When making job applications candidates tend to typically focus on the CV. Many underestimate the importance of the covering letter and the role that it can play in securing you an interview. A covering letter is intended to accompany the CV. Ideally the recruiter should read the letter first or immediately after a quick glance through the CV. The purpose of the letter is to act as your persuasive argument as to why you are the best candidate for the role. Therefore, it’s worth spending some time crafting your letter.
Ideally a covering letter shouldn’t exceed more than one side of A4 as it is important to demonstrate that you can write concisely and persuasively (letters for academic vacancies tend to be longer). Depending upon your level of experience and the type of role that you are applying for it might be possible to extend to a side and a half but not longer than this!
It is a personal choice how you decide to structure your letter. Some people like to use headings within the body of the letter addressing key criteria from the person specification. This approach is fine but you need to be aware that it can take up more space and also verges into the format of a personal statement (the importance of checking the application requirements cannot be overstated).
A simple yet effective structure to follow is to introduce yourself and the role that you are applying for. Then concentrate on why you want to work for this organisation. What is unique about them? What do they offer that other organisations cannot? Ideally, you then want to link these reasons to your own experiences to show how you are a good fit for the organisation.
The next couple of paragraphs I often refer to as the “why you?” paragraphs. Aim to highlight two to three key examples of your previous experience that demonstrate that you have the necessary skills and knowledge to perform well in the role. It is important that you don’t talk passively about your experience but use the space to really sell yourself. This means talking about your achievements and the value that you added in your previous roles. Can you extrapolate from this experience and show the recruiter what you can do well for them? Do make sure that you use facts and figures to help back up your level of responsibility and achievements. Think about providing the recruiter with the evidence that they need to see.
Lastly make sure that your final paragraph is brief and polite. Thank the recruiter for taking the time to read your application and state when you will be available for interview.
Academic Covering letters:
An academic covering letter is slightly different in that the focus is much more on you and what you can bring to the role. It is still important not to go overboard on the length, aim to stick to a side and a half (two sides maximum). You need to consider the requirements of the role carefully. For example, if the role is focused on teaching you need to give more detail on your experience in this area. If the role is broader for example a standard lectureship then you will need to talk about your teaching and research experience. Address what your unique contribution to the university will be. What can you offer that another candidate cannot?
The importance of doing thorough research into the department and university really pays off here. You need to know what the department is all about to be able to effectively highlight how you will be a good fit. For example, what do you know about the department’s teaching profile? Can you teach on certain courses straight away? Do you have any suggestions as to courses that could be introduced? The same can be said of your research activities. Once you have outlined your future research plans and publications, cover ideas you have for generating more funding. Does this fit with what other academics are doing within the department? Can you become involved in any immediate collaborations etc.
Remember the importance of addressing the letter correctly – always write to a named individual if possible (even if this means contacting the organisation directly to find out who this is).
Remember to include the correct sign off at the end of your letter. For example, if you have written to a named individual end with ‘Yours Sincerely’ otherwise it’s ‘yours faithfully’.
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Cover letter Checklist handout
Advice on writing an academic covering letter University of Edinburgh Careers Service
Advice on writing covering letters beyond academia University of Edinburgh Careers Service
Eleanor Hennige is the IAD’s Research Staff Careers Consultant, supporting fixed-term research staff at the University with their career planning and options. Eleanor runs our 1:1 career development consultations, she delivers our suite of career workshops and works with Schools/Research Staff Societies on career specific events and workshops. Eleanor works on a part-time basis (4 mornings a week) and can be contacted at ResearchStaff.Careers@ed.ac.uk