Whether applying for schools or jobs or simply asking for information, at some point everyone communicating in English must write cover letters. There are templates you can use to get started, as long as you make them personal, but the basic principles for effective cover letters are worth knowing. I have prepared some common tips below, with a consideration for foreign learners. I will be expanding on some of these tips later, including examples and more detailed breakdowns of general business writing principles.
Include Appropriate Content
The first thing to consider when writing a cover letter is what to include. Equally important, though, is how to include that information. Do not write too much about yourself and do not write too much in general (i.e. too many words!).
Your details must be sharp – avoid using language that is too complex. A cover letter should not tell the reader everything about you and it should not demonstrate your most complicated understanding of language, either. In both cases, including too much can be confusing or off-putting for a reader, and creates opportunities for mistakes. Never be afraid to write something short, in simple language.
A formal letter should always be polite and respectful. However, wherever possible it should also connect on a personal level. This does not just mean containing information about you, but demonstrating relevant understanding of who you are sending to, starting with a name. Unless you are dealing in a particular informal setting, it is appropriate to address the recipient by surname, e.g. Mr/Mrs/Dr Smith.
It is also worth including sentences that show you know who you are writing to – and that the letter is specifically for them (especially if you use a template that you send to more than one person). Always give an idea of why you are writing to them specifically. Following from Point 1, keep this short – just enough to make a connection.
The use of formal language in business writing is a wide topic that depends a great deal on the context. For cover letters, particularly if you are writing to someone you have not met, we use the more formal rules. In general, avoid colloquialisms, irrelevant personal details or overly friendly language or inappropriate punctuation (including, for example exclamation points).
With email, formal language has become more relaxed, but until you know the tone your recipient will use it is better to be polite. You are unlikely to cause problems using polite salutations such as “Dear…” and “Yours…” but you may be seen as less serious using informal language such as “Hi!” and “Cheers!”.
…But Not Too Formal
There is a balance, however, as it is not just a case of writing formally. Certain typical formal constructions such as the passive tense will not be appropriate, as cover letters are personal and should be active (e.g. “I qualified at Nottingham” NOT “My degree was earned at Nottingham”). Typical formal vocabulary, such as more complicated or technical words, may also be inappropriate if they set a dry or stuffy tone – you would not, for example, say you enjoy perambulation instead of walks!
These are just the main tips for cover letters, there is more detail I can, and will, go into in the future! Do sign up to our mailing list to learn more.