Writing a Cover Letter can feel like a Herculean task, it doesn’t need to be. And given the right guidance and structure, you will stand out from the other applicants, leaving any reader deeply impressed. Whether you are applying for an internship, a summer job, or educational opportunity, this article will cover the basics and demystify the secrets of a great letter.
Also, be sure to read all the way to the end of this post for a special offer exclusive to HOBY alumni and volunteers.
First impressions matter. Think of a Cover Letter as your opening sales pitch. An impactful letter shows your personality and highlights key accomplishments, so readers will have a better idea of what they should be looking for when they review your resume. In fact, a well-written letter works hand-in-hand with your resume. Your Cover Letter should describe a few key highlights and get the reader excited to see your resume, and then meet with you in person! Keep your eye on the prize – earning an interview.
Remember, a Cover Letter is relatively short – we’re talking 1ish pages long. It can’t summarize every detail from your resume. According to Dr. Craig Engstrom (Professor of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University), a successful application letter accomplishes 4 goals. When you start writing, keep in mind that a Cover Letter:
- Specifies which position you’re applying for and why
- Catches the reader’s attention and gets them excited to read your resume
- Indicates how the experiences on your resume match the position advertised
- Requests an interview and makes space for future inquiry
Each of these goals requires that you know what job/internship/program/award you’re applying for. Every Cover Letter you write should be unique. Every. Single. One. For instance, let’s say you’re applying for a dream summer internship. You want to craft a Cover Letter that focuses on the needs of the employer rather than listing all of your skills and rehashing your experience from your resume. Instead, select only the relevant skills using the internship position advertisement as a guide to shape your writing. If you do this, then the Cover Letter will say, “This is me and more importantly here is what I can do for you.” This is the single most important thing you can do with your cover letter that will sharply increase the likelihood of getting an interview.
Let’s continue using your dream summer internship as an example. Write 1 paragraph targeting each of the goals listed above. Don’t overthink your Cover Letter. It should be relatively straightforward.
- Paragraph 1 introduces you to readers and explains why you’re applying for the internship. Share your passions, interests, and what you hope to gain from the internship.
- Paragraph 2 goes into greater detail about how your experience matches the advertised position. What do you bring to the team that matches what they’re looking for?
- Paragraph 3 includes a bulleted list that highlights descriptions of 3 or 4 key accomplishments. These could be awards, work responsibilities, volunteer experiences, or personal attributes – whatever you think will pique the interest of readers.
- Paragraph 4 thanks your readers for their time and indicates that you’re excited to talk more in person! Remember, this is just your opening sales pitch.
The Cover Letter is your chance to talk to readers before you meet them in person. With this in mind, take the opportunity to explain anything that isn’t obvious from reading your resume. For example, if you took 2 years off of school to travel or do volunteer work, acknowledge that gap in work history and share the skills you gained along the way that make you an even better applicant. Lean into your story and embrace the life experiences that make you unique.
Still feel like you’re not sure what to write? There are countless guides online, and it can be difficult knowing which are most trustworthy. I recommend that you use the paragraph-by-paragraph guide to Cover Letter content, with guiding questions, from the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s writing center. They provide some strong, research supported, suggestions. If you want to learn more about the technical aspects of formal letter writing (spacing, format, font, etc.), check out WikiHow’s blog post on the topic. I know, your English teacher told you not to trust Wikipedia. That’s fair, but this is a really straightforward, helpful blog post! I’ve included links to both websites at the end of this article – give them a look!
Dispelling Key Cover Letter Myths
Myth 1: No one will even look at my Cover Letter, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s true that most large employers use computer-tracking algorithms to sift through mounds of applications looking for the best ones. Sometimes we don’t make the cut. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ However, if you’re qualified for the job and follow the advice of HOBY’s “A Resume that Resonates” blog post, you’ll likely make it through the first round screening. From there, humans will read your Cover Letter. If you’re applying to a smaller company or organization, then a there’s a good chance a person will read your letter. Either way, it’s the starting place.
Myth 2: Everything is riding on this letter, so it needs to be perfect. Remember, your application is just the starting place for a longer conversation. Take a deep breath and type the first draft of your Cover Letter. With minor revisions, it will be more than good enough.
Myth 3: Cover Letters are a thing of the past – a fossil of times long gone. Allllllllright, fine. Maybe the world has moved a few steps away from requiring formal Cover Letters, but the advice shared in this blog post can be put to use when emailing someone your resume. The same rules apply when writing a powerful email that introduces yourself to employers and gets them to read your resume. The purpose of a Cover Letter will always exist, even though the format may change over time. You want the person with whom you’re interacting to know that you’ve researched the organization and thought about why you’re a good fit before reaching out. Stand out from the generic emails/letters/calls that they’re used to receiving!
You’re Not Alone on the Journey
Finally – but perhaps most importantly – be willing to ask for help while writing your Cover Letter! I encourage you to reach out to a parent, mentor, or super-smart friend and ask them to give your letter a look over. Oftentimes when someone else reviews our work, they notice grammatical errors and identify places where our writing can be improved. I know, I know, you’re probably saying, “But I’m nervous to show people my work if I know it isn’t perfect.” That’s a common feeling among HOBY overachievers and a normal reaction. So, acknowledge that voice of worry in your head and then summon the courage to ask for help anyways! Rely on the collective knowledge of your supporters to improve your work.
If having a teacher proofread your letter isn’t an option, then consider seeking help from a professional resume and career coach. They can help with drafting a letter for you and help you strengthen your application for that internship or honors program you have your eye on. Many consultants offer discounted rates for early careerists and students. I know the company that I work for – Communication@Work LLC – is always excited to work with young people!
Some Final Encouragement
If you’re still feeling a bit overwhelmed, know that you’re in good company. I sometimes struggle to begin writing a Cover Letter when I sit down in front of my computer and see a blank Word document staring back. That white screen can be intimidating! The most important thing you can do is simply start writing. Produce a draft cover letter and then reach out for help. HOBY believes in you and we want you to succeed.
So, here is that special 1-time offer that I told you about at the beginning of this blog post. I will read and give feedback to the first 10 (ish) HOBY people who send their Cover Letters to michael(at)alabamahoby.org. Remember, an impressive Cover Letter is tailored to the specific job call, internship advertisement, or program application to which you’re applying. So, be sure to send that info (as an attachment or a link) and your resume with the draft Cover Letter.
Good luck! And remember, have some fun with your Cover Letter. Let them know who you are and leave them wanting to know more!
For help writing your resume: HOBY’s “A Resume that Resonates” Blog Post
Paragraph-by-paragraph cover letter guide: University of Wisconsin writing center
A formal letter formatting guide: WikiHow blog post
About Michael Forst
A passionate educator, communication scholar, and travel enthusiast. Happiest when sitting on the ground and petting a dog.