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.”
5. Aligning of self with the position or company
This is hands-down the most important part of the cover letter. Gaglini recommends having the job description in front of you while you are writing. He explains, “You want to address anywhere from 2-3 things found in the job description and tie them into your resume and your experience.” For example, if the internship you are applying for requires Photoshop skills and you used Photoshop to design a CD cover for your a cappella group’s winter concert, then identify that in the cover letter. As Gaglini points out, “This allows potential employers to visualize who you are and what the extent of your capabilities may be. This is when applicants begin to stand out.”
Word choice and phrasing are extremely important in this section of the cover letter. Gaglini’s biggest piece of advice? “Don’t overemphasize what the job will do for you. Instead, take the opposite approach and emphasize how you will be an asset to the company.” Companies want employees who will be able to make positive changes within the organization, so let them know that you are capable of just that.
6. Genuine, yet informative conclusion
It is hard to make the conclusion of a cover letter not seem formulaic and robotic. However, don’t be disheartened, because it is possible! To begin, Gaglini suggests reiterating your interest in and connection to the position and/or company. He also suggests reminding the company why you would make a good fit for the specific position.
One example of a strong conclusion would be something along the lines of this:
“In addition to my academic qualifications and prior experience in the industry, I also believe that my résumé exhibits strong potential for further accomplishment in the advertising industry. For these reasons, I feel that I would be an asset to your company as an intern this summer.”
And what is Gaglini’s main piece of advice? “Don’t say that you are the ‘best person’ for the position because you have no way of knowing if you are the best person. Find other ways to express that you would be a good fit.”
Finally, finish off that concluding paragraph by expressing that you look forward to hearing from them and suggesting a future meeting in person. Remind them of your email address as well as phone number, so that they can easily follow-up with you. Gaglini has one last piece of advice: “Never write that you will follow-up with them. This comes off as threatening and most employers like to be the ones in charge of follow-ups.” If you are right for the job, the company will most definitely let you know.
Keep it mind that each cover letter you write should be different and tailored to the company or position you are applying to. As Gaglini explains, “the cover letter is an opportunity for you, the applicant, to present yourself and why you would be a valuable asset to the company.” With that said, this should change with each and every position and employer. Your introductory statement will change as will your motive for writing depending on the position. The parts of your resume that you choose to highlight in the cover letter will also change depending on the job description. If you find that two or three of your cover letters are looking identical, it is time to take a step back, channel your creativity, and work on customizing each piece of writing. And if you are using the same cover letter template, make sure to double and triple check that you have replaced the company’s name where applicable.
8. No spelling errors, typos, or misinformation
This is pretty self-explanatory, but if you are truly invested in a particular internship or job, then employers assume that you will have taken the time to carefully check and recheck your cover letter for any mistakes. Mistakes can range from simple grammatical and spelling errors to misinformation about the company, so be sure to take a critical eye to ALL aspects of your letter.
Gaglini recommends reading the cover letter backwards when editing for grammar and misspellings. That way the content of the letter will not get in the way of your editing! Gaglini reminds us, “You don’t know if a perfectionist will be the one reading your cover letter, so you want to always write to that hypothetical perfectionist, just in case. That way you will always be safe.”
Cover letters are an art form, and once you start writing them it will become second nature. Remember the purpose of the cover letter while you are writing: to communicate to an employer, in a personalized and original message, why you would be an asset to the company. One of the best ways to create a flawless cover letter, according to Gaglini, is to constantly remind yourself why you are writing this specific cover letter. This ensures that you will, “avoid the common trap of all of your cover letters sounding the same.” It may seem like a lot to remember for a page-long letter, but if you pay attention to these eight simple things, you just might get the internship or job of your dreams.