Every student I have advised over the years has presented a unique set a questions pertaining to the job search. But, there’s one topic that seems to confound even the most seasoned applicant: cover letters.
A significant number of applications require a cover letter, yet there’s so much anxiety around how to craft one. In fact, students will admit that they simply won’t apply to any position that asks to see one. Just think of all the missed opportunities.
The main reason cover letters seem so daunting is because they should be tailored to each position. Unlike a resume—which you might tweak here or there for individual applications—your cover letter should be very specific to each job, as employers use it to get a greater sense of why you’re passionate about their company specifically and the role they’re hiring for.
The process of crafting a new cover letter for each application can seem tedious or time consuming, but there are a few tips you can take advantage of to make this process easier while also meeting the expectations of your potential future employer.
Unless an employer asks you to format your cover letter in a very specific way, the structure of your letter can remain the same for 95% of the positions you apply for. Think of structuring your cover letter as you might structure a paper for class: one introductory paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.
Your introduction and conclusion will stay fairly consistent across the board. The introduction should include the specific position title and company you’re applying to, and the conclusion should restate your enthusiasm for the position and highlight your contact information. You might want to make little tweaks, particularly in the introduction, such as highlighting how you found the position and clarifying why you’re interested right off the bat, but these are easy updates that shouldn’t take too much time to complete.
The body paragraphs are where you want to make the most changes for each position you apply to. Use language from the job description—often referred to as “buzz words”—and incorporate them throughout your cover letter. The biggest mistake applicants make in their cover letters is simply rehashing content that’s already on the resume, when the focus should be on highlighting how the skills from your resume specifically relate to the position you’re applying to.
A smart way to begin a body paragraph is some variation of the following:
“In reviewing the job description, I understand that this position requires an applicant with skills in _____, _____, and ______.”
Fill in the blanks with buzz words from the job description that you are a match with. Doing so will let the employer know right off the bat that you understand a few of the key components of the role. This will also help highlight how your past experiences directly relate to the requirements of the position.
More good news: you can use a variation of the sentence above in each of your cover letters, and simply fill-in-the-blanks with buzz words that are unique to each specific position you apply to. This is a great way to personalize each of your cover letters without having to completely rewrite each one.
While it’s always a good idea to research a company before applying, it can be especially helpful in gaining additional insight that you can incorporate into a cover letter. Information that might not be evident in a job description—such as a company’s mission, values, goals, client base, and office culture—can often be found by reviewing the company’s website. If, for example, you find that your career values are a direct match with an individual company, mention this in your cover letter. This is a smart way to highlight that you would be a great fit beyond your skill set, and employers will appreciate that you went above and beyond the job description to learn more about them.
The company website can also come in handy in the absence of “buzz words.” Some job descriptions you come across may be slim and not provide enough information about the responsibilities and qualifications needed. If the position description is bare, focus on what you learned from the company website to personalize your cover letter.
Take a look at some cover letter templates curated by the Career Center’s Peer Advising Team. This packet includes cover letter samples, as well as samples of other job search letters such as thank you notes. Once you’ve drafted a cover letter, bring it to the Career Center for a walk-in advising appointment to get it touched up before sending it off to employers!