Summer Career Series: Cover Letters
Welcome back to our Summer Series! This week, we will be covering cover letters.
Why is a cover letter important?
Between a resume and a cover letter, you have two pieces of paper that can help capture what skills you bring to the table and why exactly you are a fit for the position you are applying for. A cover letter allows you to highlight key experiences or key aspects of your background that make you the best candidate for the position. It’s your opportunity to share your career journey and put some personality behind the bullet points on your resume. Not all companies require cover letters or look at cover letters despite requiring them, but as always, it is important to put your best foot forward. Sometimes, a cover letter can help differentiate between very similar candidates or help you stand out if you do not have all of the relevant experience or if you have a low GPA.
Some dos and don'ts
You definitely should:
Highlight key strengths that may not be obvious from your resume
Explain any weaknesses, such as a lack of relevant experience or a low GPA, and show how you are able to overcome them
Show why you are a good candidate for the job by explaining your fit for that specific position and company
Demonstrate your communication skills
You should avoid:
Creating a laundry list of all of your work experience (focus on what is relevant instead)
Writing too much detail for your positions (highlight the key takeaways instead)
Name-dropping everyone you have ever met at the company (only name the people who you have had significant contact with and you have explicitly asked to include in the cover letter)
How do I write a cover letter?
A cover letter should always reflect your own voice and qualifications, so there is no “right” way to write a cover letter. However, the general structure is as follows:
Greeting and introduction
Body paragraphs that speak to both your interest and your fit for the position and company
A summary of your body paragraphs, a reiteration of your interest in the position, and a thank you to the reader
Here is an example of a cover letter.
When you start to write a cover letter, keep in mind that a cover letter should be tailored to each position. While it can be helpful to write template cover letters and modify them for each position, recruiters can spot generic cover letters. The best practice is to take the time to write a unique cover letter for every position that you apply to. Ensure that your language is more formal than your typical writing style. It is also important to use “I” and “we”, even if you are not typically used to writing in this style; the cover letter is meant to reflect your experiences, after all. Lastly, cover letters are typically one page long, so try to be as brief and to the point as possible.
Make sure to research the company thoroughly! Understand the work that they do, read the job description, search LinkedIn for people that may be on the team you are applying to or the hiring manager for the position, look at the company culture and their blogs to see their non-work related initiatives and programs, and look at sources like Glassdoor and Indeed to understand what employees of the company like and dislike.
If you feel comfortable with doing so, you can include your address and your phone number at the top, as if you are writing a real letter to someone. It can make a letter seem clearer and more concise to read, but if you feel uncomfortable putting this information in your cover letter, you are by no means obligated to do so. You can also include the date at the top, but be wary to ensure that you do not accidentally imply that you worked on the cover letter at the last minute. Otherwise, start by addressing the hiring manager or relevant person that will be reading your cover letter. Usually, you can try to find this information by searching LinkedIn or on the specific recruiting page for the company and school that you are at. If you do not know the name of the person who will be reading your cover letter or if you are uncertain, writing “[Company name] hiring manager/team]” is acceptable.
The first paragraph of your cover letter typically includes your name, year in school, and your major, and should mention the company and position you are applying to. Briefly describe why you are a good candidate for the position by summarizing a few key attributes that you will expand on in the body of your cover letter. The introduction paragraph should not be longer than a few lines, since the key information you are going to express will be in the body of your letter.
The next paragraph can come before or after your experiences and typically speaks to your interest in the company and briefly to your fit for the company and to the position. Refer to the research that you did on the company and the position to write this paragraph. Focus on what you like about the company and explain briefly how your background fits with what you found.
The next couple of paragraphs can speak to relevant experiences or examples of relevant characteristics to the position you are applying for. To identify what would be the best to include in your cover letter, look at the job description to understand the attributes and skills that the position is looking for. Identify what you believe to be the 3 most important qualities. From there, look at your resume to identify what in your resume fits those qualities the best, and list them in order of importance to you. Structure the paragraphs as narratives, highlighting the STAR (situation, action, task, response) method, as you would in an interview.
Another method of writing the body paragraphs is to walk through your professional journey as a narrative. You can chronologically speak to the experiences that you identified as relevant and end with the paragraph that speaks to your interest and your fit for the company and position. You should be using the STAR method or another appropriate, structured way of succinctly explaining your examples regardless of the way that you set up the body paragraphs, because structure lends itself to credibility.
The last paragraph should summarize your cover letter briefly, reiterate your interest in the position, and thank the reader for taking the time to read through your cover letter. This paragraph should also be no more than a couple of lines. Then, use an appropriate sign-off, such as “sincerely” and write your first and last name at the end.
Some ways to help you stand out from the competition
Cover letters are boring endeavors and it can be easy to fall into a formulaic method of writing cover letters. Once your cover letter is structured clearly and appropriately, there are a few different tactics you can use to stand out.
Include a fact that makes you unique and relates to the company, whether it is about how you know about the company or what it is about the company or the position explicitly that excites you.
An example of this would look something like this: Whether it was tinkering with our broken toaster as a child or helping Target fix its supply chain issues during my internship, I have always been an engineer at heart. It is with great passion that I submit my application for the Data Engineering role at Fidelity.
Directly address a challenge or a potential problem that the company faces. This works especially well for high-impact tech companies, like Tesla and Google. If you are able to integrate a problem that they have and a well-researched and well-thought-out solution into your cover letter, then that makes you incredibly valuable to the company. Be careful with this though, since this can significantly impact your chances should you happen to be incorrect in your research or presentation methods.
Overall, writing a cover letter can be tedious, but your cover letter can be the deciding factor on whether or not you get the job. We hope that these tips will help you!