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How to evaluate a cover letter

Every application for a role that comes directly from a candidate should include a cover letter, whether it is a separate attachment or in the body of the email.  In this blog post, we look at how to tell a good cover letter from a bad one, and how you can use them to find out more information about the applicant.

Firstly, read the cover letter!

It sounds obvious, but with hundreds of applications to go through, it can be tempting to ignore cover letters entirely and skip straight to the CV.  And if you use an applicant tracking system to process CVs, it may not like covering letters, preventing you from seeing them in the first place.  But wherever possible you should read a cover letter provided, as they can give you valuable information about a candidate that you can’t get from the CV alone.  Plus, if an applicant has spent hours carefully crafting a superb cover letter, they are treating it as an essential part of their application, and so should you.

However, it’s certainly true that increasing numbers of employers don’t bother to read cover letters, and candidates include them less often these days.  If you definitely want to receive cover letters from all applicants, make sure this is specified in the job advertisement.  And if your organisation uses application forms, don’t make candidates send cover letters as well, as this just complicates the application process.

Check the details

Making sure a cover letter includes the right details can tell you how much effort a candidate has put into crafting their application, and can demonstrate how interested they actually are in the role.  For example, did they address the cover letter to a specific individual (even if this is not specified in the job ad, a quick phone call can usually provide a contact name)?

Every cover letter should be tailored to the role applied for, and demonstrate that the candidate has researched both your organisation and the job.  Make sure it includes at least some reference to your specific organisation, as well as the job title of the role, and that all these details are correct.

Occasionally, a candidate will mention that they have been referred by a mutual contact.  It’s always a good idea to do a quick check to make sure that this is actually the case.

Look at the quality of writing

Obviously, cover letters with spelling or grammatical errors can be discounted, as these show the candidate has not taken the time or effort to proof read their application fully.  You can also use cover letters to assess a candidate’s (written) communication skills.

If the job requires a certain standard of writing, eg if it is a communications or PR role, does the covering letter meet that standard?  Generally, cover letters should be clear, to the point and easy to follow.  They should be broken down into short paragraphs, rather than a big block of text, and neither too short or too long.  An incredibly long and detailed letter may be a result of a candidate’s passion for the role, but may suggest they have trouble keeping things concise.

Look for specifics

The best cover letters tend to have specific details about previous roles and experience and achievements.  Generic statements such as “I have a great deal of experience in fundraising management and am looking for my next role” should ring warning bells.  Instead, look for concrete and measurable examples of what they accomplished in previous roles.  The candidates who can provide this level of detail tend to be the ones who are most suitable.

Similarly, the best candidates don’t tend to talk about what they are looking for.  Instead, they concentrate on what aspects of this particular role they can excel in and what they can bring to your organisation overall.  A really simple way to measure this is to count the number of times they mention you or your organisation instead of themselves.

For any non-profit, it is important that their staff are committed to the organisation’s mission.  A good covering letter should always address why that candidate is attracted to your charity’s cause and demonstrate their passion and commitment.

Tone of voice

The tone in which a covering letter is written can usually tell you something about the personality of the writer.  The most obvious thing to look for is whether they sound excited and enthusiastic about the role.  If they really want the role, it is likely that this will be obvious from their letter.

Other things to look out for are if the candidate has gone for an overly formal or informal tone of voice (although the criteria for this varies depending on the role).  Either way, getting it wrong can demonstrate a certain lack of judgement.

However, it is important to bear in mind that judgements based on tone of voice are subjective and a final decision on whether or not to progress with that candidate should always be based on the content of their CV.

A quick checklist

  • Is the letter addressed generically, rather than to a specific individual?

  • Is the letter tailored to the role applied for?

  • Does it contain spelling and grammatical errors?

  • Does it mention your organisation and the specific role applied for?

  • Does it clearly state what value the candidate can bring to your organisation?

  • Does the letter simply repeat points already made on their CV?

  • Does it communicate their passion and enthusiasm?


Here are a few examples of truly terrible cover letters: