Anna’s Pondering Question of the Week Series: How to Cover The Most Important Points in a Cover Letter

Happy New Year and Happy Spring Semester Everyone!

During the last couple of weeks of the Fall 2013 semester, I reviewed many cover letters prepared by students graduating in December 2013. Some of these letters suffered from similar drawbacks: lack of specific details about relevant experiences; insufficient targeting to the employer’s needs and too many words with not enough detail. I understand that it’s not easy to write a professional letter, which needs to be short but also informative about your intentions and experience. (I struggle with the same issue in writing this blog!) You can find good information on the Career Center website regarding the purpose, content, and format of the cover letter, as well as cover letter samples. Here, I would like to suggest more tips that I have found useful to mention to students.

Make your cover letter relevant to EACH employer.  Resist the temptation to write a self-centered cover letter that talks about the evolution of your professional interests, details all your experiences, offers your general reflection on the field, etc. Instead, focus your cover letter on the needs and expectations of the potential employer.  Clarify for yourself what those needs and expectations are.

  • Usually, the employer wants to find out four things: (1) whether you have enthusiasm for the position and organization; (2) whether you have relevant skills/aptitudes/experience to do the job, (3) when you can start; and (4) whether you have good writing skills (correct grammar, punctuation, paragraph flow, correct word usage. etc., ability to write concisely and to the point, etc.)  When reviewing your first draft, ask yourself: Does the information that I have included in the letter provide answers to these four questions?
  • Make every word count. Keep this tip in mind when you are writing your first draft but don’t stress too much because of it. Once you’ve finished the draft, go through it with a fine-toothed comb to get rid of extra words and repetitions and utilize more content-heavy words and keywords (or industry buzz words.)  Keywords could be verbs and nouns. You can find these words by carefully reviewing the job announcement, similar job announcements, and the organization’s website. Use these words when you describe your skills/experiences. Also, use outcome-oriented verbs such as “increased, reduced, initiated, implemented, redesigned, upgraded, generated, produced, ” and  recognition words such as “promoted, selected, awarded, trusted with, etc.”
  • Don’t forget that writing a cover letter is different from writing a college essay or a statement of purpose for graduate schools.  Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend starting with a story to grab the employer’s attention. Unless, of course, you can come up with a very relevant story that you are able to present in 2-3 sentences. Instead, you may want to start with a statement that indicates your understanding of why you are a good fit to the employer’s needs.  For example,   “Having a degree in Environmental Sciences from American University and successful experience in coordinating campus-wide events, I am eager to contribute my organizational skills to your advocacy projects as Environmental Program Coordinator.”
  • Provide brief examples of your skills/experiences. In some cover letters, students described their experiences without specific details because they were afraid that their cover letter would be too long, or they didn’t want to repeat the information already in their resume. Though these were legitimate concerns, the letters were bland, vague and boring.  You do need to include details/examples, but be selective. Include only those details that could be relevant and impressive: e.g. talk about the outcomes of your experiences, specific skills that you have honed; utilize numbers to show the impact or scope of your responsibilities. You may have already used these numbers in your resume, but it’s OK to use them again in your cover letter.  Numbers do tell stories and take little space but go a long way towards helping the reader visualize your experiences.
  • You know by now that cover letters should be targeted to specific employers. However, sometimes students think that their cover letters are sufficiently customized if they mention the organization’s name and mission. Go beyond that.  Dig deeper!  Identify “golden nuggets” and show your enthusiasm:  Review the organization’s website to learn about their new projects, or/and past accomplishments. Check their links. Maybe they have their annual report on the website.  Mention “these golden nuggets” to indicate your enthusiasm for the organization: “ I was impressed to find out that your organization…..” or “I have a keen interest in your new initiative….” , etc. Whenever possible, link this information to your skills or/an experiences.
  • And by all means, invest time to read and re-reread your first draft! Read it out loud – that helps to catch grammar mistakes, repetitions, etc.