A cover letter is an introductory letter which accompanies your resume when you apply for a job. It’s an opportunity for you to quickly and concisely present your “case” to your prospective employer as to why you should be hired.
A good cover letter cherry-picks your resume to showcase the skills, experience, personal attributes and qualifications which make you the ideal candidate, in 1 page or less. It’s also a chance to demonstrate your writing skills and show you’ve done your research about the company.
These days, cover letters are more often than not sent in the body of an email, but traditionally they were printed out along with a resume and posted to your prospective employer.
What’s in a Cover Letter
A cover letter is divided into an introduction, a body and a conclusion. It also needs to include the correct subject line, salutation (“Dear Mr / Ms…”), contact details and sign-off. It should be brief, concise and most importantly, tailored to the role you’re applying for (and not least, free of spelling mistakes!).
The example we’ve used here is an application for a Retail Assistant role at a fictional book store, Petersons Family Books, by student Amanda Emery. We’ve shown excerpts below but if you’re interested, you can view the full samples here:
A subject line appears at the top of your cover letter and states the title of the role you’re applying for, as well as the job reference number. For example, Amanda’s subject line states “Application for Retail Assistant Role (Ref 12345678)”. This helps employers or recruiters match your application up with the right job, which can be important if they’re dealing with a lot of jobs or applications.
A salutation is how you address the cover letter (“Dear Ms / Ms…”). It pays to address the employer personally, eg “Dear Mr Peterson” (even if you have to call the company switchboard to find a name). It’s a nice touch which demonstrates that you’re serious enough about the role to do some basic research.
One of the biggest annoyances of recruiters and employers are generic cover letters, spammed out to hundreds of job applications at a time. If you can’t find a specific person to address it to, then address it to the appropriate department / role, eg “Dear Human Resources Manager”.
Although it’s the trend these days, don’t be too informal in a job application (“Hi Hank!”). It pays to err on the side of caution!
Here’s how our fictional student worded her salutation:
Some more good examples:
- “Dear Hank”
- “Dear Human Resources Manager”
- “To Whom It May Concern”
- “Dear Sir / Madam”
The introduction is where you state your intention of applying for a particular job (“I’m writing to express my interest in the position of XYZ”) and where you heard of the role. If applicable (eg for part-time or casual roles), state which days you’re available to work.
It’s also a good opportunity for you to briefly express your interest in working for this particular employer, industry or role (without sounding too desperate!). This shows you’ve taken the time to read the job ad properly and do some basic homework, which will get you further than a lot of candidates.
The body is the most important part of your cover letter, where you describe the skills, experience, personal qualities and qualifications you’d bring to the role. You should also state why you’d like to join this particular company, why you left / are leaving your previous employer (without being negative), and address any employment gaps in your resume (eg extended periods of sick / maternity leave).
If you have gaps in your employment history, you may like to read our article Resume Gaps – Explaining Employment Gaps for advice on how to deal with them.
It’s critical to tailor the body of your cover letter to the role you’re applying for. This is the part where you can really impress your potential employer by demonstrating that you’ve read and understood the job advertisement, and have exactly the sort of credentials, experience and personality they’re after.
This is a good cover letter because it embraces all the points mentioned above, and it’s highly tailored to the job ad (below). It also gives you a taste of Amanda’s character (“sunny disposition and bubbly personality”) which is important – you don’t want to come across as too formal and robotic.
Most significantly, Amanda has highlighted or “cherry-picked” the most relevant of her skills, past achievements and experience which would suit her for a Retail Assistant role in a family book store.
Here’s the job ad, with the requirements highlighted in yellow:
The conclusion is the final paragraph which wraps up your cover letter. It should generally be no more than 1-2 sentences. It should specify when you’re available to start the role, mention that your resume is enclosed, and state what the next action is, even if it’s only “I’ll wait to hear back from you”. This indicates to the employer that the ball is now in their court.
Here’s Amanda’s conclusion. It’s informative but brief:
A sign-off is the traditional way of ending a letter, such as “Kind regards”.
It’s traditional to use “Yours sincerely” or “Yours faithfully” when signing off. You should use “Yours sincerely” when addressing the recipient personally (eg “Dear Mr Peterson”) and “Yours faithfully” when you don’t know the name of the person (eg “Dear Human Resources Department”).
Another good example is “Kind regards”. It’s important to get the sign-off right – too informal and you may come across as flippant; too formal and you might seem cold. Bad examples include the overly formal “Cheers”, “Ciao” and “Bye”.
In a posted cover letter, a sign-off includes your signature, and that’s usually the end of the letter. In an email, it’s traditional to put your contact details immediately after your sign-off (no signature).
Contact details include your mobile phone number, email and postal address. This is so the employer can get back to you (hopefully to offer you an interview!).
In an email, contact details go just after your sign-off:
In a posted letter, contact details go at the top of the letter, and are usually followed by the recipient’s contact details (and job title):
In a posted letter, you should also put the date (as above). This isn’t necessary in an email.
Presentation is your cover letter’s layout and formatting (font, colour, margins, alignment, spacing etc). It’s important to get your presentation correct. Remember that this is your first impression with your employer – you don’t want to appear sloppy.
Presentation differs slightly depending on whether you’re emailing or posting your cover letter, but the general rule is, keep it neat, professional and simple.
Don’t get too carried away with fancy styling and layout in an email – this can easily backfire. Different email systems will often display the same email quite differently.
Plain, left-aligned text in a neat font is usually best. Use bullet points as necessary and make sure the font colour and type match your resume. Be careful about inserting anything which could display differently in your recipient’s inbox such as images and table-based layouts.
Posted letters give you much more scope for creativity, but be careful – unless you’re in the creative industry (eg a Graphic Designer), simple is usually best. Aim for smart, neat presentation that matches the font, colour and layout you’ve used in your resume.