A covering letter gives you an opportunity to convince the employer that you are a strong candidate. As with a CV, you should always tailor your covering letter to suit each position you are applying for. The covering letter is likely to be the first thing that the employer reads, so it’s vital to make a good first impression.
Structure and content
A covering letter should be no longer than one side of A4.
Try to find a name to whom you can address the letter. If the job advert does not specify this, you could contact the employer and ask. 'Dear Ms Smith' is better than 'Dear Sir/Madam'.
This first paragraph has to be very clear. Introduce who you are (e.g. "recently graduated with a 2:1 in History from SOAS"), why you are writing (e.g. "to apply for X position/looking for work experience") and where you saw the position advertised. If you are writing a speculative application, you should explain where you heard about the organisation.
This section should tell the employer why you want this job and demonstrate that you have researched the organisation and understand what the job role involves (e.g. "I am attracted to working for you because... / I am drawn to X plc because...")
This section is your chance to illustrate your unique selling points: your skills, experience and personal attributes. It is better to give three or four excellent examples than try to cram in lots of details. You can use the employer’s recruitment information to guide you in deciding which skills and competencies to highlight (e.g. "As you can see from my CV, I have... / I have gained experience of... / As demonstrated by... / My main skills are...")
If you have any gaps in your CV or apparent weaknesses, you can explain these at this point (e.g. "You will notice from my CV that it took me five years to complete my BA. This is due to X. I believe this demonstrates my resilience and commitment, especially when faced with challenging situations.")
The closing paragraph gives you an opportunity to summarise your suitability for the post. You can also state your availability for an interview and your keenness to get the job by informing the organisation that you will follow up your letter and CV with a phone call.
The correct way of signing off depends on the way you addressed the recipient. If you addressed the letter to a particular name, use Yours sincerely; if you used Dear Sir/Madam, use Yours faithfully.
Use positive language
It is important to choose your language carefully so that you can show your skills and experience in a positive light (e.g. "I initiated... / I was instrumental in... / I succeeded in...")
You can find more help on how to choose the right words in the Prospects website.
To avoid spelling and grammatical mistakes in your covering letter, have it checked by someone with a good eye for detail.
A more detailed version of this page can be found on The Careers Group website.