5 top tips for writing the ultimate cover letter

Writing a cover letter - Image Credit: Thinkstock

As a job seeker, you stand a much greater chance of being invited to a job interview if you can write a great cover letter. When a hiring manager comes to consider your job application, your CV and cover letter may be all they have to work with. So it's vital you can produce a high-quality document that fully showcases your ability and potential.

If your cover letter doesn't hit the mark, the hiring manager may not even read your CV. With many applications to get through, they haven't got the time to waste on second-rate candidates. Your cover letter will be the first thing they see, so it needs to look professional and include engaging, informative content.

Here are five top tips for writing a great cover letter, plus a few examples of what to do and what to avoid:

1. Respect cover letter convention

Hiring managers expect job applicants to respect cover letter formalities, by adopting a conventional structure, style and tone. This is particularly the case at the start and end of the letter.

At the outset, you should address the letter to the hiring manager and then explain the context, stating which job you are applying for. For example:

•  "Dear Mr X/Mrs Y

Please find enclosed my CV, with regards position Z, as advertised on March 3rd."

•  "Dear Mr X/Mrs Y

I am writing to apply for the role of Z, as advertised on March 3rd. Please find my CV enclosed."

You need to address the hiring manager in person and ensure all key information is included in the opening lines. If you fail to specify which position you are applying for, you may get considered for the wrong job.

Always finish your cover letter by thanking the hiring manager for considering your application, and then write 'Yours sincerely' or 'Kind regards' followed by your full name and contact details.

2. Use cover letter templates

If you're unsure of the structure to adopt for your cover letter, you could refer to a template. As with CV templates, these allow you to customise a pre-drafted document, helping to ensure you include the right information in a suitable order. Using a template also reduces the risk of leaving out salient information - details the hiring manager may need in order to assess your suitability for interview.

However, there are dangers in adopting too rigid an approach. If following a cover letter template causes you to miss out key information, which would have helped your job application, then deviate from the advised structure. Feel free to add another line or two, if needs be. So long as the letter is structurally sound and an appropriate length, the hiring manager will read it.

3. Be concise, but informative

Time limitations mean the hiring manager won't have more than a few minutes to consider your job application. So you need to make you points clearly and concisely, fitting in all the main points to a few short paragraphs.

Remember, your cover letter is effectively a teaser for your CV - it's role is to make sure this document gets read and you get invited for an interview. In your cover letter, you are simply trying to form a positive impression of yourself, so there's no need to go into excessive detail.

When writing your letter, it is possible to include multiple points in a single sentence. Play around with the structure of the text until each line offers maximum value, excluding any unnecessary filler. As an example, you could reference a particular skill or experience and then explain how it makes you a suitable candidate for the job:

•  "In managing a team of ten people, my leadership, communication and motivation skills helped deliver an X per cent increase in efficiency and Y per cent higher revenues.

•  "Working on accounts X and Y improved my commercial skills and understanding, allowing me to develop new contacts and attract customer Z."

In your cover letter, you should refer directly to your skills and experience, explaining how they make you a suitable candidate. Tell the hiring manager why you can add value to their organisation, giving examples if possible. You can also briefly outline your career goals.

4. Be professional... and sensible

Sometimes candidates think the best way to make a great impression with a hiring manager is to try something 'out of the box'. As such, they break all the rules of cover letter writing and go for something more creative. This high-risk approach might work on occasion, but for the most part, it's a bad idea. Writing a wacky cover letter will usually put the hiring manager off.

If you've got a strong CV and real motivation for applying for a job, you should be able to write a compelling cover letter without adopting such tactics. If not, then maybe this isn't the role for you.

Here are a few examples of what not to do:

•  "So you're looking for the next big thing for position X? Well you can call off the chase, because you've found them. I'm here!"

•  "If you're after the brightest, bubbliest, most talented candidate for role X, then look no further. My CV is guaranteed to blow you away."

•  "Fed up of hiring mediocre people for your X roles? If you recruit me for the job it'll be the best thing you ever do."

5. Check the formatting before you send

Having invested time and effort perfecting your letter, you need to ensure it reaches the hiring manager in the best possible shape. In most cases, you'll be asked to submit your cover letter and CV by email. Before you send to the hiring manager, check the formatting of the letter will show up on their screen as you see it. One way to do this is to send the email to yourself first and open any attachments. If paragraphs, fonts or styles changes, this could present a problem. You may need to send the documents as a PDF file.

Any cover letter email you send should have an appropriate subject line, such as 'Application for vacancy X: [your name]'. Just as you checked the spelling and grammar in your letter text, you need to do the same for the email. Take particular care to avoid mistakes in the subject line and the hiring manager's name - these errors could be terminal for your chances of getting the job.

You can find out more about making your cover letter stand out in this article.