Cover letters for graduate jobs

Although the majority of graduate employers now use online application processes, the traditional CV and cover letter is still used by well over half of employers. It's important that you make the right impression with clear, concise and well constructed writing. Let's have a look at how to use a cover letter to enhance your application and emphasise your suitability for the job.

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A cover letter is similar to the ‘further information’ box on a job application form. It’s your chance to demonstrate how well you fit the requirements of the job and it’s at least as important as the CV it accompanies.

What to include in a cover letter

A CV cover letter should be no more than one page long – around four or five brief paragraphs.

Always include the name of the person, not 'Dear Sir/Madam'. This is particularly important when you're making speculative applications because you want your letter to reach someone who can act on it.

Specify why you are writing (eg in response to an advertisement or on a speculative basis). If it's about an advertised job, state the job title you are applying for (and reference number, if there is one) and where you saw it advertised.

State briefly why you want to work for this particular organisation and why they should employ you. Don’t repeat what is in the CV, but highlight your ‘unique selling points’. Be as specific as possible about how your experience matches the job. (If the letter is accompanying an application form rather than a CV, this is not always necessary as you will have used the form to make these points.) Also, make sure you have done your research and found some key facts about the organisation that you can refer to an emphasise your suitability in working for them.

Give details of your availability for interview. If relevant (eg if the employer has several different graduate schemes), state which other positions with the organisation you would also like to be considered for.

Finish with a keen but professional sign-off.

Your name and address

Put your contact details at the top of the letter – right-justified (ie lined up against the right-hand margin) or centred. Include your postal address, telephone number and email address.

The recipient's name and address

This is usually left-justified (ie lined up against the left-hand margin).

The date

Leave one line space below the recipient’s address, then put the date you are writing the letter.

The greeting

Always start ‘Dear’ followed by the person’s title (Mr, Ms, Dr etc) and surname, eg ‘Dear Mr Smith’.

If you don’t know their name, start ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ (NOT ‘Madame’ – that means something different!). But it is always best to find out the name of the person who you want to read your letter, which in today's online world is easier than it's ever been, but don't be afraid to pick up the phone and ask someone in the organisation if needs be.

If the recipient is a woman and you don’t know her marital status, don’t make assumptions as this can cause offence; use ‘Ms’.

The subject

Leave one line space below the salutation, then put the subject of your letter, underlined. For example ‘Application for graduate trainee position’. Include the job reference number if there is one. This makes life easier for the HR person reading the letter. In an email, this will go in the subject line.

The body text

Write clearly and succinctly. Check out the Plain English Campaign website for tips. It's vital that you don't go overboard on the thesaurus, clarity is key and don't write in words that you would never use verbally. There is no need for extra embellishments.

Normally, a formal letter should not be more than one side of A4. Structure your letter with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Use business-like language: this should be closer to the essays you write at college than the letters you send to your parents.

Signing off

Finish the letter ‘Yours sincerely’. Leave a space for your signature, then type your name.If you can create a digital signature or insert an image of your signature it can add a nice touch.

‘Yours sincerely’ is traditionally used when you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to, but is becoming less common.

Cover letters by email

If you are asked to send your application by email, the email will become your cover letter. The same rules apply about the style of writing. Keep it formal. Write words in full: ‘text speak’, abbreviations or emoticons are a no-no. Always check your spelling and grammar.

Use the subject line of the email to say what your letter is about, eg ‘Application for graduate trainee position’. Include the job reference number if there is one.

As with a letter, you should begin with ‘Dear’. Instead of ‘Yours sincerely’, it is acceptable to end with ‘Best wishes’ or ‘Regards’.

Cover letter checklist

  • Are your contact details up to date?
  • Have you spelled the employer's name correctly?
  • Have you included the job title, reference number and where you saw the advertisement?
  • Have you signed the letter?
  • Have you kept a copy?
  • Have you kept it to one page where possible?

Cover letter tips

  • If you're sending the letter by post, use good quality, white writing paper and a neat layout on one side of A4.
  • Convince them you want the job: demonstrate that you have researched the company and know why you are applying.
  • Use a business-like, professional tone.
  • Sound confident and provide a clear message about your fit for the job.
  • Have you kept it concise

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