A covering letter is a chance to summarize to the potential employer why you are the right candidate for the job. You therefore need to carefully tailor your letter to the vacancy. By Helen Boddy, assistant editor at BCS.

Whenever you send your CV or an application form to an employer, you ought to include a covering letter.

The covering letter is usually the first document that the recruiter will see and should therefore make an impact. You must show that you will be able to meet their needs. You do not need to be a 100% match to their requirements as you need to learn some new things to hold your interest and keeping you there is in the employer’s interest.

If you are applying by email, you can copy your covering letter into the body of the text, or include it as an attachment.

Information to include in a covering letter varies according to the situation:

  • Replying to a job advert;
  • Sending speculative letters to unadvertised vacancies;
  • Following up a lead from a friend or acquaintance;
  • Contacting a recruitment agency;
  • Offering freelance or contract services.

Below are guidelines that apply to all letter types, followed by some points that relate specifically to the different situations above.

Guidelines for all letter types

Phone the organisation, or look on its website, to find out the name of the person to whom you should address the application and their title - Mrs/Miss/Ms, Dr or Mr. Make sure you get the name spelt correctly. This allows you to personalize the letter and have a contact to follow up. If an advert just says J Smith, phone up to find out the person’s title or first name.

However, be aware that in some adverts it is clear that they do not want you to address the application to an individual, for example, if the advert says to send you application to the HR department.

If you are going to print your letter or attach it as a document, use the format of a business letter.

If you are addressing the letter to a person’s name, end the letter with 'Yours sincerely'. If using 'Dear Sir/Madam', end with 'Yours faithfully'.

Type the letter unless hand-writing is specified.

If you are going to put your covering letter as text in the body of an email, don't include your address or the employer's address. You can end it more informally with 'Best Wishes' or 'Kind Regards'.

Make sure you name is written at the end as you like to be known, for example Phil Askin.

Keep the letter to one page (or the equivalent for an email), ideally consisting of three to four paragraphs. Consider using bullet points.

Keep a copy for your files and a list of which agencies you are registered with.

Do not repeat exactly what is on you CV. Draw out the most relevant point to the job.

Remember to spell check and proof read the letter yourself and to ask someone else to look at it for you.

If sending an email, do not forget to attach your CV.

Replying to an advert

  • On the job specification, highlight what the employer is seeking in terms of skills, experience, and characteristics. Make a list of which of these you have, and then give them a mention in the letter
  • Include details such of where you saw the job advertised and reference number if given.
  • Specify when you will be available for interview.

Sending speculative applications

Make sure you find out about the company before sending a speculative letter by:

  • Looking at the company's website for general information and at its recent press releases.
  • Searching online for newspaper articles about the company.
  • Reading the relevant trade press online or in hard copy.
  • Phoning the company to ask if they will send you any marketing material.

By doing some research, you will hopefully find a good point with which to begin your job application. For instance, the company may have announced it is rolling out a new operating system, or opening new offices in your area. You can use such information to begin your letter:

Having heard that your company is moving over to the Linux operating system from your website, I feel my skills could be of benefit to your organisation.

Or you could mention that you have seen them at an exhibition or that you have come across them in your current job.

Looking at old newspaper adverts can give you ideas of which companies are regularly recruiting and could be worth a try. Equally, if a company in one industry is doing well its competitors may be expanding too.

Following up a lead from a friend

  • Mention the friend's name and how you know them.
  • List your skills and achievements.

Letters to recruitment agencies

Include details of job sought: the type of work, the type of industry, desired, how far you are prepared to commute and whether you would relocate.

List your skills and achievements - make these as clear as possible with lots of industry-specific words. Remember that recruitment agencies don't always understand your industry.

Remember to state if your salary is basic plus bonus and package.

Follow up applications

Following up on applications can provide essential feedback. If you do not get an interview, it is useful to know why as it can help improve your CV and letters. If the interviewer has not made a decision, it gives you an opportunity to re-iterate your enthusiasm for the job.

Between one and two weeks would normally be a sensible time to make a follow-up phone call but bear in mind the deadline for applications and dates given for interviews.