more flexible than CVs, meaning you have the opportunity to include additional relevant information about yourself that could convince the reader that you’re the person they’re looking for. This is your opportunity to show a bit of your personality, explain in detail what makes you such a great fit and talk about why you’re so drawn to working in this particular role.

Cover letters are particularly important for students and graduates, as it’s likely you won’t have that much actual work experience to include in your CV. You can use this letter to highlight your transferable skills and talk about specific experience and achievements that didn’t quite fit into your CV.

Do I really need to write a cover letter?

If the job advert requests one, or the online application form leaves space for you to upload one, then yes. Even if it seems optional, include one in your submission. It’s a great opportunity to share important information about yourself, your suitability for the role and convince the reader to invite for an interview.

However, if the job ad specifies to only send a CV then leave the cover letter out – you don’t want it to look like you can’t follow simple instructions.

How do you start a cover letter?

First, it’s important that you address your letter to a person, wherever possible. A lot of the time, the hiring manager’s name will be in the job ad or the email address given for submissions, or you’ll be able to find it through a little online research. Having that personalised element – as opposed to beginning your letter with ‘Dear sir or madam’ – makes all the difference.

What should a cover letter include?

As well as basic information like your contact details and the name of the role you’re applying for, your cover letter should include:

  1. A brief introduction with an overview of your career (or student) status. For instance, ‘I’m a recent UCL graduate with a first-class degree in engineering’, or ‘I’m an economics student at the University of Manchester looking to secure an internship in the finance sector’.
  2. Why you’re interested in the specific role you’re applying for, what about it appeals to you and why you’re drawn to the company. And how your experience, skills and personal interests make you a perfect fit for the role.
  3. The benefits you could bring to the team or offer the company – be that a positive, can-do mentality, experience in a certain field that they may be interested in exploring, or the ability to hit the ground running, thanks to your pre-existing knowledge.

What should I avoid in my cover letter?

Be sure to not repeat information that’s in your CV. Use your cover letter to highlight or elaborate on certain points, but you don’t want to just regurgitate the same stuff. Also, be economical with your words – you want this letter to be concise and to the point, so avoid including anything that’s not directly relevant to the job you’re applying for.

As a student, don’t apologise for or draw attention to your lack of relevant work experience. If the company is looking for a graduate, they will be aware that candidates won’t have held lots of roles yet. Instead, highlight the transferrable skills you do have, even if they were gained from jobs in other fields (part-time jobs, volunteering experience or internships are all great for this) and demonstrate your interest in the industry in other ways.

It’s really important that your cover letter is clear and well-written – with no spelling or grammatical mistakes. So be sure to proofread it a few times, looking carefully for any slip-ups. It’s a good idea to ask someone else to read it through too – a friend, family member or the university’s career advisor, perhaps – as a fresh pair of eyes can really help to weed out errors or spot any missing information.

How can I make my cover letter stand out?

Get online and research the company and the role before you start writing. Jot down some key pieces of information – like brand values, the company’s goals and achievements, and its target audience or customer, perhaps – and weave this into your cover letter. This will show the hiring manager that you’ve done your homework and also allow you to talk about how your expertise, skills or interests align with the company.

Also, read the job advert thoroughly – we mean really thoroughly – so it’s clear in your letter that you understand the responsibilities of the role and can fulfil them. Try to mirror the language used in the ad so that even from a quick skim, the person reading your letter can tell you’ve addressed all the requirements it mentions. Sometimes, applications will be shortlisted by computer software that’s programmed to recognise keywords, making this all the more important.

Using the same language as the ad also helps steer your tone and give you an idea of how formal (or not) your letter should be, which can make you come across as a good fit with the company culture.

How do you sign off a cover letter?

If you think that a formal approach is the way to go for a particular application, then sign off the letter in a traditional way. That is, if you’ve addressed the letter to a specific person (which is always best, remember), you’d sign off with ‘Yours sincerely’ followed by your name. If you couldn’t find a specific name to address the letter to, it’s ‘Yours faithfully’ at the end. A bit confusing, we know.

Some applications will call for a less formal approach (again, be led by the tone and style of the job advert), in which case you can just sign off with your name with no particular flourishes.

How long should a cover letter be?

Keep cover letters short and sweet – five paragraphs maximum, and no longer than one side of A4. Not only would it be really time-consuming for you to write longer letters, but you want to make sure all the really critical information is easy to spot and not buried among unessential paragraphs.

Do I need to write a new cover letter for every job application?

We’re afraid so, yes. While you might find it useful to use templates (there is no short supply of cover letter templates online – just Google them) the content of the letter should be new for every single application.

Why? Because every job and every company you apply to will be different. To give yourself the best chance of getting noticed, you want to look like the perfect candidate for each specific role, so your letter will need to be tailored especially.

We know it’s time consuming, but it really could make all the difference.

You may also like to read

How to write a British-style CV

What is a graduate scheme and how do I apply?

How to write a personal statement for your CV