Covering letter essentials for graduate vacancies

If a graduate employer requests a CV they'll want a covering letter too. Don't miss out on this additional opportunity to showcase your skills and enthusiasm. It may be just one page of A4, but it can make a big difference to the success of your graduate application.
Writing a graduate cover letter

A convincing covering letter (or cover letter, as it’s more commonly known in the US) should always accompany a CV for a graduate vacancy. It’s your opportunity to show recruiters your most relevant skills and demonstrate your motivation and enthusiasm for the job and the employer.

A covering letter shouldn’t be longer than one side of A4. Here's our four-part failsafe guide to using this limited space to sell your skills.

How to write a graduate cover letter in four steps

1. The opening

Tell the graduate recruiter which job you are applying for, where you saw the advert and why you are applying. If the job has a reference number, it is always good to include this.

Tip: always address your covering letter to a named contact. Give the organisation a call to find out to whom you should address your job application if a name isn’t given on the advert. Get the person’s title (and gender!) right: Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms? Or would another title be appropriate: Dr, for example? People may feel quite strongly about how they are addressed, and it would be a shame to fall at the first hurdle.

2. Why you?

The first paragraph or two are about you. Tell the employer why you are well suited to the role you are applying for, referring directly to the job description and concentrating on how you have the skills, abilities and/or knowledge to excel in the job. Mix evidence of specific skills and knowledge related to the job with work experience examples and personal skills.

At graduate level remember that it’s fine to refer to work experience that isn’t directly related to the profession you are applying to. You need to show how your current experience ‘transfers’ into the job. Examples from part-time jobs, extra-curricular activities and academic work will all help to demonstrate how you have used and developed skills such as communication, teamwork, problem solving, organisation, time management and commercial awareness.

Do you live in the area where the job is based? If not, is the recruiter likely to wonder if you’re going to have problems getting into work in the morning? You may need to explain that you would be willing to relocate.

Tip: avoid copying statements direct from your CV. Think about how you can rephrase the information or expand on particular skills and achievements you have that are right for the role.

3. Why them?

The next paragraph explains why you are interested in the job and the organisation. What is it about the employer and job role that made you apply? This is your opportunity to target your covering letter so that the recruiter knows you are interested in their graduate job and you’re not batch emailing standard CVs and covering letters to all and sundry.

Re-read the job advertisement or job description and make sure you have done some background research into the organisation. This will help you tell the recruiter what attracts you to working for them and why you are interested in the particular job.

Tip: provide specific reasons for applying, such as the work they do or the training they provide. Avoid anything that could be said about pretty much any employer, such as ‘… because you’re a prestigious and dynamic employer’.

4. The ending

The closing paragraph should be strong and clear. Reaffirm your suitability for the role and your enthusiasm about the prospect of working for the employer. State that you look forward to hearing from them and are happy to provide any further information they need.

Don’t forget to sign the letter if you are sending it through the post, or to print your name if you are sending your covering letter by e-mail.

Tip: brush up on how to write a business letter and current format practices. For letters addressed to a named contact, finish: Yours sincerely. Dear Sir/Madam letters finish: Yours faithfully – but it’s better to get a named contact. 

You could turn steps two and three around and write about why you’re applying to the employer first if you'd find that more comfortable. As long as you cover both ‘why you’ and ‘why them’ in the letter, the exact order doesn’t matter.

When to write a covering letter

You must write a covering letter for a job when you are invited to submit a CV via an email or (more rare nowadays) through the post. There are two ways to send your covering letter via email, and both are usually acceptable, though you should check the job advert carefully to see if you have been given any specific instructions.

  • Attach both the CV and the covering letter to your email. Make the email a brief message saying that your application for the vacancy (give the relevant details) is attached.
  • Write the covering letter directly into the email. You could include your contact details as a signature at the end. Attach your CV.

If you are uploading a CV as part of an application form, you don’t usually have to upload a covering letter as well (unless the employer requests one).

Otherwise, you should never opt out of sending a covering letter with your CV. Don’t go for the ‘Please find attached my CV for your consideration’ one liner. It's a missed opportunity.

Tip: use sensible filenames for your attachments, eg Joe Bloggs_covering letter.doc and use a subject line that will make sense to the recipient and looks professional, for example, use the job reference: Vacancy – ED123_PT trainee accountant.

Make your covering letter memorable and to the point

You’ll stand out if you:

  • Don’t waffle
  • Match your skills and experience to the requirements in the job description
  • Avoid generalised statements and clichés
  • Express yourself clearly.

Keep sentences straightforward and fairly simple. Using action verbs will help. Keep your writing professional and err on the side of formality rather than being too chatty.

Tip: read through your covering letter out loud. This will help you identify verbose sentences that can be rewritten and will help you check the sense of your writing.

Check spelling, grammar and sense very carefully

Before you send out a covering letter check it for spelling, grammar and sense. Elegant formatting won’t make up for poor spelling and grammar. Graduate recruiters will be reviewing your attention to detail and your ability to communicate in writing, so your covering letter is your first chance to impress. Get a trusted friend or careers adviser to give it a once over before you send it out.

Tip: when proofreading your covering letter for a graduate job, read it forwards and read it backwards. No joke. You’re more likely to spot a spelling mistake if you read word by word back from the end. If not, get someone else to proofread your letter for you.