Writing a good letter
Published: 28 Oct 2014
Your application covering letter is an important marketing tool, which highlights your most attractive qualifications as a potential employee and, if well written, will lead the employer to your CV.
Before writing your letter, analyse your reader and think about how you want to present yourself. Put yourself in the reader's situation and consider their requirements and needs. Plan your letter accordingly, placing the most important items first, supported by facts.
After this analysis, write your letter, demonstrating how your background, training, work experience and abilities would meet those needs. This approach will help to persuade the reader that you are a good match for the position and that they should interview you.
Remember that you are responsible for explicitly communicating your value to the employer. Employers typically receive many applications for each job opening. Do not expect them to wade through a great deal of text or a poorly written, mundane or disorganised letter to figure out what you can do for them.
Principles of good letter writing
Personalise each letter
Take the time to research each employer's practice and personalise each letter. Indicating that you know something about the practice shows that you are careful and interested in the employer. This approach is much more effective than sending out hundreds of identical form letters.
Highlight one or two of your most significant accomplishments or abilities
This helps your chances of being remembered. Be brief; demonstrate that you understand the value of the reader's time.
Be polite and formal
Use a polite, formal style that strikes a balance between confidence in yourself and respect for the employer. Be clear, objective and persuasive rather than simply describing your background.
Be positive in tone, content and expectation
Do not add details about yourself, your past experience or your preparation that may call attention to your weaknesses or raise questions about your confidence or ability to do the job. Should there be any failures that must unavoidably be included, such as a course that you did not complete, give a positive spin by saying what you learned from the experience.
Use the active voice
Use active voice and powerful action verbs in your writing to hold the reader's interest and convey a sense of energy.
Group related items together in a paragraph, then organise paragraphs so they flow logically. Remember, it is your responsibility to organise the information for the reader.
Back up general statements with specific facts or examples.
Avoid jargon and clichés
It is tempting to use ready-made phrases such as ‘self-starter’, ‘proven leadership skills’ or ‘excellent interpersonal skills’. However, such expressions represent ‘parroted’ formulas rather than original thought.
Check the spelling and grammar
If you are not confident in your ability to detect grammatical, punctuation or English usage errors, or if you need help in organising your letter, take your correspondence to a professional for assistance. A potential employer will not rate highly the intellect of an applicant who is not competent in their native language. If English is not your native language it is equally important to use it correctly, to allay a potential employer's concerns about you being able to communicate effectively with clients and staff.
Never misrepresent yourself by overstating your experience or skills
Even if you do not have every qualification sought by the employer, stick to the facts and tell the truth. Emphasise your strengths.
Use a computer and letter-quality printer to prepare your covering letter. Letters should be printed on high-quality paper and mailed in envelopes that match the stationery. Use conservative colours such as white and/or ivory. Make sure your letter is in a conventional business style. Using a built-in template in your word processing program is a good way to ensure that your letter is produced in an acceptable business-like format.