Whether you’re using a CV (curriculum vitae) or an application form, your job applications should always be accompanied by a covering letter unless the job advert tells you differently.
Your covering letter acts as a personal introduction and is your opportunity to summarise why you're the best candidate for the job.
Do this by highlighting the skills and experiences you have that are most relevant to the specific job role.
If you think of your CV or application form like a film, your covering letter should be like the trailer, offering up your ‘highlights’ and encouraging the audience to want to know more.
The content of your covering letter will depend on whether your application is in response to an advertised job vacancy or if you’re making a speculative application.
Your covering letter for an advertised job vacancy is your chance to sell yourself to the employer and emphasise why your application is worth reading. Use it to show your enthusiasm and suitability for the job and draw attention to the strengths you’ve included in your CV or application form.
Structure it to include:
- What you’re applying for. You should normally include the job title and reference number (if there is one) as given in the advert in the introductory paragraph.
- Why you’re applying. Say what it is about the job that interests you and why you want to work for that organisation in particular.
- Why you‘re suitable. Match your skills to the person specification (the list of the skills, experience and qualities that an employer is looking for) if one is provided. Use the same key words where possible. If the person specification is extensive, focus on how you meet the ‘essential’ criteria in the covering letter. Refer only to the most relevant parts of your CV or application form.
See an example of a speculative applications covering letter for an advertised vacancy on page 96 in the Career planning and job seeking workbook (PDF, 3.4MB)
Even when a job role hasn’t been formally advertised, you can send a speculative letter along with a copy of your CV if you’re keen to work for a particular employer. It should be:
- tailored to the organisation
- addressed to a named individual; find the relevant contact from the organisation beforehand.
Your letter should include:
- Why you’re making an approach and why you want to work for that organisation in particular. Show your knowledge and interest from research you've carried out.
- The type of work or job role you're looking for.
- Why you're suitable. Emphasise the skills you have which are relevant to the business, and direct the recipient to your enclosed CV for more detail. Reviewing the person specifications or job descriptions of previously advertised vacancies with the same organisation or with similar companies can help guide you towards the most relevant skills, experience and qualities to highlight.
Try to offer a number of options in your letter. If they have no vacancies, could they keep your details on file? If you’d be interested in unpaid work experience or an information interview say so.
Please note, speculative applications are discouraged in Northern Ireland but some organisations may accept your CV to keep on file for a short time and may then inform you if a suitable vacancy arises and advise you of the formal application method.
For registered OU students only:
See an example of a speculative applications covering letter on page 95 in the Career planning and job seeking workbook (PDF, 3.4MB)
If you want to register with a recruitment agency, online or in person, but are not applying for a specific vacancy, it’s still a good idea to provide a covering letter with your CV. Some online agencies will offer you the option to write a ‘message’ with your CV upload/submission instead. Use the letter or message to explain what career options you would like to be considered for.
A '3 paragraph' approach can be useful to help keep things concise:
- First paragraph: Introduce yourself and explain why you’re writing and type of roles you’re looking for. Complete the introductory paragraph with a couple of sentences summarising your experience and qualifications.
- Second paragraph: outline three to five achievements in your line of work. For example, if you work in sales, describe your highest-producing sales project. It doesn’t have to be presented in a narrative format; bullet points can work well when outlining achievements.
- Third paragraph: it can be useful to include details of your availability and salary expectations.
Conclude your letter by expressing an interest to take discussion with the recruiter further by phone, in person, via Skype, or by email, and keep a note to follow this up.
You may want to use your covering letter to tell an employer about a disability. You can't be discriminated against for having a disability and your covering letter can be a good opportunity to talk about it. Mentioning your disability at an early stage gives the employer the chance to make any required adjustments so the recruitment process is accessible and fair. And many employers really want to attract candidates with disabilities; the Disability Confident scheme includes a badge which shows an employer has made certain commitments, for example:
- making sure their recruitment process is fair
- supporting any employee who becomes disabled to stay in work
- offering work experience to disabled people.
Look out for positive things about disability or treating people equally within the job application details and on employers’ websites. In some cases, having a disability might be seen as having an extra qualification to do the job.
If you do decide to talk about your disability in a covering letter you should
- Explain how it affects you stating what you can and can't do in relation to the job.
- Be positive and talk about how you've overcome any hurdles.
- Explain any adjustments you would need the company to make - you’re the expert on you and your needs!
- End by saying you're available to discuss if they have any questions.
Do you have to tell an employer at this stage?
You don’t have to disclose a disability in your covering letter; you can always talk about it at a later stage. You can find further information about telling an employer about a disability and accompanying podcast available in Explaining a disability to an employer.
For registered OU students only:
See an example of a covering letter to explain a disability on page 124 in the Career planning and job seeking workbook (PDF, 3.4MB)
You may want to use your covering letter to disclose a criminal record. If you have a criminal record you may have questions about if, when and how you need to tell an employer. It can feel challenging. Read our article on Disclosing a criminal record which explores the issues from a range of viewpoints, so you can weigh up what's right for you and feel more confident in explaining this to an employer. Also, have a look at the example of covering letter to help explain convictions (PDF, 238KB).
Other examples of covering letters
Resources open to everyone
Resources available to registered OU students only
There are examples of letters included in the ‘Career planning and job seeking workbook’ aimed at different scenarios:
See an example of a career changes covering letter on page 97 in the Career planning and job seeking workbook (PDF, 3.4MB)
See an example of a work experience covering letter on page 98 in the Career planning and job seeking workbook (PDF, 3.4MB)
Abintegro resources for registered OU students
Use the links below to either log in to your Abintegro account or register:
Sign in to see the video 'How to write a good cover letter'.