Cover Letters: Getting it Right

Published: Mar 10, 2009

Topics: Career Readiness       Resumes & Cover Letters       

Whether or not you’re an aspiring reporter or journalist, you have to treat writing your cover letter as a news story in whichyou’re reporting on yourself. It’s your one chance to make an impact and if your cover letter is terrible, then chances are thatyour CV won’t even be looked at.

That said, when writing your cover letter always remember that it needs to address six key things — also referred to as the fiveW’s and the H. These are: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. These crucial elements can be explained simply.


This needs to be addressed in terms of who are you writing to and who are you. In terms of addressing your letter, always makesure you find who you are writing to. This means, when possible, find out the name of the person who will be receiving yourapplication. Nothing indicates a rushed or lazy application more than "To whom it may concern" or “Dear sir/madam”.

Finding out who to address your letter to indicates a basic degree of professionalism. However, it is equally important tounderstand who the firm is, so do your homework and learn about the company you are applying to. Ignorance of a companycan be transparent in an application and remember that the managers and recruiters looking at your application are savvy. Yourletter should illustrate that you understand what the company does and that you are a fantastic candidate for the role you areapplying for, based on your knowledge of what the company does.Secondly, your cover letter is meant to introduce you and your personality to the employer. Again, be intelligent and beprofessional, but also be human. This does not mean start laying on the personal anecdotes. This does mean write with a tone,with a voice.


This is the most obvious “W”, but you would be surprised at how many job applicants fail to include it in their cover letter …what are you applying for? Believe it or not, most huge employers are constantly hiring for many positions across manydepartments and offices. Typically the centralised human resources office is receiving up to hundreds of applications a day forsometimes hundreds of jobs. If you don’t tell them what you are applying for, then how will they know? Always begin yourcover letter by stating the title of the position being applied for. This could be done in a reference field (i.e. Re: Trainee AnalystPosition), or done in sentence form (i.e. “I am applying for the Trainee Analyst vacancy in your Glasgow office, as listed incurrent vacancies link on your company website.”).


This one is easy. If you are not in the same city as the job you are applying for, where are you right now? Are you planningon moving to the city where the job is located as soon as you find a job or are you willing to relocate for the job? Are youtraveling for the next month and not available for an interview until you are back? If you are currently abroad, can you bereached by phone? Are you local with no immediate plans for travel and available to come in for an interview at any time?


When do you graduate? Are you available to begin immediately after graduation? If you are applying for a summertraineeship, when would you be available to begin? When are you available for an interview? If you are currently employed,how much notice would you need to give to your employer? When can they contact you? Is it in the evenings only, or anytime on your mobile? Be specific. Employers want to hire thinkers with excellent communication skills.


The “Why” is without a doubt the star and most important part of your cover letter. Consider everything else to be vitalsupporting information. Ultimately, a good “Why” in your cover letter is what will land you an interview. And it is easy toexplain. Simply put, companies want to know why, oh why, are you interested in this particular vacancy. Why should the company consider you for the job? Is it because your experience is perfectly suited for this role? If so, explain. Is it because you have always dreamt of working for that company and this is a way in? If so, explain why you respect the company somuch and how that is in synch with your own career aspirations. The list goes on. Always explain the “Why”.

If most of your employment experience is from part-time and summer jobs in the service industry and you have little jobexperience directly relevant to the role, then reflect upon your previous jobs and make a list of skills you honed in those roles.Learn how to translate experience. For example, if you have been a cook or a waitress at a busy bar or restaurant, then chancesare that you have strong verbal communication, quantitative and organisational skills. If you have worked as secretary orreceptionist, remember, you were an administrative assistant with fantastic typing, organisational, research and written andverbal communications skills. Whether you have volunteered for a charity shop or the RSPCA or a children’s summer camp,all of these experiences will indicate initiative and achievement.

So many graduates complain of having “no experience” to put on a CV. But, when they start deconstructing the last handfulof years of their lives, experience-by-experience, suddenly they are able to identify what they learned from which tasks. Sitdown with a pencil and paper before you start applying for jobs and map out all of your experiences and link them to skills youhave gained. Learn how to sell yourself and your experiences to a potential employer. Done well, this will also prove yourcommunication skills. At your point in life (that is, just out of university), employers do not expect you to have years of workexperience, so what it boils down to is that you can use anything suitable. And remember, most experiences can be crafted tobe suitable on your CV. But do not lie.

So, remember, the “Why” is the mitochondria, the powerhouse, the nucleus of your letter. You could have done basicadministrative duties for an office or participated in a university club or society. Perhaps you helped organise a local event.Mention it. List any awards or honours you may have. Show your employer that you are not only an excellent candidate forthe job, but the best candidate for the job. This is the essence of the “Why” — why you are the best.

Finally, remember that the “Why” section of your cover letter should be a personal snapshot of your CV, so do remember tonot go on a 500-word rant.


So how should your cover letter ultimately look? Your cover letter should have the name and address of the firm you areapplying to, as well as the date, on the top left of the page if you are applying by post or fax. If you are applying by email,which is the norm these days, then simply remember to make sure you have the vacancy reference number from theadvertisement in the subject line, as often large companies request this so that they can sort applications coming in.

Do not, do not, do not use funky fonts or colours. It is not funny. Even if you are applying for a graphic design or marketingjob. Whether or not you like it, the best fonts to use for any correspondence with a company are Times or Times New Romanfor serif fonts, or for sans serif fonts, Arial, if you prefer something slightly more modern. No matter which firm you areapplying for a job with, they will have Times New Roman on their computer. Also, stick to 11 or 12-point font size. It is easyto read and looks professional. Finally and most importantly, run a spell-check, make the corrections and then run a spell-checkagain. This can not be emphasized enough. Cover letters and CVs submitted with typos and spelling errors are generally sentstraight to the dustbin. Silly errors such as these indicated a degree of carelessness that is unattractive to all employers.

When ending your letter, always remember to thank the person you are applying to and remember to include details of howand when you can be contacted for more information or to arrange an interview.

Finally, remember that your cover letter should never be more than one page, including addresses and salutations.