Writing Unique Cover Letters

danielscareers-coverletterDo all employers read cover letters? No. Do all employers require one? No. So should you take the time to write a cover letter? Absolutely! The cover letter can set you apart from your competition. It gives you the opportunity to not only give a brief summary of your qualifications, but lets you explain why you are genuinely interested in a particular opportunity and company. Do you really want to be the candidate that doesn’t take the time to write a well-crafted cover letter?
Your cover letter is often your first impression made on a potential employer. Don’t fall into the trap of writing the same canned cover letter for every position you apply for.  When advising graduate students, I ask them to bring the job description they are applying for when reviewing their cover letter, as each should be customized to the unique position and company they hope to work for.

The following tips will help to ensure that you don’t fall into the common mistakes I see and that your cover letter makes it to the top of the applicant pool pile.

Be prepared before you begin writing your cover letter:

  • Review cover letter samples for inspiration and review the job description of the position for which you are applying.
  • Identify the key points from your resume that meet the requirements listed in the job description.
  • Be sure to give yourself time to create a draft, hone a finished version and proofread.

A well-structured cover letter includes a heading, salutation, introduction, list of qualifications and a closing paragraph.

  • The heading should include your name and contact info (email, customized LinkedIn URL, phone number) and should be exactly the same as that of your résumé to give a polished professional image.
  • The salutation should be dated and addressed to a specific person. Take the time to research who the hiring manager is instead of addressing the letter to the “hiring manager” or even worse “to whom it may concern”.
  • Your opening paragraph should state the position for which you are applying and mention how you found the position or how you met your contact (campus career fair, industry panel, guest speaker in class, professor referral).
  • Be sure to give a genuine reason as to why you would like to work for the company. Stating because of the company’s reputation sounds canned and because it fits in your career plan sounds self-serving.
  • Summarize how your qualifications match those the company is looking for as listed in the job description as closely as possible without repeating word for word what is on your résumé.
  • In the closing paragraph, reiterate your interest in the position and state how and when you will follow up.

Some final tips:

  • Highlight your most significant achievements that match the position.
  • Keep your cover letter length to one page.
  • Meticulously check for spelling and grammar mistakes.
  • Send as a PDF.
  • Do not start with: “My name is…”
  • Do not take the focus off your strengths by emphasizing skills or experience you lack.
  • Do not fail to make the connection between your education and the position you are pursuing.
  • Do not display a lack of knowledge about your potential future employer.
Remember to demonstrate that you put some thought and effort into writing your cover letter. At the very least, you should read it aloud, or better yet, have someone else review it. Make an appointment with your assigned career coach to have your cover letter reviewed. You only have one chance to make a good first impression.
Susan Goodwin is an Assistant Director and Graduate Career Coach of the Suitts Graduate & Alumni Career Center. Susan has seven years of experience in career services and coaches graduate students in career development, including job search techniques, networking, resume writing and interview preparation. Goodwin also creates and facilitates career service workshops and works with companies to promote graduate employment.