You should always write a covering letter (sometimes referred to as a cover letter) to accompany your CV if you are applying via email, for example to a smaller employer. If you are applying to a larger employer that recruits through an online application form, you may be required to upload a covering letter and a CV, too. Mott MacDonald, for example, traditionally requires applicants to submit a covering letter and CV as well as to answer application questions.
Many careers advice websites provide template covering letters, but merely copying these is unlikely to get you an interview. A successful cover letter should be tailored to the vacancy and the employer you are applying to; if it isn’t, the employer will question your motivation and not want to meet you. So we use a sample construction graduate job ad to provide you with example cover letter paragraphs, taking you step by step through the process of writing an amazing covering letter.
1. The opening: how to begin your covering letter
If you are writing your covering letter directly into an email window or text box on an online application form, your letter should be in email format (no address or date required). If you are writing a covering letter in a MS Word document or similar and attaching it to an email, write it as a formal letter with your address and a date.
Start your covering letter using ‘Dear’. Apply to a named person, rather than ‘Sir/Madam’ if you can. A large construction employer usually specifies how to address a covering letter to them on their recruitment FAQ webpage. However, if a name isn’t provided, ring up the office’s reception and ask them for one. Check whether a female recruiter would prefer to be addressed as ‘Miss’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’.
Then say which job you are applying for and where you found the job ad.
2. Why you would be a great hire
You should start this section with an introductory sentence about how you have the right mix of skills and experience to thrive in the role – but what you write after that should vary according to the role you are applying for.
This section should show that you have as many of the essential and desirable qualifications, skills, attributes and experience sought as possible. So, you will need to have a copy of the advertisement or job description nearby. Use a highlighter to pick out the skills and experience requested, so that you don’t forget to write about any key requirements that you fulfil.
Next, think of examples of when you have developed the skills and demonstrated the behaviours required. If possible, you should also say how you have experienced some of the job tasks or have the potential to do so. You want to say that your experience of doing X means that you will be able to do Y on the job description.
Your examples do not have to come just from your degree or from construction-related work experience; they can come from any area of your life, including part-time jobs, gap year experiences and extracurricular activities.
Let’s say that the job ad requires the following…
This is an example covering letter paragraph that uses a summer placement to show how this candidate fulfilled the academic requirements, had previous experience of a key job task and had developed good communication and relationship-building skills…
Note how we have used the same language as that of the job advert, including ‘relationship-building and communication skills’ instead of ‘teamworking and interpersonal skills’ and ‘adhered to’ instead of ‘kept’. This helps to convey to the recruiter that you are a good fit for the role.
Observe, too, how we have given them just enough information about the placement (the employer, the project and the package) for them to see the candidate in the role without needing to turn immediately to their CV, but we haven’t included everything from the candidate’s CV. We have also gone into some detail about how the candidate has built a good relationship – we have shown their thought processes and given the result of the interaction (a positive reaction and no repeat) – to prove that the candidate really does understand how to build relationships.
This is an example of how you could write up an extracurricular activity on your covering letter to show your skills…
Note here how the candidate explains their thought process to demonstrate their problem-solving skills and how stressing what they contributed (‘organising’, ‘decided’ etc) demonstrates leadership, but if you are short on space you don’t have to provide so much detail.
Hint: don’t say how you don’t meet requirements, even indirectly. For example, avoid ‘Although I have not had experience of leading a team, I did have an instrumental role when I…’ The recruiter’s first impression is one of negativity. Instead just write ‘I played an instrumental role in a team when I…’.
If you have an outstanding achievement that doesn’t relate to a competency on the job description, still include it, but only after you’ve written about how you meet the required competencies; that’s what the recruiter wants to find out.
3. Why you want the job at that employer
You need concrete reasons for applying, not just ‘I need a job and you seemed like a prestigious employer’ (even if there is a grain of truth in that). Find out:
- the type of employer and the broad work it does: whether contractor, consultant or property developer, for example
- notable, recent and landmark projects (especially in the division/team you are applying to)
- the company’s business strategy and recent appearances in the news
- developments that interest the company, such as off-site construction or sustainability
- the employer’s values
- the training and development available for graduates/interns (particularly in relation to your professional qualification).
Then connect your professional interests (for example, an interest in sustainability), your values and your career ambitions to what you have discovered. Use detail from your research to make your desire to work there sound even more genuine.
Ideally, you should give more than one reason for wanting to work for the company – depending on how much space you have. If you are applying for a role working on one type of project, as our fictional job is, you should also express enthusiasm for working on that type of project.
You could start this section with a sentence summarising your reasons for wanting to work for the employer and then go on to expand on each point or you could take each sentence separately. For example…
See here how we have linked research (the CEO's quote; the 5-star rating; waste reduction policy) with the candidate’s personal interests (the sister anecdote; the final year project; the career ambition). Don’t be afraid to bring in your unique story about your interest in construction.
4. The end: how to sign off your covering letter
Refer recruiters to your CV and let them know if there is a time in the near future when you can’t be contacted.
If you have addressed the letter to a named person, sign off with ‘Yours sincerely’; if you have addressed it to a Sir/Madam, use ‘Yours faithfully’.
Do a final check on your covering letter
Check that your covering letter – whether in email format or document format – doesn’t go over one page of A4. Then double check for errors and, if possible, get it reviewed by a careers adviser.