How to Write a Strong Cover Letter
A formidable resume, strong GPA and even glowing teacher recommendations often aren’t enough to land a job or coveted internship these days. Hiring firms, businesses and internships are all swamped with interested applicants, and they want to know why they should even consider your application before opening it. That’s why the cover letter is so crucial to your chances. It’s usually your first impression to a potential employer, and if it’s not good, it will also be your last.
As a college junior thinking about the summer, I’ve had to write more than my fair share of cover letters. My friends and I were scrambling to land positions that could help translate to jobs after graduation, and thankfully the acceptance letters are trickling in. We got our preferred spots with just a few disappointments, but because of the late decision dates we were applying to several places as insurance. Here are a few things we learned from writing and helping to edit each other’s cover letters, including some do’s and don’ts. I’ll also give examples of some cover letters that worked for me.
The most important thing to remember about a cover letter is that it exists to convince the reader that you really are interested in this program. This is your chance to show an employer or admissions officer that you stand out by your interest in the field you would be working in. The best cover letters, my career advisor assured me, are those that convey a strong interest and knowledge of the position being applied for. In my own experiences applying, I’ve never seen anything to contradict this view.
Because cover letters so often harm rather than help the chances of their authors, let’s start with some don’ts. These are faux pas that employers see every day. Picture these cover letters crumpled and thrown into the trash, along with the rest of the application.
1) Oversell yourself. If you have a good resume (more on that later) then your qualifications should be obvious enough. The problem with overselling is that it’s very easy for it to come off as pretentious. Don’t describe yourself as smart or enthusiastic or even hard-working. It’s best to give the reader that impression of you by writing implicitly. For example, my career advisor edited out a line I wrote for Deloitte describing myself as having provided
“excellent customer service” in my student job at a restaurant. Instead of falling back on positive adjectives to sell yourself, give real life examples. Employers will draw the right conclusion on their own.
2) Lavish praise on the company. The cover letter is about you and your feelings towards the company, not about the company itself. It’s useless to tell the employer why Deloitte is really the best of the consulting firms when the real question is, are you the best of candidates? If a part of your cover letter is flattering the institution, it’s time for some editing.
3) Be too informal. Some people are tempted to make their cover letter seem folksy, or funny and light-hearted. The urge is understandable—after all, we all want to build rapport. But the cover letter is also a first indicator of professional tendencies. Avoid colloquialisms like “Give me a shout,” or “I would be down for”. Employers assume that your cover letter is you at your most self-censored, so you don’t want to come off as too uninhibited. But it’s a fine line, which leads us to the last Don’t rule….
4) Be too formal. If your cover letter reads like if could have been sent as a generic letter to dozens of places, you need to touch it up. There should be no spelling mistakes, grammar should be flawless, and there’s no need for colloquialisms, but it’s important to still come off as an engaged and interesting person with a unique set of skills and personality. It’s a cover letter, not a witness report.
1) Show rather than tell. If you’re applying for a writing position, mention that you’ve always enjoyed writing online and for sites like Hubpages.com rather than simply saying you’re passionate about writing. Provide examples so the employer doesn’t have to take your word for it.
2) Demonstrate some knowledge about what you’re applying for. If you want to work for Northwestern Mutual, you might want to mention the 150-year history of the company. Say that you’re attracted to the traditions, and want to be a part of it. Just don’t go on for too long about the firm when you could be talking about your qualifications.
3) Show interest that sets you apart. These people are usually flooded with applications, because many people apply for the sake of having something to add to their resume, or out of desperation, rather than out of genuine interest. If you come across as really interested in the work, employers will take notice.
Now, here’s a cover letter that helped get me a position this summer:
My name is William Dahl and I'm a junior at the College of William and Mary. I was excited to see that Democracy: A Journal of Ideas is accepting applications for internships this summer. The University Career Action network describes potential interns they are looking for, saying "They should be interested in deepening their exposure to a wide range of policy issues and interacting with some of the most cutting-edge progressive thinkers across a variety of fields." That describes me; ever since 2006 I have avidly followed national politics, and at William and Mary I have been active in the school voter registration drive and volunteering for Governor Kaine's Senate campaign. I'm also deeply interested in policy and world events. I'm majoring in International Relations here, and one of my favorite classes consists almost entirely of outside speakers like economists, CEOs and international organization leaders who talk to the class about their experiences and perspectives.
From my resume you will see that I'm active in student government and I have a history of taking the initiative in helping school events succeed. Another thing that qualifies me for this internship is that I love to write. I'm an author on the Website HubPages.com, under the pseudonym Mark Sparks, and I write analyses concerning politics, elections, Supreme Court Cases, and a few self-improvement and psychology articles. Simply put, I enjoy writing and learning, and never get tired of honing those skills. That's one reason why I would feel privileged to work for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas this summer.
Attached are my resume and writing sample. I hope you will consider my application!
Cover letters don’t have to be long. Just avoid making the most common mistakes, and half the battle is already won. And if you’re applying for a position you genuinely want and know you would be great at, then good for you—it shouldn’t be hard to convey the interest and experience that every good cover letter shows.