A cover letter is the letter that accompanies and introduces your résumé or curriculum vitae. It explains to the reader how your experience, qualifications and personal qualities make you the right person for the job. While a CV on its own simply shows what you have done, the cover letter highlights and expands on those things you have done that are relevant to this particular job. It is in effect a guide to the 'best bits' of your CV. The cover letter is of critical importance. Employers read your cover letter first. If they don't like it, they may not even look at your CV, no matter how beautifully designed it is.
A good cover letter should:
- Elaborate your job objective and/or state the job you are applying for (see below)
- Emphasize and highlight those aspects of your education and experience detailed in your résumé/CV which are most relevant to this job
- Draw the attention of a prospective employer to your skills, talent and experience
- Indicate briefly what it is that attracts you to this job
- Suggest and get an interview
Cover letters come in two types: speculative letters, which are written to a company to ask if there is a job they could consider you for; and replies to job advertisements, where you are writing to apply for a specific and clearly described position. While there are some small differences, both letters are basically similar.
A cover letter should be constructed in three or four paragraphs, with a word limit of about 200-300 words. If it is longer, the reader may lose interest; if it is much shorter, it will seem as if you have nothing to say for yourself.
The first paragraph of a speculative cover letter introduces you and gives your reason for writing, specifying the sort of area you feel best suited to or hope to work in. A cover letter replying to a job advert is more rigid: you must mention in your first paragraph the advertised title of the job you are applying for, and how you read or heard about it.
I read with interest your advertisement in the New York Times of September 12, 1999 for the post of Administrative Assistant in the Archives Section of the National Library, and would like to apply for this position.
In the second paragraph you should concisely elaborate on those aspects of your experience or qualifications which are related to this company's needs. If you have a lot of material, this can be extended to twqo paragraphs. If you are replying to an advertisement, make sure you read carefully the requirements for the position and that you have mentioned briefly how your experience meets each of them. (If you cannot meet one of the requirements, don't apologize or emphasize your shortcomings: either suggest what alternative experience or qualifications you might be able to offer instead, or if you have none, just don't mention that point). The ideal structure in this part of the letter is to mention the relevant experience, then say what skills you have gained from this experience that are relevant to this job. It is also very good here to describe special achievements which show you to be an independent, creative and dynamic person.
My experience in working with a team of four colleagues at the University of Riga has enabled me to develop the skills of collaboration, negotiation and co-operative problem solving. While in this position I also designed and put into operation a unique database system for the storage of data about archaeological sites.
The next (penultimate) paragraph should normally indicate how this particular job or company would fit into your own career plans. A company is much more likely to employ someone they think will enjoy working for them than someone who will leave at the first opportunity. Some guides to writing suggest you should insert a proactive statement here to show you are assertive and professionally persistent. It would perhaps be preferable to say that your whole letter should give the overall impression of professionalism and persistence.
A job at the National Library is particularly appealing to me as it would give me the chance expand my interest and experience in archaeological research. I feel sure that the Library would also prove a stimulating work environment that would enable me to offer my best.
In the final section of the letter, include a sentence to the effect that you are happy to provide further information and that you hope to hear from the company regarding the possibility of an interview.
Do's and Don'ts
- address your cover letter to a named individual. If necessary, call the company or visit their website and find out who to send it to
- do some research and find out as much as you can about the company - again, the website is the best place to do this in most cases
- express confidence, but not arrogance
- send a neatly formatted and printed letter on A4 (or US letter) paper in a plain white envelope, the same color as your resume (preferably also white)
- keep it brief, no more than one page in easily read paragraphs
- answer the employer's question; "Why should I hire this person?"
- use simple, uncomplicated language and sentence structure
- clearly express your objective, and state what sort of position are you applying for
- request action and follow up
- provide a reachable address and phone number or e-mail if possible
- make a copy of each cover letter to use for future reference
- write a second time after a reasonable time, if you didn't get a response
- ever send your résumé without a cover letter
- write your letter by hand
- be negative or humble
- be over-boastful or self-aggrandizing
- use clichés or vague, meaningless phrases
- send a cover letter with misspellings, grammatical errors or smudges
- send letters that are obviously photocopied or mass produced
- list hobbies or personal interests unless they are related to the position you are applying for
A sample advertisement and a cover letter in response
Unilever Hungary has a vacancy for a Junior Sales Manager to work in the area of sales and marketing, particularly with our household product lines. Applicants should have previous experience in the area of sales and marketing, as well as an excellent command of English, appropriate computer skills, and a full current driving license.
Applications, including full curriculum vitae and references to:
Mr. Henrik Fan, Personnel Manager, UNILEVER Hungary, Budapest 1059, Piroska utca 21-23
Closing date: 17 March 2012
Sample Cover Letter: Response to Advertisement
Rozsa utca 68.II.2
Tel: 00 361 425 4563
10 March, 2012
Mr. Henrik Fan
Piroska utca 21-23,
Dear Mr. Fan,
I was very interested in your advertisement in the Budapest Sun last week for the post of junior sales manager. I feel that I would be an excellent candidate for this position, and would like to apply.
Through my work as marketing assistant for Glycom Armenia, I have built a strong record of significant achievement in progressively more responsible sales and office management position during my short career. My six months management placement experience with Palmolive in Great Britain provided me with intensive experience planning, developing and implementing sales of body care products. In addition to this I performed management responsibilities including the supervision of a staff of five. Having recently completed a Master’s degree in Economics at the Central European University, I have an excellent command of both written and spoken English, as well as a clear understanding of market forces. I have worked extensively with Microsoft Word and Excel both in a work environment and in my recent studies, and am conversant with the most popular Internet software. I possess a full driving license.
A position with Unilever Hungary would offer me the opportunity to further develop my experience in the area of sales and marketing, a field of work which I find stimulating and fulfilling, within the framework of a company with an established international reputation.
Please find enclosed a copy of my curriculum vitae, with details of references as requested. Should you have any further questions, you may reach me at the above address, phone number or email. I look forward to hearing from you to discuss your organization and how my experience can contribute to its success.
In the ‘motivation for applying’ section on Goldman Sachs’ online application form, the bank is explicit about what it wants: ‘Please provide information you would typically include in your cover letter in 300 words or less. Be sure to provide examples of the qualities you would bring to Goldman Sachs and describe your motivations for applying. If you are applying to more than one division, please discuss your motivations for applying to each.'
Its essential your response is to the point, especially if you are applying to more than one division. Fortunately for your word count, you are not required to use a letter format.
Say why you are well suited to Goldman Sachs
You need to support your desire for a job at Goldman Sachs with evidence. This is important because it demonstrates that you are really keen to work for Goldman Sachs and you aren't just carpet-bombing applications to all banks. The best answer to the question about your suitability for the role is an honest one, backed up by an example. Think about what you enjoy from your course and your life in general. How does this overlap with the requirements of Goldman Sachs particularly to the role for which you’ve applied? What do you enjoy being best at? How will this help you be the best analyst, for instance? Brushing up on information about the bank is a good way to understand how you mirror its ethos. Doing your homework proves that you are interested in the bank's history and mission; it shows that you and are prepared to integrate into Goldman Sachs. There are employee profiles, job descriptions and news bulletins on the website for you to explore and reference.
You may well want to show how your motivations mirror some of the more commonly talked about aspects of investment banking, eg being a multitasker and having time management skills. You might also want to refer to any satisfaction you gain from ‘seeing a job through’ and how that fits with the role; a great deal of stamina is required in order to complete some of the transactions in investment banking.
Say why are attracted to Goldman Sachs
Goldman Sachs wants you to explain why you have decided to apply for a graduate scheme or an internship with it rather than one of its competitors. 'Why have you chosen us over other employers?’ is one of the big questions employers are keen for you to answer.
Although you should not name other banks specifically in your answer, be aware that a general response about your commitment to a career in investment banking, with a few readily available (though interesting) facts about Goldman Sachs, will not suffice. The bank has often stated that a candidate’s understanding of its culture is as important as the skills and talent she or he can bring to the bank. Recruiters want you to concentrate on one or two unique facts that confirm it stands out (to you) in the marketplace. It then wants you to marry those facts with your career aspirations or values. For example, if you are interested in Goldman Sachs' current sustainability and investment initiaitves, take a look at the bank's ‘Environment, Social and Governance Report’ on its website. You can then reference the initiatives when writing about your own interest in sustainaibility.
Always think about what it is about Goldman Sachs that attracts you. If you have the chance before the application deadline, familiarise yourself with its culture by speaking with people who work there. This could be through events, insight days or internships. Goldman Sachs holds a wide range of functions and programmes throughout the year to reach individuals interested in investment banking. If you want to find out more about Goldman Sachs events, you can register with ‘my GS events’ to check its programme. You can also get in touch with your university careers department to see if Goldman Sachs will have a presence at upcoming careers fairs.
Otherwise, or in addition, read Goldman Sach’s website and any news featuring the work of the bank. Interviews with Goldman Sachs’ employees from across the business are available in video format on the bank’s website and on YouTube. Spending a bit of time watching those will deepen your insight: there is a ‘Talks at GS’ conference series on the bank's YouTube page.
Just stating your reasons isn’t sufficient; you need to strengthen them with evidence that you mean what you say. For instance, if you are impressed that Goldman Sachs invests heavily in urban communities and you have volunteered at an inner-city school, link the two in your application. It makes for a particularly powerful and convincing application when candidates can show – with reasons and evidence – that they want to work for a particular employer because it chimes with their values. Choose examples from your time at university, work, extracurricular activities or gap years.
Say what you can bring to the business
You have undoubtedly got a long list of qualities that Goldman Sachs would want in graduate or intern recruits. However, select just a few examples that are directly relevant to the division to which you are applying.
Read through the job description. Read the content on the website about the division. Check out other material that may provide insight about the role. Does what the bank says through social media reveal anything else? Have a look at LinkedIn – see what former or existing graduates/interns or the bank’s own profile have to say.
Jot down the competencies Goldman Sachs is looking for in a graduate or intern, and specifically for your desired role. For example, some of the qualities that the business requires for its global compliance division are sound judgement, project management skills, adaptability and an interest in financial markets, products, securities law and regulation.
To help you choose which competencies to focus on, consider if there are any that stand out or seem more important than others. Also establish which of the required competencies you can prove with tangible evidence that you have developed through work, education or other experiences. This will show Goldman Sachs that you have identified what the bank is looking for.
For example, if you decided to focus on the sound judgement competency required for work in the global compliance division, you could refer to a part-time job. Perhaps you worked at a youth club during a summer holiday and you made children buddy up in threes when they are doing outside activities and wear fluorescent jackets on field trips; these precautions would help ensure their welfare and show sound judgement.
- For pre-application research, look at Goldman Sachs’ ‘careers quiz’. It has 14 scenario-based questions, giving you an idea of what area you want to go into as well as what the company is looking for.
- Don’t forget the obvious: follow instructions. If you are applying to more than one division, state your reasons for each.
- Link Goldman Sachs’ projects and activities to your own interests.
- Relate your examples to the division you want to work in.
- Keep your answers concise but detailed. Specify how your experience will enable you to perform a particular function of the job.