Covering letters

A covering letter is the first chance you have to showcase your talents to prospective employers – so make sure your application stands out for all the right reasons.

There are no set rules about the form your letter should take, but there are certain basic things you'll need to include. Our guide below should help you to get it right.

The salutation
A covering letter is a formal piece of communication, and when in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of formality. So write "Dear Dr Jones" rather than "Dear Claire" unless you know the recipient personally. "Dear Sir or Madam" should only be used if you don’t have a name.

The opening line
It's important to establish exactly what your letter is about right from the start. If you're simply replying to a job advertisement, say so, referring clearly to the position you're interested in.

If you're sending your CV out on spec, you'll need to think more carefully about your opening line. The recipient will be getting your letter out of the blue, so it's vital to write something that will grab their attention. Focus from the outset on the reader. Put aside your own objectives for a moment and think what they will want and need from a potential employee.

Say, for example, that you want a job as a researcher. Rather than starting with "I am interested in working for you as a researcher…", it would be better to start "I am aware that your organization is recruiting for researcher in nanotechnology, I have several years’ experience in this field...".

Selling yourself
Next, pitch your skills in a way that clearly meets the criteria set out in the job description. It's surprisingly rare for a candidate to make direct links between the qualities an employer is after and their abilities and experience. Doing so will really help you to stand out.

Start by listing the qualities the recruiter is looking for. Then think of examples from your working life when you've displayed those qualities really strongly. For example, if they say they want someone with good teamworking skills, think of incidents in which you have personally helped a group to work better together, solved differences or boosted co-operation.

Boil down each example to a sentence or two, and focus on concrete, measurable achievements wherever possible. You needn't cover the whole person spec exhaustively; stick to four or five areas where you know you are particularly strong.

Call to action
If you’re writing on spec, you should specify what the next steps will be. Will you telephone them in a week's time, for example, or ask them to contact you?

Sign off
"Yours", "Yours sincerely" or "Yours truly" are fine. Sign-offs such as "Best wishes" or "Best regards" are too informal unless you know the person well. "Yours faithfully" is the only correct form if you've begun your letter "Dear Sir or Madam".

Other points to remember

  • Don't make it too long. If you write more than two pages of A4, the chances are the recipient simply won’t read all that lovingly crafted prose.
  • Indicate enthusiasm. Say why you're keen on the job, and how it fits in with your career goals.
  • Mention enclosures, such as your CV, written references or examples of your work.
  • Typos will count as an obvious black mark against you. So check your spelling, grammar and punctuation.

This information was supplied by the Institute of Physics, which offers a range of careers advice and resources for people with a background in physics.