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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

What is a cover letter?

18 min read
What is a cover letter?
Artwork by:Aleksandra Zabnina
What is a cover letter? It might not be explicitly required for every application. However their uses of a cover letter and how to write one could help you get your foot in the door of that interview room. Read on to learn the meaning of a cover letter!

What does “cover letter” mean? What is a covering letter for a job? In short — what’s a cover letter? If you’ve ever asked yourself one of these questions you’re not alone.

While it may seem like job applications come easily to some people, that’s simply not true. Understanding what a cover letter is - sometimes called a covering letter - is not knowledge anyone is born with. We have to learn it!

If this is your first time drafting a cover letter, or if you simply want to learn more to ensure you’re creating cover letters that knock the hiring managers’ socks off, you’re in the right place.

This blog post will cover:

  • What is a cover letter when applying for a job?
  • If it’s always necessary to have a cover letter
  • What you should include in your cover letter
  • Top tips for writing a cover letter
  • Mistakes to avoid when writing a cover letter

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a short, written introduction to you and your professional profile. It is often required as part of a job application. Your cover letter should be around a page long and detail why you’re the best person for the job you’re applying to.

Keeping your cover letter on the shorter side leaves the hiring manager wanting to find out more in an interview. It should complement your CV rather than reiterate what is written in it.

A cover letter is not:

  • An extensive introduction to your entire job history
  • A place to talk about your hobbies, interests, or personal life
  • A reiteration of the exact information the hiring manager can find on your CV
Expert tip

How long is too long?

The length of your cover letter will depend on whether the employer has specified a word limit. If there isn’t anything specified, don’t shy away from white space and focus on making your writing as concise as possible. 

A limit of four paragraphs is a good target guideline. Your sentences shouldn’t be too long and difficult to follow. 

What is the point of a cover letter?

If you’re not sure what a cover letter is when you’re applying for jobs, it’s important to understand their purpose and when they are or are not necessary. While cover letters are not always compulsory and employers generally specify if they want one, it’s good to get into the habit of providing one anyway. 

This isn’t about trying to win points so much as it’s about trying to express your genuine interest in the role. Taking the time to write a well-researched cover letter demonstrates your willingness to go the extra mile. Someone willing to put in effort before they’ve even been offered a job interview is someone a hiring manager will probably want on their team!

Writing a cover letter could also help you stand out from the swathes of applicants who only provided their CVs. Even a simple email with your CV attached could function as a cover letter. However, if you do opt for the email route, make sure you keep the message super short. Lengthy emails are unlikely to be given much attention by busy hiring managers.

Statistical insight

Right for the job

If you’re applying for a vacancy that’s hard to fill because of the experience and skills required, your cover letter could be more important than ever.

According to the CIPD Labour Market Outlook winter report, 38% of employers surveyed have vacancies that are hard to fill. This type of vacancy is significantly higher in the public sector (51%) than in the private sector (34%).

So, make sure to clearly outline the key traits you possess that would make you the best person for the position. 

Why a cover letter when applying for a job might be important

If you’re still wondering “what is a cover letter?”, then you should check out our example below. Consider this: a cover letter is your chance to make the best first impression possible with potential employers. 

While CVs are important, knowing what a cover letter is gives you the opportunity to stand out with some free-form writing. That’s because a CV is super structured. 

Your cover letter, on the other hand, will allow you to share both experience and anecdotes that are hard to fit into the strict format of a CV. So, a cover letter is just one more opportunity to go into further detail about your accomplishments. 

Consider the following points when deciding how and why your cover letter can help you to land the role:

  • Why are some of the achievements you listed on your CV that are particularly relevant or impressive?
  • Do you have additional experience to show off that didn’t fit on your CV?
  • Are you particularly passionate about the industry or subject matter of the role?

Your cover letter is also a tool to show off your enthusiasm. Employers will want to know why you want the job and this is the space to answer that question!

What are the parts of a cover letter?

There are several elements that need to be present in a successful cover letter. Let’s go through each.

Cover letter header 

Your cover letter header is the section where you’ll write your contact information such as your phone number and email so hiring managers can easily get in touch with you. It should be at the very top of the document where it can’t be missed.

This is the easiest section to write but arguably the most important. It’s vital that you don’t make any mistakes. Double-check that your information is correct and up-to-date. One digit wrong in your phone number could mean you miss out on that job interview you’re aiming for. 

Expert tip

No need to overshare

Just like the content of your cover letter is not a place to share things about your personal life, you don’t need to include your full address on your cover letter header. 

If location is particularly relevant to the role, you could choose to include the city you’re based in. 

Cover letter introduction

Your cover letter introduction shouldn’t be more than a few sentences long. It’s the part of your cover letter that’s written with the precise intention of capturing potential employers’ attention. Let your personality lead.

You could choose to hook the hiring manager’s interest in a number of ways:

  • Express your enthusiasm about working in the role or company
  • Mention similar work experience requiring relevant skills
  • Highlight transferable skills or other experience you have in the same industry.

Regardless of how you choose to start your cover letter, an entertained or engaged hiring manager will be more likely to read on. 

Cover letter body 

The body of your cover letter is the main part of the document. Outline why you’re the right fit for the job in relation to the job description. This could include talking about your qualifications, your soft skills, or specific work experience and skills that make you a great match.

Expert tip

Show them what a STAR you are

If a company is going to invest in you, they’ll want to know that you’re up to the task. So, focus on your relevant strengths and achievements.

You can do this by including specific examples that demonstrate that you possess the skills they’re looking for. The STAR method is a great way of achieving this:

  • Situation - What was the context that will help the hiring manager understand the situation?
  • Task - What responsibility or project were you tasked with?
  • Action - What action did you personally take?
  • Result - What results were you and your team left with at the end?

Conclusion and call to action 

Your conclusion should be just as memorable as your introduction. A golden rule is to end your cover letter with a call to action. Reiterate your enthusiasm for the role and express your interest in following up in an interview.

Making a hiring manager’s job that bit easier won’t go unnoticed and could be the deciding factor in them reaching out to set up an initial interview.

Expert tip

Keep it fresh and relevant

Your cover letter should complement your CV rather than summarise its content in a different format. Dazzle recruiters with your suitability for a role by including specific, relevant experiences that demonstrate who you are as a professional in your cover letter’s content. 

Top tips for writing a cover letter 

If you started reading this blog post asking yourself what a cover letter is when applying for a job, hopefully we’ve answered your question. In fact, we hope you’re convinced of all of the added value that there is in writing one for your job application! 

If you want to put pen to paper, you might be feeling overwhelmed. But writing a cover letter doesn’t have to be hard. Here are a few tips you can consider.

Research your cover letter content

Find out about the company, and specifically the role you’re applying for. This should go beyond just reading the job description. Dig deeper and check out your potential employer’s social media pages and website. 

This added understanding will help you when it comes to personalising your cover letter to appeal to this role and this organisation in particular.

Gear your cover letter to the future

While specific examples of past work experience have a place in your cover letter, the document should be geared toward what you’re hoping to accomplish in the future. That is, what’s to come and why you think you can accomplish that at the company you’re applying to.

If you’re shifting careers, this is your chance to go into detail about that and sell your transferable skills. Brainstorm and make sure you’re clear what those are before putting pen to paper. This will make the writing process as easy and smooth as possible!

Write a strong cover letter opening

Hiring managers are busy people who only have so much time to dedicate to reading through applications. Hook them from the first line. This might mean some drafting and redrafting on your end, but it’ll be worth it when you start getting those calls to set up an interview. 

Set the letter’s tone right

While it’s fine to add some flair to your writing, you don’t want to sound too casual. Conveying professionalism should always be your top priority. If you’re not sure how your cover letter reads, ask a friend or family member for their honest opinion.

Keep your cover letter short

Under a page in length is the sweet spot for most the length of most cover letters. That might seem too short, but remember that time is precious for hiring managers and they often need to make decisions quickly. Don’t expect more than a skim read, so align your content’s length accordingly. 

Expert tip

What if writing isn’t your strong suit?

So long as you’ve not copied someone else’s writing word for word, you can use any tools and techniques at your disposal to create a well-researched cover letter that is tailored to the role. 

Here are some of our favourites:

  • AI can be a great tool to combat writer’s block.
  • Emulate phrases you like by reading some other cover letter examples.
  • Most modern word processing tools or apps will check your spelling and grammar for mishaps.

Consider checking out our job-specific cover letters if you want some inspiration!

Common cover letter writing mistakes to avoid

Even the best writers can fall into some of these classic cover letter writing no-nos. Be sure you’re not one of them by checking these points against your writing. Make sure you avoid the following cover letter writing mistakes. 

Using a generic greeting 

Avoid the over-used “To whom it may concern” and “ Dear Sir/Madam”. The internet makes it much easier than it once was to find out the name of who you’re applying to, and if you’re not sure, it’s nothing a quick email enquiry won’t fix. If it’s not personal, hiring managers are less likely to be interested. 

Focusing on what you can gain 

Employment is only going to be offered to you if you can prove what value you can offer the employer. If you only concentrate on what you’re hoping to gain from the job, and not what you can contribute, you’ll be selling yourself short as a team player. 

Not selling yourself

A job application is not the time and place to quit being humble. No one knows your strengths like you! Inspire a hiring manager’s confidence in your abilities with compelling writing by choosing relevant anecdotes and descriptive action verbs. Just remember to tread the fine line between confidence and arrogance.

Reusing an old cover letter

While you may save time, nobody likes a copy-and-paste job. The effort you put in, or lack thereof, will be obvious through your writing. If your cover letter doesn’t look like it’s tailored to this role, the hiring manager may doubt your sincerity.

Writing a tailored cover letter shows your interest in - and potentially your ability to execute - the job. Cover letters are the first impression a hiring manager will have of you, so make sure yours communicates your best qualities by taking the time to put your spin on it. 

Detailing your life story 

Relevance should always be the keyword when writing a compelling cover letter. Think quality over quantity. Read your cover letter from the perspective of a potential employer and make necessary cuts and changes accordingly. 

It’s fine to create enough intrigue through what you don’t include so that you leave room for questions in the interview. 

The power of a speculative cover letter, revealed

If there’s a company you’d love to work for but they aren’t currently advertising any open positions, don’t wait for that opportunity to arrive. Instead, consider sending a speculative cover letter

Speculative cover letters are sent to express your interest in working at an organisation when they are not actively searching for a professional profile like yours. A speculative cover letter can accompany your CV in a short and thoughtful email to the appropriate team member. 

Expert tip

To whom may it concern?

We’ve already mentioned that generic opening lines aren’t likely to go down well. Choosing who to address a cover letter to is even more important when it’s a speculative one.

You may choose to address your speculative cover letter to someone in the HR department, but you may be more likely to stay in the mind of the supervisor of a department you’d like to work in.

While the organisation may not be able to offer you something immediately, if you make a good impression, this could lead to early consideration for future roles. 

Your cold cover letter should follow the same structure as a standard cover letter. Aim instead to grab the supervisor’s attention with your subject line. Remember to do your research thoroughly too and find the appropriate contact information. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Most hiring managers will appreciate a cover letter in one form or another.
  2. A cover letter is the companion to your CV. It should not be a reiteration of your CV, but include complementary details.
  3. A strong cover letter highlights your suitability for a role using strong examples of your key skills and experience.
  4. A top cover letter is concise, to the point, and written for the specific position you’re applying to.
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