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What is a Cover Letter?
The cover letter is one of the most important documents you will ever write. Take a second to recall the college application process. The cover letter is the equivalent of the personal statement. It is the two-dimensional embodiment of who you are. It is the primary tool you will use to sell yourself. It is the place to highlight your strengths, proclaim your creativity, and show your organizational skills. And it can be the key to improving or seriously impeding your job hunt. A cover letter serves three basic purposes:
1. Accompanies your resume.
2. Introduces you and your employment qualifications.
3. Generates interest in an employer to interview you.
When you write your cover letter, remember to write it from the perspective of your potential employer. She is, of course, the one who will be hiring you so put yourself in her head. What would she want to know about you? What do you have that is particularly appealing? Why do you fit the position you are applying for better than every other candidate? The answers to these questions are very important as they save the employer the time and the hassle of trying to figure out if you have the necessary qualifications. The cover letter should provoke an employer to say, “Now here is someone we absolutely must find out more about.”
The cover letter is a reflection of you. If it is sloppy and disorganized, it will suggest that you are… sloppy and disorganized (shocking!). It may also suggest that you lack focus or that you don't care about the personal impression you leave on other people. On the flip side, a neat, well-written cover letter implies that you are thoughtful, focused, organized - all of the positive attributes employers thirst for.
If you include good answers to her questions and coherently showcase relevant information about the company and the position you are applying for, there is a significant likelihood that you will reach the next rung in the job ladder: the interview.
Creating a Cover Letter
A good cover letter is like a good research paper: Despite what you may think, it is not written overnight. Remember the papers you researched and wrote the night before it was due? How ill conceived and poorly organized they were? One thought here, one thought there, lame sentences all over. Now remember the papers (fine, maybe it was just one) that were written over a few weeks, a few drafts. Not only how much better they were but also how much better you felt after writing them. Creating a cover letter is a very similar process.
Your job is going to be a significant part of your life after graduation so it pays to look into where you want to be and what you want to be doing. This process starts with researching your cover letter. Recall from the "What is a Cover Letter?" section that a good letter is written with a potential employer in mind. And you, as a potential employee, have a responsibility to know all you can about each employer from which you want a job. What are the strategic goals of each employer? Whom do they hire? Is there a new CEO at the helm? You certainly don't want to flub a job interview because you didn't know the big boss in charge. Be sure to also know something about the industry of each employer. Visit the library or your handy internet browser and find out how your potential employer and its competitors are doing. Have there been industry-wide layoffs recently? Are companies looking to grow their infrastructure overseas?
By finding out more about a company and an industry you can focus your cover letter on areas that are of important interest to the person reading it. Plus, you'll highlight your specific knowledge. The key is to find an edge, something that shows off your intelligence and attention to detail, something that no one else will include in their cover letter. No matter how well organized and grammatically perfect a letter is, unless it relates directly to what an employer is looking for, the odds of landing an interview are slim.
Is My Cover Letter Any Good?
Good cover letters are more than perfect grammar and unblemished spelling. They are essentially written sales pitches of no more than a single page. In order to increase the odds of banking a sale, you need to carefully craft your language so that it includes the following:
1. an introduction that establishes your interest
2. a paragraph or two that sums up your strengths
3. a paragraph that highlights your experience and education
4. a sentence or two that establishes follow-up action
Making a Connection
Good introductions grab the reader and ensure that the rest of your letter will be read. You don't have to automatically be cute either. In fact, a far more effective way of being noticed is to simply personalize the letter. Potential employers can spot a mass-mailed cover letter before reading the second sentence. Include a key fact about the company you are applying to. Better yet, if you met the company's recruiter at your school's job fair be sure to note it. For example, the sentence, “Donald Watkins, your Supervisor of Information Technology, mentioned that you are looking for a web page designer. Perhaps my expertise and experience can be of help.”, shows an employer that you took some time and energy to find out about the firm and its open positions. Personal connections are one of the best ways to generate an employers interest in you.
What Do You Do Well?
Once you have the employer's interest, the rest is gravy right? Sadly, no. But at least the rest is easier because it's about something you know - you. After proving that you are no stranger to who a company is, the next part of the cover letter is about explaining why hiring you will be a valuable asset for the company's future. What do you have that they want? You have a record of accomplishments, but don't organize these paragraphs like a laundry list. Be selective in your choices. You have to prove how specific contributions you've made elsewhere in the past mean you can make similar contributions at this company in the future.
One fatal flaw of many student job seekers is to pick out the accomplishments they are most proud of. Bad move. You may love the pottery bowl that won first prize in the art department's end-of-year awards because you think it shows your improvisational talents. Unfortunately, a management consulting firm doesn't care. Be sure to keep in mind that you are trying to tailor your letter to the exact needs of an employer, who may care more about a group project in your statistics class. Just as successful sales people focus on their customers needs, successful job hunters focus on what different companies want.
There is no need to overload this section with a laundry list of majors, minors, courses, and extracurriculars. Instead, briefly summarize the relevant portions of your background. You have plenty of space on your resume to list four years worth of courses.