Date posted: 16/11/2016

5 tips for writing a great cover letter

In Brief

  • Cover letters are usually one of the first impressions potential employers have of you, so you need to make sure its a good one.
  • Tailor your cover letter to the organisation and answer the job ad requirements.
  • Layout your cover letter in an easy to ready fashion, and try to keep it to a single page.

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First impressions count, whether it’s the way you dress, your manner on the phone or the application you put in for a position. Find out how your cover letter can be vital in getting your foot into the door of your next job.

So, here are some tips for more powerful and effective cover letters.

1. Know who you're writing to

Tailor every cover letter. Don't have a standard version that you use for everyone, otherwise it will come off as impersonal.

Here are some ways to ensure your first impression has a more targeted and personal feel to it:

  • Read the job ad carefully
  • Reflect in your letter the skills required for the role. For example, if the ad considers ‘attention to detail’ as a key attribute, double-check all spelling and grammar
  • Use the employer's name if possible. If their real name isn't in the ad - perhaps just their title or division - call their office and ask for the name of the person in charge
  • Research the company website. Read about their history, their customers, their key personnel and their philosophy. If possible, feed that back in your letter. For example, if the website describes them as ‘young and energetic’, say that you are too. This will also show that you've done your homework
  • At this stage, the employer is interested in what you can do for the organisation. So tell them in your letter
  • Ask around to see if anyone you know, or anyone they know, has a contact in the prospective employer’s organisation. It may give you real, on-the-ground insights.

2. Understand the role of the job application letter

The letter is not the place to list your work experience (that's the CV). The cover letter's role is to:

  • Introduce yourself (your name)
  • Say why you are writing (the position)
  • Say where you heard about the position (advertised or word of mouth)
  • Why you are a good match for the company and the role (here, you can draw on relevant experience as proof and back it up with any awards)
  • Point the reader towards your formal work or education experience document (your resumé).

After reading it, the potential employer should feel you are focused, clear and succinct, and want to read about your work experience.

3. Use an appropriate tone of voice

Your ‘tone of voice’ is the style that you write.

Avoid using lengthy words, trying to show how clever you are, or being too gushy. Keep the language simple and clear - you want the reader to understand it easily and quickly.

Be confident, but not over-confident. You want to sound as though you have purpose and the right attributes, but you are willing to learn and are open to direction.

Use positive words and phrases, rather than negative ones (‘I’m sure that…’ as opposed to ‘You probably won’t have time…’)

Finally, punctuate your writing so that the sentences are not too long.

4. Give your letter a makeover

Even before a word has been read, your letter will give an impression through how it is laid out and how it looks.

Always type your letter. Use a simple, standard typeface such as Times Roman or Century Schoolbook - not a flowery ‘handwritten’ style. The point size should be 11 or 12, depending on the font.

Type your details at the top of the page including your name, an address, your phone numbers (both home and mobile) and your email. You want them to be able to get back to you easily, so give them every option.

One thing to remember is that every prospective employer is likely to be busy. Having to wade through unstructured, long and confusing information is not going to make their life easier.

Keep your letter to one single page. Anything longer and they may lose interest.

Sign it personally, if sending through the post.

5. Remember your strengths

Even if you're not actually in the process of applying for employment, you can take a moment to write down your strengths and keep that draft.

When you do apply, remind yourself of these strengths before you write, and connect them with the organisation you're writing to, and to the specifics of the role.

In closing, remember that your cover letter is the very first thing a hiring manager or recruiter learns about you, so make sure that it's the best it can be.

Read other cover letter tips, or how you can learn to write a great CV.