How to Write a Standout Cover Letter
Cover letters have a love ‘em or hate ‘em reputation. I’ve been on hiring committees where folks wouldn’t even look at them and others where they’re a critical part of the process. Personally, cover letters are crucial for undergraduates or seasoned professionals alike.
As an applicant, cover letters are your chance to bridge any gaps in experience that your resume might show and to highlight the skills or experiences you think are most important to the role you’re applying to.
It’s also your chance to show interest in the company specifically. For us at the Trade Risk, we relied heavily on the cover letter to see if a student had an interest in what we do (stock market investing — a technical, not-sexy-to-most topic). While it wasn't a dealbreaker if they didn't mention anything about the finance space, those that did immediately caught our attention.
So, what should you consider when crafting your cover letter?
First and foremost, yes you should tailor the cover letter but you should absolutely create a master template so that you’re not reinventing the wheel each time.
Just like with doing so for your resume, I’m a big fan of having a master cover letter and adapting it for each job you’re applying to. This will save you time and energy so that you can focus on the meat of your application — showing why you’re a good fit and how your skills align to the role in question.
The cover letter helps you address any skill or experience “gaps” that may exist on your resume.
This is your chance to tell us why you’re a great fit even if the resume is limited in its hands-on experience. Maybe you haven’t held any positions that have allowed you to dabble in social media management or email marketing. But have you read any books on the subject matter to fuel your passion in the meantime? What about creating your own case studies (tip #5)?
We received a few applications whose job experience was strictly retail — that and they didn’t showcase their relevant coursework in their resume (tip #8). That is not inherently a dealbreaker! What is, however, is that in addition to that limited hands-on experience, the cover letter is generic and doesn’t explain or showcase those passion points for the role.
Additionally, you may want to address industry gaps.
For instance, we’re a finance startup. Don’t have any courses or experiences related to finance or investing? That’s ok! Articulate that you’re excited about the space (assuming that you are!), mention any ways you’ve explored the industry in question, or share a book you’ve read related to the subject matter. This will help ease any potential concerns about a candidate’s ability to adapt to the content and subject and help you get to the phone screen.
Do your research and personalize, personalize, personalize.
Following up on the previous point, to better talk to us like humans it’s helpful to tailor your talking points to what you quickly learned about the company from the job description or the company website. And again, back to the first point, this isn’t to say you have to craft an entirely new cover letter every single time. Rather, think about what would get your attention if you were reading this letter and make sure you're writing it with the other person in mind.
Also consider: did you hear about the opportunity from a connection that directly knows the hiring manager? Did you apply in the past and are still interested? Make sure to include those details that help the hiring manager understand your interest and where those connections lie. We had a student who reapplied for the next internship opportunity after having interviewed with us during a previous cycle. However, their resume was the same, their cover letter was the same, and they didn’t address that they had spoken with us before and why they’ve reapplied. Reapplying after interviewing means that you’ve remained interested in the mission of the company and the impact you could help make. They invited you to the interview for a reason — help remind them why when you reapply!
If you used a specific brand style on your cover letter, have it match on your cover letter.
This is especially important if you’re applying for roles in the creative space as it shows brand consistency and attention to detail. Even if you’re not applying for a creative role, it is a surefire way to stand out when your entire application packet is cohesive. Are you vamping up your resume with a fancy template? Mirror that on your cover letter. Even better if your portfolio utilizes the same look and feel as well.
These tips are just starting points to help get your cover letter in shape. Huge caveat: You will receive a million different opinions on the same resume or cover letter. It’s your job to get those eyes on your paper (use your university’s career center, ask a friend, or ask a mentor!), curate those nuggets of feedback, and use it to inform how you want to adapt your application materials in a way that speaks to your values.
Coming soon: The Application Wants a Portfolio, Now What?
Read other pieces from The Internship Application Guide:
Coming soon: Putting Your Best Portfolio Forward
Coming soon: How to Stand Out in a Phone Interview
Coming soon: Making It Count in the "In-Person" Interview