Cover Letters | The Careers Service Cover Letters – Oxford University Careers Service
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A cover letter introduces and markets you effectively by complementing your CV. It tells your story by highlighting your relevant strengths and motivation for the person and organisation you are writing to, rather than listing all the things that can already be seen on your CV.

Always take the opportunity to submit a cover letter if you are given the chance.

The cover letter gives you scope to showcase what interests and drives you, and your enthusiasm for an organisation and the role. You can use it to align yourself with the organisation’s strengths, values and culture, and highlight in a targeted way your knowledge and strongest, most relevant skills for the position.

The content and style are up to you, but a logical and engaging structure is key. Below are some guidelines.

How to write cover letters
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Example cover letter

Style

Try to sound professional yet conversational, rather than wordy or too formal. Write in clear, concise English – take care not to drown the reader with your detail and avoid jargon they may not understand. The Plain English Campaign has some good guidance on improving your writing style.

Content

Layout

Set it out like a business letter. Brevity adds power, so do not exceed the equivalent of one A4 page in length. An exception is if the job has a person specification consisting of a detailed list of skills, and selection is based on applicants demonstrating in this letter that they have them all. In that case you can exceed one page – but remember that being concise and relevant is still important!

Introduction

Introduce yourself and explain why you are writing. If you are responding to an advertisement, state where you saw it. This tells the recruiter why they are reading the letter, and it gives them feedback on which of their advertising sources are working. You need to think about how you would like to introduce yourself; it could be that you mention the course you are studying and when you plan to finish it along with your place of study.

Why this job?

Explain why you are interested in the job and the organisation. Tailor the letter to the organisation and job description and make it implicit that you have not sent out multiple copies of the same letter to different employers. Try to say something original about the organisation: don’t just repeat the text from their publicity material.

Draw on your research, especially what you have learnt from speaking with their staff (e.g. while meeting them at a fair or event, or during work shadowing/experience) as this will demonstrate an awareness and understanding of them that goes beyond the corporate website. Be specific about why the position is particularly attractive for you, and back this up with evidence from your past, or by linking this to your overall career plans, and what you find exciting about this sector.

Why you?

Explain why you are well-suited to the position. Refer to the relevant skills, experience and knowledge you have and match what you say to the requirements outlined in the job description. Tell your story and highlight key evidence so that you are building on your CV, but not using exactly the same phrases. Make sure you read our guidance on demonstrating you fit the job criteria for more advice.

Even if you think that this position is out of reach, your job is to convince the recruiter that you are qualified enough and able to do the job. Focus on your accomplishments and the transferable skills that are relevant to the role. State explicitly how you match the job criteria – don’t expect the person reading your letter to infer your skills or experiences for themselves. In other words, show don’t tell!

Support your claims by referring to examples that are already detailed in your CV. You can make a stronger, more credible case by linking different experiences that highlight similar skills or competences. For example:

  • You first demonstrated your organisational skills by creating (an event) at school, and you  have developed them further by raising (£xx) at last year’s fundraiser and, most recently, by leading (another event) for your society attended by (number) of people.
  • The role (applied for) would allow you to use your passion for helping others, which has driven your success as college welfare officer and the personal sense of achievement gained from working as a peer counsellor.

Conclusion

Reiterate your desire to join the organisation and end on a ‘look forward to hearing from you’ statement, followed by ‘Yours sincerely’ if writing to a named individual, and ‘Yours faithfully’ if you have not been able to find a named contact. Type your name, but also don’t forget to sign the letter if you are printing it out.

Top tips

  • Write to a named person if you possibly can – rather than Dear Sir/Madam.
  • Check your spelling and get someone else to read it over.
  • Check that it says clearly what you want it to say.  Are there any sections that are hard to read or follow? If yes, try to simplify the language, avoid jargon, use shorter sentences or take out that section completely.
  • Make the letter different each time. If you insert another company name, does the letter still read the same? If so, try to tailor your cover letter more.
  • Don’t start every sentence with “I”.
  • Give evidence for all your claims.
  • Be enthusiastic and interested.
  • Don’t repeat your whole CV.
  • It’s normal to find cover letters tricky to write. Give yourself plenty of time before the application deadline to redraft.
  • A careers adviser at the Careers Service can give you feedback on the content and structure of your cover letter and CV, and advise you on how best to target particular sectors – write one first and bring it to us for feedback.
Academic cover letters and statements
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Academic cover letters

Academic cover letters vary in length, purpose, content and tone. Each job application requires a new, distinct letter.

For applications that require additional research or teaching statements, there is no point repeating these points in a cover letter – here, one page is enough (brief personal introduction, delighted to apply, please find enclosed X, Y, Z documents).

Other applications ask for a CV and a cover letter only, in which case the letter will need to be longer and require more detail. Others ask explicitly for this detail in the form of a supporting statement that sets out how you fulfil the job criteria. Aim for a maximum length of two pages, though for roles at associate professor level and above it may extend to 3-5 pages. In all cases it is important to use the space effectively and show that you can prioritise according to what they are looking for.

In all cases:

  • Your letter is a piece of academic writing – you need a strong argument and empirical evidence.
  • Write for the non-expert to prove that you can communicate well.
  • Make sure you sound confident by using a tone that is collegial (rather than like a junior talking to a senior).
  • Demonstrate your insight into what the recruiting department is doing in areas of research and teaching, and say what you would bring to these areas from your work so far.

Give quantifiable evidence of teaching, research and funding success where possible

Teaching statements

What is a teaching statement and Why Do You Need One?

When making an academic job application, you may be asked for a teaching statement (sometimes referred to as a ‘philosophy of teaching statement’). These statements may also be requested of candidates for grant applications or teaching awards.

A teaching statement is a narrative that describes:

  • How you teach.
  • Why you teach the way you do.
  • How you know if you are an effective teacher, and how you know that your students are learning.

The rationale behind a teaching statement is to:

  • Demonstrate that you have been reflective and purposeful about your teaching. This means showing an understanding of the teaching process and your experience of this.
  • Communicate your goals as an instructor, and your corresponding actions in the laboratory, classroom, or other teaching setting.

Format and style of a Teaching Statement

There is no required content or format for a teaching statement, because they are personal in nature, but they are generally 1-2 pages, and written in the first person. The statement will include teaching strategies and methods to help readers ‘see’ you in a lab, lecture hall, or other teaching setting. The teaching statement is, in essence, a writing sample, and should be written with the audience in mind (i.e. the search committee for the institution(s) to which you are applying). This means that, like a cover letter, your teaching statement should be tailored for presentation to different audiences.

Articulating your teaching philosophy

Consider your experiences as both teacher and learner, and always keep your subject at the forefront. Consider all opportunities that you have previously had to teach, mentor, or guide, and determine instances that were both successful and perhaps not so successful. Understanding why and how learning happens is an important part of your teaching philosophy.

Here are some general areas to focus on in your teaching statement:

Goals: Convey your teaching goals. What would you like students to get out of your courses? What matters most to you in teaching and why?

Strategies: List effective teaching strategies. How will you realise your goals? What obstacles exist to student learning and how do you help students overcome them?

Evidence: Specific examples of your teaching experience are powerful in a teaching statement. Provide evidence that your students have learned (or not) in the past.

Research statements

Some applications ask for a short research statement. This is your opportunity to propose a research plan and show how this builds on your current expertise and achievements. It forms the basis for discussions and your presentation if you are invited for interview.

Remember to:

  • Tailor each statement to the particular role you are applying for
  • Make sure there are clear links between your proposal and the work of the recruiting institution
  • Write about your research experience stating the aims, achievements, relevant techniques and your responsibilities for each project
  • Write as much (within the word limit) about your planned research and its contribution to the department, and to society more broadly
  • Invest time and ask for feedback from your supervisor/principal investigator or colleagues
Tips for JRF applications
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Read the job description carefully to understand what is prioritised by the recruiting College or institution(s) beyond furthering your research.  If there are additional responsibilities such, as outreach, mentoring, expanding or fostering academic networks, you will need to provide evidence of your interest and experience in these areas, as well as statements about how you would fulfil these roles when in post.

Try to meet current junior research fellowship (JRF) holders to gain further insight into what the role entails on a daily basis and what is expected by senior colleagues.

Show how your research contributes to, extends and/or maximises the impact of other work going on in the University. Then state why the JRF would enable you to further these in specific ways.

Give prominence to your publications (and those in progress):

  • use headings in your publications list to draw attention to journal articles (above book chapters), and to distinguish policy papers from expert reviews and public commentaries.
  • consider adding an impact factor or HI index metrics to journal publications (even if these are not high for junior stage publications they show an awareness of their importance).

Outline how you intend to participate in knowledge exchange and public engagement within your fellowship. These activities are now recognised as significant components of academic life.

Give prominence to your grant-writing experience and partnerships or work with people or organisations outside the university.

Look at Vitae’s Research Developer Framework to identify any other academic-related competencies that you could demonstrate in your application (particularly project-management, leadership, developing innovative partnerships/strategic thinking).

Have your application reviewed by a careers adviser. Occasionally we are made aware of alumni and other academics who are willing to offer proof-reading services to early-career academics which could extend to research proposals and other application materials. Please email rachel.bray@careers.ox.ac.uk if you would like to be put in touch.

Our resources
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Example Cover Letters

Related pages

Books

  • Our Resource Centre has a number of files and books on CV and cover letter writing that you may find useful. Visit the Resource Centre to view these resources.
This information was last updated on 22 May 2020.
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