While most collegiettes seem to have mastered the art of the résumé, this isn’t the case for its more complicated cousin, the cover letter. Instead of a list of facts and tangible information, cover letters require more thought and creativity, but are restricted by the limits of a professional business letter. Sound complicated? It is, but that doesn’t mean it is an impossible feat. And luckily, Louis Gaglini, the associate director for employer relations at Boston College, as well as Gihan Fernando, the executive director of the Career Center at American University were nice enough to break down exactly what internship coordinators are looking for in the notorious Cover Letter.
1. Professional format
Before potential employers even read an applicant’s cover letter, they notice the overall formatting and appearance of the letter. With that said, the format should be clean, precise, and professional. For an example of a standard format, check out “The BEST Cover Letter Ever: How to Write It and Write It RIGHT”.
What are some of Gaglini’s tips? To begin, he urges collegiettes to, “keep the cover letter to a standard page with white space and room for a signature.” He also suggests using a font size of 11 or 12, minimal bolding, minimal italics, and a standard font like Times New Roman.
Keep in mind that there are two ways to send your cover letter: as the body of an email or as an email attachment. If you are sending it as the body of an email, Gaglini emphasizes that it should still have a full, professional greeting and an appropriate closing. Gaglini says, “Employers don’t enjoy being greeted with a “Hey Lou!” when they are looking for potential future employees.” If you are sending your cover letter as an attachment, it should be attached as a PDF file. Gaglini suggests that the body of the email is an instructional statement along the lines of, “Please see the attached cover letter and résumé…” Lastly, make sure to label any attachments with either your initials or your last name and the title of the attachment. For example, a cover letter attachment should be labeled “XY Cover Letter” or “Smith Cover Letter.” Just make sure to not label attachments with overly descriptive or wordy names – brief and concise labels are the way to go!
2. Business tone
Collegiettes often forget that the cover letter is, in fact, a business letter. With that said, Gaglini implores collegiettes to take “a business tone, regardless of the industry that they are applying to.” Even if you are applying to the most creative position in the fashion or advertising industry, the letter is still a business letter. While it is okay to have some fun with the writing if you are applying to a writing-focused position (think advertising or magazine writing), Gaglini suggests primarily demonstrating your creative abilities in an attached portfolio or writing sample, rather than in the letter. As Fernando emphasizes, “you want to maintain a professional tone while showcasing your personality.” It all comes down to finding the balance between professionalism and personality.
3. “Dear Mr. X”
This might seem like a small detail, but it truly can affect how potential employers read your application. Addressing a cover letter as “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir” is impersonal and generally not favored. Try to write to a specific individual who is associated with the job position you are applying for. If this information isn’t listed in the job description or on the company’s website, Gaglini suggests exercising those networking skills. He encourages students to, “Network to find a specific person to write to. One of the best places to start is at your school’s Career Center. They will be able to help you find the correct person to write to.” If your Career Center isn’t of much help, try scouring the company’s website or searching LinkedIn. Gihan Fernando, the Executive Director at the American University Career Center, even recommends calling the company’s main number and asking for the appropriate person’s name and title. The bottom line is that you should do whatever you have to in order to avoid the infamous “To whom it may concern.”
4. Explanation of why you are writing
The first paragraph of the cover letter should be a short, to-the-point explanation of why you are writing. Think of it as a personal introduction to a person (and company) that doesn’t know anything about you. Gaglini suggests that students include your name, the school you attend, what you are studying, the position you are applying for and how you found out about the position. Doesn’t sound too scary, right? Just remember that the words you choose say a lot about you; so don’t rush through writing this short paragraph. While it may seem formulaic, it is still an opportunity to let your personality show through.
An ideal first paragraph would read something like this:
“I am writing to express my interest in the 2013 Summer Internship Program for Nike as detailed on the Nike Human Resources Website. Currently, I am a junior at Boston College majoring in Communication with a minor in English. My prior experience with fitness and corporate communications as well as my various student leadership roles make me a strong candidate for the summer internship program.”
By Nicole Wray
To whom it may concern, your cover letter probably isn’t being read. Especially if you’re starting it with “To whom it may concern.”
According to a Forbes article written by a recruiter with 15 years of experience, many recruiters “almost never” read the cover letter. However, unless you are told not to include one, cover letters are a job search must do.
Here are three things to consider when creating a winning cover letter.
The basics: customize your cover letter
Whether it’s a human or a computer reading your cover letter, including key words from the job posting will show the reader that you’ve done your homework. Be sure to clearly state the position you are applying for, the main skills required for the position and how your work experience demonstrates that you possess those skills.
To really impress the reader, research the company and include one or two facts about the business that relate to the position you’re applying for (for example, “I read in Canadian Business that you won the Xyz Award for the best creative marketing campaign last month”).
A cover letter offers the opportunity to directly address the reader, so if it’s not listed on the job posting, use your resources (Google, LinkedIn, a telephone) to find out who you need to address your letter to. To go the next step, make sure that your application lands in their inbox.
The content: honesty is the best policy
Forbes recently published an article about a cover letter that Wall Street bosses are calling “the best cover letter ever.”
In the letter, a summer internship applicant writes, “I won’t waste your time inflating my credentials…The truth is I have no unbelievable special skills or genius eccentricities, but I do have a near perfect GPA and will work hard for you.”
Such upfront honesty won’t work for every industry, but this internship applicant was rewarded for avoiding a common cover letter downfall — the tendency to exaggerate your qualifications.
Inflating your skill set by using vocabulary that’s outside of your everyday language makes a cover letter awkward to read and difficult to write. To create a cover letter that’s professional, yet conversational, don’t use two words where one would work and don’t use a 10-cent word where a two-cent word will do.
Above and beyond: when to craft a creative cover letter
A creative cover letter alternative must be of professional quality and must highlight your skills as they apply to the job you are competing for.
For example, instead of writing a traditional cover letter for a corporate communications position that I applied for, I created a media kit about myself including a press release, a fact sheet and my resume. Although I didn’t get the job, I scored an interview at a great company.
If you’re willing to go the extra mile to craft a creative cover letter, know the industry you want to work in, be professional and use common sense. A poorly executed YouTube video probably won’t get you an interview for an accounting position. However, a well-made website (this genius mock-up of an Amazon.com product page featuring his candidacy as the product) might put your resume on top of the pile for a digital media position.
Do you think cover letters are becoming extinct? Have you had a successful creative cover letter experience? Share your thoughts in a comment.