Writing Tip: Decoding Cover Letters
February 23, 2015
by: Josie Allen
The end of the year is fast approaching, which means that it is time for many of us to start applying for internships or jobs. Cover letters are a huge part of those applications, but writing them can be a pain, especially if you’ve never been exposed to them before. Many people know that cover letters – usually paired with resumes – are sent to potential employers or internship programs, but not everyone knows what their purpose is or what to include when writing them. But no worries! I am here to clear up the confusion about cover letters.
Let’s start with an explanation of a cover letter: a persuasive letter in which you present your own skills, abilities, knowledge, and experience for a particular position. It will basically be stating why you should get the job or internship you are applying for. Effective cover letters will fulfill these four main objectives for your prospective employer:
- Present a personal introduction
- Explain why the specific job/internship interests you
- Convince the reader(s) that you are a viable candidate by highlighting particular qualifications
- Provide the contact information and opportunity to request an interview
Writing an effective cover letter is largely based on the quality of your paragraphs, so it’s important to know what to include in each of them.
- Begin with an appropriate greeting to a specific person, such as “Dear Mr. James Smith.”
- Open your letter by providing context and telling how you learned of the opportunity, including the specific (and accurate) title of the position you are seeking and where you learned about it. If an influential or recognizable individual has referred you to the program, make it a point to include this information (e.g., “Ms. Carolyn Wayward, Director of Operations, informed me of the opening”). Personal connections to the position are often helpful.
- You also want to give your reader(s) a reason to keep reading, so grab his or her attention. Demonstrate your enthusiasm when explaining why you are interested in the job, and illustrate your initiative and knowledge of the organization by relating your interest in the company in a unique and appealing way.
- This section can be a couple of paragraphs, depending on several factors, but keep in mind that your cover letter should be no longer than one page. It is crucial that your letter is focused, so limit the content by concentrating on one basic point clearly stated in your topic sentence. Use proper language and provide specific examples that illustrate your qualifications for the position. Do not simply tell the reader(s) that you are experienced – show them by offering precise details and examples. Make sure to not repeat information listed on your resume; instead, connect your skills and experiences to the company, showing how you will make valuable contributions.
- Be confident and take initiative (this can lead to a more active reaction from the employer). Request an interview, and consider mentioning that you plan on following up with the company. Your initiative will depict your sincere interest in the position and employer.
- Let your reader(s) know how to reach you by including your phone number, email address, or both, and end with a statement of gratitude or kindness.
- Do not use gimmicks; do impress with knowledge and professionalism
- Do not volunteer salary history or requirements unless specifically instructed to do so
- Keep it short and sweet – no longer than one page
- Proofread carefully
- Come to the UWC, and let us lend a hand
Advice from the UWC Consultants:
Jerry –The main thing that’s important with a cover letter is making yourself unique. You don’t want to reiterate your entire resume, and you don’t want to list out all of the things you’ve ever done. What you really want to do is tell the prospective reader something that is unique and important about you. If I were writing a resume applying to be an event coordinator for a nonprofit organization, I would talk about how I have coordinated eight events at App State’s LGBT Center, including the Candlelight Vigil and its Pride festival, and I would talk about some of the specific duties and things I did. Make sure you talk about what great things you can do, and be specific! As long as you’re authentic, you’ll do well!
Kevin –In my opinion, the key is to customize each letter. I don’t mean change a few things, I mean a custom letter for each employer. You have to know your audience. Do a little research. What does the work environment look like? What does the company do? I don’t mean in general; be specific. Discuss an experience with the company’s product, or something they do that impresses you. Think about why you want to work for that specific company. Tell the reader. Better yet, show the reader. Employers want someone who is intelligent, articulate, productive, and works well with others (usually). Show your audience why you’re the best pick for the job.
Mary Neal – My take on it is that at this point in our clients’ lives, there is no advantage to writing a check they can’t cash. In other words, applications for internships, graduate school, or jobs should involve creating a full and accurate picture of who they really are. There is nothing to be gained by gaming one’s way into a situation only to find out that the fit wasn’t good. That wastes everyone’s time. That said, there’s no reason to over share. Paint that picture in a positive light!
Julie – When thinking about application materials as a packet, the cover letter is all about the position, and the resume is all about the applicant. In the cover letter, I tell clients to do what J.F.K. would have them do, and ask not what the company/graduate school/internship could do for them, but answer what they can do for the company/graduate school/internship that makes them a good fit for the desired position or placement.