How to write a winning cover letter: your step-by-step guide

By: Jen Wiss

When applying for a job, you will usually include a covering letter to tell your prospective employer why they should consider you for the position.  This is your opportunity to pick out the qualifications, experience and skills from your CV that are most relevant to the job advert, and highlight them to your prospective employer.

The points to remember when writing your covering letter are:

  • Address the covering letter to the right person (as specified in the job advert).
  • Include your address and contact information.
  • Reference to the job position you are applying for.
  • Reference to where you saw the advertisement.
  • Include a copy of your CV (unless the advertisement states otherwise) and say you've done this.
  • Make reference to experience, qualifications or skills you have that match any special requirements of the role as mentioned in the job advertisement.
  • Keep your letter brief and to the point.

Here is an example covering letter for the post of Legal Secretary:

111, Church Drive East,
Daybrook,
Arnold,
Nottingham
NG5 6JF

27th March 2012

For the attention of Carol James, HR Manager

Dear Ms. James

Re: Legal Secretary

I am writing in respect of the advertisement in yesterday's Nottingham Evening Post for a Legal Secretary at your firm.  

I have over 6 years experience as a paralegal, the last 3 of which were spent at Law Firm & Co, and I have developed a wide range of skills that would meet, and exceed the expectations for the role.

In particular, I note that the job entails reviewing and summarising detailed documentary evidence, redaction of documentation, putting documents in chronological order and paginating, witness tracing and assisting in preparation for witness interviews.  My time at Law Firm & Co was split between the criminal law and civil litigation departments, so I have extensive experience of undertaking these tasks which I believe makes me a strong candidate for the role.

My notice period is 2 weeks and I have excellent references available.  To get in touch to discuss my application and to arrange an interview, you can contact me on 07984 182182 or email myname@myname.com.

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely

Joe Brown

Sometimes you'll want to apply for a position where you don't have the ideal experience that your recruiter is looking for.  In that case, you may want to word your cover letter differently.  You'll want to admit up front that you don't have what they want, but explain what you do have, and convince them that you're still worthy of consideration.  For example:

111, Church Drive East,
Daybrook,
Arnold,
Nottingham
NG5 6JF

27th March 2012

For the attention of Carol James, HR Manager

Dear Ms. James

Re: Legal Secretary

I am writing in respect of the advertisement in yesterday's Nottingham Evening Post for a Legal Secretary at your firm.

You will see from my CV that my experience has been gained in careers not directly related to the legal industry. However, in my 8 years spent in my role as senior claims coordinator in the insurance industry, I have developed many transferrable skills that, given the opportunity, would allow me to excel within the role.

I am an effective communicator and have a proven track record of establishing and maintaining harmonious and professional relationships with both clients and colleagues.  I have exceptional organisational skills and I am adept at managing my own time effectively.  My references will confirm that I take a proactive, professional and flexible approach to work, taking projects forward on my own initiative whilst maintaining a positive team spirit at all times.  Above all, I have a willingness and ability to learn as demonstrated by my advancement from office junior to senior coordinator in just 2 years in my last employment. 

My notice period is 2 weeks and I have excellent references available. To get in touch to discuss my application and to arrange an interview, you can contact me on 07984 182182 or email myname@myname.com.

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely

Joe Brown

NB: If the person in charge of the vacancy is a lady and the job advertisement specifies whether the person to write to is a Miss, Mrs or Ms, obviously you can use the correct/preferred title.  Otherwise, use Ms. which is universal.  If the job advertisement does not specify who is in charge of recruiting for the vacancy, address your letter 'Dear Sir or Madam'.

More cover letter tips

  • If you've got a good connection at the place of work, make use of it.  Casually drop the name into your letter - for example, "Your Corporate Partner James Irwin was kind enough to let me know about the position of Legal Secretary that you are currently recruiting for, as he thought it may be of interest to me".
  • Avoid just regurgitating what's in your CV.  Your cover letter has a specific role - to link your CV to the job advert - use it for that and remember, if you don't give it enough time, it may land in your prospective employer's bin.
  • Use assertive language. For example, the letter above states "To get in touch to discuss my application..." rather than "If you would like to get in touch".  It also closes with "I look forward to hearing from you soon" rather than "I hope to hear from you".  The language used here is telling the reader what they will do next, rather than giving them a choice in the matter, and is far more likely to be successful. 
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