by Jack Ramirez and Michelle Fessler
Whether you’re applying for a job, scholarship, internship, or otherwise, the cover letter is the first thing your reader will see when looking at your application. This is a good and a bad thing. The good: a fantastic cover letter will draw in the reader and compel them to give a closer look at your application. The bad: a bland or sloppy cover letter will set the tone for your entire application. The pressure’s on, but you don’t need to be pulling your hair out over it. Here are some tips I’ve put together to help you get started:
What IS a Cover Letter?
You know those little blurbs on the back of a novel, the ones that give a summary that makes you want to read the book? That’s your cover letter! You’re giving the reader a preview of what’s to come without spoiling the contents. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when getting started:
Keep it short and sweet. You have one page to give your spiel, and no more than that one page.
Don’t spoil the plot! The back of a book won’t give you the ending, so follow that example. Save the details and examples for your resume and/or personal statement.
Avoid vagueness. Have you ever read the back of a book and by the end of it you’re even more confused about what the book is about? You don’t want the reader to feel that when they look at their cover letter. Be clear and concise!
Each application needs a unique cover letter. You can’t slap the same blurb on the back of five different books, and applications work the same way.
What’s IN a Cover Letter?
A cover letter can seem pretty formulaic. Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of room to show off your flair and personality. You are selling yourself, after all. The reader will be looking for structure. However, the reader will also be looking for the person who wrote it in between the carefully constructed paragraphs.
Personally I’d recommend a three-paragraph cover letter. This gives you the structure to separate your ideas and with that out of the way you can focus on the content.
The opening: Let the reader know why you’re writing this. Mention the position or scholarship you’re applying for and what that entails.
The body: Show off your knowledge of the company. Mention what the employer is looking for in a candidate, and explain the skills that you have to meet those needs. Avoid rehashing the information on your resume. They’ll read the resume next, so don’t be redundant.
The closing: Tell them that you will be in further contact. For a job or internship, insist that you will call the office for a follow-up or to schedule an interview. For a scholarship, direct them to your contact information at the top of the letter, clearly making yourself available for contact.
How Do I Format My Cover Letter?
Unlike the rest of the cover letter, the format has no room for personality and style. It should always have two headers, a formal greeting, and a formal closing. Honestly, it’s a pain to describe- instead, here’s an example for the headers:
Your Street Address
Your City, State, and Zip Code
Your Phone Number & Your Email Address
(Honorific, such as Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.) (First and Last Name of Employer)
Street Address of Organization
City, State, Zip Code
Dear (Honorific and Last Name of Employer):
Here is your template for every cover letter you will ever write. Your contact info, the date, their contact info, and the greeting. (Side note: ALWAYS use the employer’s name. Avoid saying “to whom it may concern”.) And now for the closing:
Your Name Typed
Enclosure/Attachment (This should always be an enclosure- a word noting that your resume is enclosed with the cover letter, not attached separately.)
It’s not too bad once you get used to it, even if it is painfully stuffy.
Any Last Words?
Be yourself; everyone will tell you this, but I’m going to give you the reason why it’s true. If you make false claims or put on a fake persona for the application, then it’s going to be an awkward day when you start the job and realize you can’t do what they hired you for.
My final tip: look at sample cover letters to give you a feel for them. I’ll give you a freebie with this one- this resource has several examples to get you started.