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How to write the perfect cover letter, CV or application form

updated on 27 June 2023

According to recruiters, too many candidates are let down by their sloppy writing skills. Shakespeare made up words, spelt his name however he pleased and is still praised for his mastery of language. However, if his cover letter was written along those lines today, every law firm would bin his application. So, how can you write the perfect application?

Reading time: seven minutes

All recruiters say the same thing; simple errors in spelling and grammar derail otherwise competitive applications. But perfect spelling and grammar aren’t the only factors that make a good application.

Equally important is the tone in which you write. Just as there might be a big difference between how you talk to friends and prospective employers at an interview, your writing style should be tailored to your audience. That doesn’t mean using 10 words when five would do – the key to all good communication is clarity, being succinct and being aware of your audience.


Let's start with the basics. Everyone makes typos, so going back to check your work is essential. Don't rely on your word processor to do it for you; print out what you've written (perhaps in a different colour or font) and go through it, word by word, with a pen. Don't print your application off the minute you finish it; leave enough time to rest and look at what you’ve written again with fresh eyes – waiting until the next day is ideal. You’re more likely to pick up on errors having had some time away from the application. It's also crucial to get someone else to look over your writing – another person will almost certainly spot mistakes you’ve missed.

Best of British

Use British spellings, not American. This means an American 'z' usually becomes a British 's', so it's 'organise', not 'organize', and 'prioritise', not 'prioritize'. There arere other differences too – for example, the British spelling is 'calibre' not 'caliber', it's 'centre', not 'center' and 'programme', not 'program' (unless you’re referring to computer software). However, the most important thing is consistency – don’t spell ‘organise’ with an ‘s’ and then later on spell it with a ‘z’ as this shows a lack of focus and attention to detail.


At best, poor written grammar makes you seem careless. Familiarise yourself with the following rules:

  • Writing numbers: Write 'one' through to 'nine' in words. Use digits for 10 upwards. Punctuate bigger numbers for clarity, such as 1,000, 50,000 and 1,500,000.
  • Capitalisation: Never write a word in CAPITALS for emphasis. Capitals are commonly overused elsewhere too. Generally, they start sentences and mark proper nouns. You don't need to use capitals for words like 'company', 'client' or 'solicitor'.
  • Lower case: Using lower case when upper case is required is an easy mistake to make when typing. It's 'I am', never 'i am'.
  • Repetition: Avoid repeating words in the same paragraph and certainly in the same sentence. This doesn’t include words like 'the' or 'in', but everyone has phrases and words that they overuse. It’s easy to go back and change these – and this is where getting someone else to proofread your work can also be helpful. Another useful tool is the search function on your word processor; if you know that there’s a phrase you tend to overuse, search for it using this tool and replace it with alternatives where it’s been overused.
  • Tenses: Never change tense mid-sentence.
  • Which/that: It’s common to confuse the use of 'which' and 'that'. Use 'which' in a sentence when providing additional information that’s not necessary for the sentence to make sense. Essentially, using 'which' doesn’t limit the scope of the noun to which it refers. For example, "The cat, which is ginger, loves to leave mice on the doormat." Use 'that' when restricting the scope of the noun, eg, "It’s the ginger cat that loves to leave mice on the doormat, not the tabby cat". Here, the description of the cat’s markings is necessary for the sentence to make sense, as the speaker is identifying a specific moggy as the culprit.
  • Who/they/have: Don't refer to organisations, groups or entities with 'who', 'they' or 'have'. "Ashurst LLP, who have a high NQ retention rate which they are very proud of…" is wrong. Law firms and companies aren’t people, so instead write: "Ashurst has a very high NQ retention rate that its partners are very proud of…"

Read ‘How to apply for a training contract: a masterclass’ for more advice.


A good formal writing style doesn’t mean using long, obscure words and sentences. Use clear and precise vocabulary that’s appropriate to your audience. Avoid colloquialisms and vague, catch-all terminology – don't write "I got my law degree in 2017" because the verb and noun don’t fit together as well as other options. "I completed my law degree" is more meticulous (and it just sounds better). Here are some more suggestions (none of which involve archaic, pretentious terminology) to give you an idea of how to formalise what you’re likely to write in your applications:

  • Instead of "I go to" and "I went to", write "I attend" and "I attended".
  • Instead of "field of law" or "law industry", write "legal profession" or "legal sector".
  • Replace "good" with words like "beneficial", "positive" and "advantageous". If you’re good at something, write that you’re "proficient" or "skilled" – but it's better to demonstrate such a claim with examples.
  • Don't write "I am looking to"; it's better to write "I am aiming to" or "my aim is".
  • Avoid "I love", it's not professional. "I enjoy" or "I am interested in" is better.
  • Instead of "I was voted", write "I was elected" or "selected".

Substance > cliché

Your writing must avoid clichés of any kind. Don't make any point with a tired metaphor when plain, direct English will do. No achievement is the "jewel in your crown", you don't "think outside the box" and your gap year didn’t help you to "grow as a person" because that doesn’t mean anything.

Even more important to dodge are 'application form clichés' like, "I would relish the opportunity to work at (insert law firm)". Don't boldly state that you’re a highly motivated individual – say what it is that drives you instead.

Similarly, don't claim that you’re "creative", a "team player" or a "natural leader". Instead, use examples to convey that impression without being explicit and let the recruiter decide. Keep 'passion' and 'passionate' to a minimum – they’re words that crop up too often in applications. Use them when necessary, but only with supporting examples that illustrate that what you’re claiming is genuine. In short, use the age-old ‘show don’t tell’ advice to ensure you demonstrate why you would be a good addition to the firm, rather than just telling them.

Learn more about the key skills you need to demonstrate in your applications.

Cover letters

Let's consider starting and signing off your covering letters for a moment. First and foremost, you should research who to address your applications to on each firm's or chambers' website – this information is usually very clear. In the unlikely event that no information is provided, never open with "Dear sirs" – it’s a sexist assumption to think that those reading your letter will be men. You should always do some research to find out who the cover letter should be addressed to, but if this information is unavailable, address the letter to the firm or organisation. If you’re signing off to a specific person at the firm, having found the right name, sign off with “Yours sincerely”. If you opened with the firm name, sign off with “Yours faithfully”.

Are you applying for vacation schemes? Use our ‘Top 10 tips for your vacation scheme applications’ as your guide.

Formal vocabulary

Here’s a starting list of accessible words that are useful for writing applications. Vocabulary like this makes your writing articulate and precise. Don't feel limited to the list – it’s just a starting point, but these kinds of words can help to add polish and eliminate repetition, which almost always creeps into a first draft. Variety is important to keep your application fresh and interesting, especially as recruiters will be trawling through hundreds of them – many of which will appear similar.






















Report to















Afforded (the opportunity)







Influenced by


Exposed to













Finally, keep a dictionary and thesaurus to hand – never use a word without knowing its exact definition. Practise a formal style to make yourself comfortable using it, avoid pretence, vagueness and repetition and your application won’t get forgotten in the pile.

Good luck!