Career Snapshot - Cover Letters
Your cover letter works with your CV to help an employer understand your skills, why you want the job, and why you are interested in working for them. It takes time and research to create a high quality cover letter, but once you know how to write a great one, you can market yourself effectively for any job.
Start with the video here - Career Snapshot - Cover Letters to get an overview of how cover letters are structured then use the sections below and downloadable resources for further support. See our Imperial Guide to CVs and Cover Letters, and there are downloadable resources, including the Panopto recording of Welcome to Writing a Cover Letter.
Cover Letter Tabs
The purpose of the covering letter is to create a favourable impression in the recipient’s mind. It will be sent along with a CV, either in an application for an advertised vacancy or when making speculative applications enquiring about a possible job or work experience opportunities.
Your covering letter should:
- Fit easily onto one page of A4
- Focus on the criteria from the opportunity advert or description
- Be written clearly and succinctly to highlight the most relevant skills
- Use space well and avoid very long paragraphs
- Convey your enthusiasm for the job and organisation
- Be addressed to a particular person where possible i.e. ‘Miss Brown’ instead of ‘Dear Madam’
- End with either ‘Yours faithfully’ (if addressed to Sir or Madam) or ‘Yours sincerely’ (if addressed to a named person)
- Be written in business language rather than overly-academic language, use our list of action verbs to help, in our Imperial Guide to CVs and Cover Letters
1. The introduction
Explain who you are and why you are writing. This will include some or all of the following:
- Where you are studying and the course which you are taking
- Your expected grade (at least if it is a good one!)
- The job/position that you are applying for, and where you saw the advertisement (website, newspaper etc.). If you are making a speculative application then state what you are looking for (e.g. vacation work) and, if appropriate, for how long you would be available
- If you have had contact with the company before (perhaps through meeting their representatives at a careers fair) then mention this in the introductory part of your letter
2. Why you want to work for them
Give the employer at least two to three specific reasons why you want to work for them:
- Tell them why you are interested in this career area and why their organisation
- Perhaps your interest developed through work experience, attending a company presentation
- Do some research to help you think about why this company appeals to you and go beyond the obvious – nearly all large employers off ‘challenging opportunities’, ‘team-based environment’, or ‘international opportunities’.
- What are the unique features that draw you to them?
3. The ‘selling’ section
"Review this section carefully for every single application you make as the requirements will differ from employer to employer. Relevance is key to success."
This is a very important section. Think about what to highlight and make it clear to the reader why you are a strong candidate for the job. Be selective with your examples and don’t try to cram all of your experiences in:
- Summarise each piece of evidence briefly, in two or three sentences, backing up your claim of that skill, e.g. ‘I have strong communication skills, developed liaising between academics and student peers to highlight and resolve issues in my role as Year Group Representative’
- Draw on examples, where possible, from different parts of your background, for example, academic, work experience and other activities
- Review this section carefully for every single application you make as the requirements will differ from employer to employer. Relevance is key to success
4. The ending
- State that you enclose or attach your CV or application form as requested
- Mention that you are looking forward to meeting them in an interview, or a similar positive statement
- If there are certain periods when you are unavailable for an interview, let them know
Sometimes you may wish to explain special circumstances which might be important in your application, for example, grades not being as good as required, or you may wish to ask for reasonable adjustments in an interview if you have a disability.
See our Equality and diversity page for more guidance on job applications and disclosing a disability.
For research students
As a research student or postdoc writing a covering letter, what you choose to highlight will depend on whether you're applying for a role within or outside of academia.
What to emphasise when applying for different kinds of work
When applying for a postdoctoral or lectureship position, you may want to emphasise the following:
- Research interests and experience
- Research techniques you are familiar with e.g. subject specific lab-based, software, modelling, simulations, GIS, risk assessment, and any other analytical problem-solving techniques
- Teaching, demonstrating, tutoring or supervising experience
- Publications – papers, book chapters, peer/journal club reviewing
- Conferences – presentations, including poster presentations
- Administrative experience e.g. helping with College/Department Open Days, welcoming new students, managing Health and Safety in your lab
- Financial/commercial awareness e.g. writing grant applications/proposals, buying supplies/equipment for the lab, managing lab or other budgets
When applying for an industry based position in research, you may want to emphasise the following:
- Research interests and experience
- Administrative experience
- Research techniques relevant to the post
- Key skills e.g. project management, creative problem-solving, negotiating and persuading, achieving results
- Commercial awareness e.g. from work experience, research collaborations with industry or courses run through the Staff Development Unit for Postdocs
Sometimes, you might need to explain certain areas of your CV more fully to an employer. The most common examples are gaps in your CV and grades not being as good as required/expected:
- Explain gaps, beyond a couple of months, in your CV, otherwise employers are most likely to jump to negative conclusions
- If the gap was caused by an accident or an illness, it is useful to explain this.
- Cite, if possible, any problems, as an example of your resilience or your ability to overcome adverse circumstances
- Explain any justification for disappointing A-level grades, otherwise your application may be rejected. For example, illness or accidents or family problems or even a good teacher leaving can all have an impact on results which employers can appreciate
- Highlight academic achievements from your current course, where appropriate, if A-level grades are a weaker area on your CV
- Don't focus heavily on negatives, but don't give a weak excuse and don't lie! Show how you have turned a potentially negative situation into a positive one
- If the situation is personal or complicated, you could touch on it but state that you are happy to discuss it at interview
Not all internship and graduate roles are advertised and the 'hidden job market' describes vacancies that employers do not advertise yet still want to fill. A speculative application is an application made to an employer where a job or internship is not publicly advertised but you want to enquire if there is a potential job or internship available.
Speculative approaches can also be made as part of the networking process. You can find out more about this process, through which you can develop personal contacts and enhance your knowledge of career opportunities, by reading our Networking webpage:
- Ensure you have visited our Plan your career pages to help you identify which areas of industry / companies you are interested in contacting
- Visit our How to research job sectors and occupations pages to help with ideas on finding companies
- Make sure to keep track of your speculative applications and send a follow up email or call after two or three weeks if you have not heard back.
You have two options when it comes to how you use a cover letter in a speculative application:
Write a standard cover letter, focusing on the role you would like in the company, and attach it as a PDF to a very short introductory email. Your email should be short (150-200 words) and concise.
Alternatively you can use a condensed version of your cover letter to form the basis of your email. Your email should still be short (300 words maximum) and concise. You should make sure to include:
- Who you are and what kind of experience you’re interested in gaining?
- Why have you contacted that organisation? Detail in two or three lines maximum your motivation and interest for that company.
- What is your availability?
Ensure that you target the content of your CV to the type of work to which you are applying. What information about your skills, knowledge and experience will be of most relevance?
You might wish to write a more concise one page CV so an employer can see at a glance what you have to offer.
Attach your CV as a PDF and save it with your full name as the file title e.g. Jennifer Humphreys CV, so they can find it more readily.
Disclosing a disability
Imperial Careers Service has close links with the Imperial Disability Advisory Service, other disability organisations, diversity recruiters and a wide range of employers. This ensures that we are well equipped to provide appropriate information, advice, and guidance to students and recent graduates making the transition into employment.
Your decision of when to disclose may vary depending on the organisation and the particular job that you are applying for. To help guide you, please see our section on disclosing a disability.
The AGCAS Disability Task Group have produced some resources on disclosure and adjustments for students with neurodiversity conditions (e.g. dyslexia, autism, ADHD etc), along with a worksheet on Explaining Mental Health. The worksheets can be found on the resources part of the AGCAS Disability Task Group’s website at the following links: