cover letter

How to Write a Great Cover Letter

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter (or ‘covering letter’) is a document you often send in with your CV or resume as part of an application. In the days of postal applications, it was traditionally placed as the front cover of your CV, hence the origin of the name. Although CVs are best if tailored to each individual application, they are, by nature, generalised. Given that they must always describe your past achievements and experiences, they don’t tend to change much… A cover letter, on the other hand, should be specifically targeted to the individual application!

A cover letter is your chance to tell the employer why you want the job, and, more importantly, why they should want you. Whilst a CV is a brilliantly concise way of showing your experience, it doesn’t allow for much personality to shine through and so your cover letter is an opportunity to make yourself stand out from the crowd, and sell your skills.

A young girl writing her cover letter on a laptop
A student shaking hands with a hiring manager in a job interview

What should a cover letter say?

A cover letter should be polite and formal, yet personal. If you know who the person in charge of the application process is, then write to them individually, e.g. “Dear Mr. Williams/Ms. Smith”, rather than “Dear Sir/Madam.”

Famous YouTuber and entrepreneur Casey Neistat says the most annoying thing about job applicants is that they spend far too long talking about why working for his company would be the best thing for them and what the company could do for them, but virtually no time saying what they could do for the company.

Put yourselves in the employer’s shoes. You’re looking for someone to do a job for you. You want someone who will be motivated, reliable, and good at the job. Do you care whether it’s their dream job that they’ve always hoped for, that will achieve their goal of XYZ? Probably not. What you care about is someone who will get the job done better than anyone else.

So a cover letter should, in effect, say this: “Here’s what I can do for you…”.

Tell the employer about the skills you have which are particularly suited to this job, and give evidence of them – explain to the hiring manager you can make a difference to their company using your skills and experience. Use the letter to highlight parts of your CV that are particularly appropriate for the job in question, and expand on them by giving detail about why this experience makes you suitable for the job.

Top cover letter tips for students

1. Don’t just summarise your CV! The employer is more than capable of reading your CV, you don’t need to waste cover letter space simply repeating it. Use this opportunity to expand on the skills and experience mentioned in your CV and explain why you would be a great person for the job! Use this chance to mention things that might not be in your CV – personality traits, previous feedback etc. Don’t just recite your previous work experience – tell them why you want the job and why you would be good at it!

2. Always customise your letter to fit the job. A surefire way to turn off employers is to send out a generic cover letter. It’s okay to have a starting template (particularly if you’re applying for many similar jobs) but make sure that you always personalise it to mention specific aspects of the company and role. Once you’ve finished writing, read over your letter again – if you can imagine an employer having any doubt over whether you meant to apply to thier company, go back and personalise more!

3. Don’t oversell yourself. Phrases like ‘I am uniquely qualified,’ and ‘You will not find a candidate better suited to this position,’ may be common in cover letters, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best way to go! Not only do you have no idea what the other candidates may be like, this type of sales-y language can be very off-putting. You want to give an honest account of your skills and how they fit the job – if it’s right for you, the hiring manager will see that. It’s fine to sell your skills, and make sure that you get across your relevant achievements, but don’t go too far.

4. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. It is very rare that you will meet every single requirement laid out in a job description, and that’s fine! It’s common for job-seekers, particularly early on in their careers, to use phrases like ‘While I only have limited work experience in Social Media…’ but it’s much better to focus on the strengths you do have, and the other (maybe transferable) skills you can bring to the job.

5. Show some personality. While you want your letter to be professional, it’s okay to write in the same way that you would speak – the employer can see your experience from your CV, now it’s time to sell you! Try writing a first draft of the letter as though you were explaining to a friend, parent, or teacher why you wanted this job, and thought you could succeed at it – you’ll be surprised at how engaging a cover letter you can end up with this way!

Learn more about our online internships and Oxford Summer School to get a head start in your future and make your application stand out.