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Breaking Down Your Cover Letter

Your cover letter is just as important as your resume. You have written your resume as a document that represents you, and the hiring manager has written a position description that reflects the organization’s needs. A cover letter ties them together. It’s more specific than the resume and highlights projects or programs that align with the requirements of the position.

A cover letter should reflect your personality, but because it’s also a business letter, it should not deviate widely from conventional formats. It’s an opportunity to convey special information that’s not on your resume, but which may be of particular interest to the employer.

While you might draft a basic “shell” with a few pertinent paragraphs or sentences to build from, be careful how you cut-and-paste and edit. You don’t want to inadvertently send a cover letter to Organization A, for example, that says you can’t wait to work at Organization B (this has really happened) or submit a cover letter to a student affairs office that says you’re looking forward to working in pharmaceutical sales (another true story).

Word to the Wise:

There is no such thing as a good generic cover letter. Each job you apply for calls for a unique demonstration of how your qualifications fit with what the employer is seeking. It’s your opportunity to address why the organization should hire you for this position.

Before You Begin:
Research, Research, Research

Do your homework—learn about the organization’s needs, mission, and goals to discover how your skills and background connect. The organization’s website is a great place to start, but you can also talk to professors or people you know who are professionals in the field and who may know about the organization’s reputation and latest achievements. Search the Web for articles, reviews, or press releases related to the organization and its activities. Reach out to contacts who work in the organization.

Analyze the Job Description

Read through the employer’s listing carefully to identify the required qualifications and the job’s responsibilities. If there is no description available or the one posted is unclear, contact the organization to request specific details. You can also research similar jobs to get an idea of what skills and background are likely to be associated with the position.

Consider how your courses, academic projects, internships and jobs, volunteer experience, and extracurricular activities relate to the responsibilities and qualifications for the job.

Remember that the organization isn’t interested in how you want to grow or gain experience, but rather, they want to know what you can do for them. Avoid statements like “this would be a great opportunity for me…”

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Each letter should be unique and addressed, when possible, to a specific individual connected to the position. This could be the hiring manager or the head of the department, division, or organization.
  • Focus on the positive. You can address areas where you may lack experience or qualifications if they come up in an interview—leave them out of your cover letter.
  • Demonstrate to the employer that you’ve done your research by connecting the position to your skills and experience. For example: “It’s my understanding that you’re seeking candidates who possess strong written and verbal skills. My internship at a communications firm enabled me to develop those precise skills.”
  • Proofread your letter carefully for typos and errors. Look at your sentence openings to make sure they vary—don’t start them all with “I.” Have a friend read it, too. Don’t rely on spell-check. An error might be the difference between an interview and the recycling bin.
  • If you’re emailing your materials, include the title of the position you’re applying for in the email’s subject line.
  • Keep a copy of the letter in your records.

Emailing Your Application

Recruiters and hiring managers vary in their preferences for receiving cover letters. Some lean toward Word documents or PDFs attached to an email, while others like the letter to be in the body of an email. Most agree that when receiving a resume and cover letter attached to an email, the two items should be presented together in the same document (you can use a page break to separate them).