Cover letters can be somewhat daunting to write. I recall sitting for long periods of time staring at my laptop, trying to find the perfect combination of words to impress a potential employer.
Resumes, with their quick, bulleted list of accomplishments, always seem to be easier to write. Resumes have rules and structure. But, cover letters require that words magically fit together in complete sentences to flow beautifully into a concise argument that, hopefully, persuades a potential employer to hire you.
I feel the pain of the students with whom I work who have no idea where to begin the cover letter writing process. In addition to the intimidation factor, there are a lot of myths about what cover letters are used for and how important they are in the job application process.
- A list of everything you have ever done
- A generic letter you can send to many different employers
- A meaningless formality
Cover letters are an additional opportunity to “wow” an employer. As such, they should not be treated as an insignificant “hoop” to jump through.
What’s the point of the cover letter?
The goal of a cover letter is to intrigue the reader enough so that he or she wants to further consider you for the position. A resume already lists your most relevant skills and experiences. Therefore, a cover letter should expand on the most important things listed on the resume – not repeat verbatim what is already on it.
Treat your cover letter like a movie preview. Previews entice audiences to go see movies by showing the most exciting, dramatic and/or funny moments in a film. Cover letters should showcase the most relevant, important things you have done so that the employer is enticed to read or hear more. If you had to sum up your brand in a few sentences, what would you say? That is, most likely, what to highlight in a cover letter.
Make the cover letter work for you
A good cover letter is used as a marketing tool. However, a great cover letter is distinguished by a writer’s ability to not only tell the employer what skills they have, but also how those skills will benefit the prospective employer. Use the cover letter to show how you are a strong fit for the position and the company. Job searching is all about finding a fit.
Simply writing, “I have developed strong leadership skills from my role as student government president” does not tell a reader very much. He or she would have to make assumptions about the work involved in leading a student government and how that is relevant in terms of the position to which the author is applying for.
Take out the guesswork for a prospective employer. In the example above, the writer should include more specific information about how he or she actually developed or utilized used those leadership skills. Using examples from student organizations, part-time jobs, internships, coursework or community service activities provides more conclusive evidence that you can do, and have done, what you claim to be capable of.
Then, take it one step further by indicating how you will use the skills illustrated by your example(s) to benefit the prospective employer. Make the connection between campus activities and the workplace.
Setting yourself apart every time
Most likely, you have more than just a few skills that would make you a great employee. To figure out which skills you should be describing in your cover letter, you must research the employer and read the position description carefully. The skills you choose to highlight for one position may very well be different from the most relevant skills for another position.
Every time you send a cover letter to a prospective employer it should be tailored to that specific position or organization. It is far more effective to send out fewer tailored cover letters than twice as many generic, non-specific letters.
A well-written cover letter can also showcase how strong your writing skills are; provide an opportunity to demonstrate enthusiasm about the position; and demonstrate attention to detail. Not all employers read cover letters, but sending a strong cover letter along with your resume rarely hurts your candidacy and has the potential to set you apart from other applicants.
Kelly is a career advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she assists undergraduate business students with all aspects of their career development. Kelly received her masters degree in Higher Education/Student Personnel Administration from New York University, and her bachelors degree from UW-Madison, where she majored in Political Science and Women’s Studies. Connect with Kelly on Twitter, LinkedIn or BrazenCareerist.