Cover Letter Tips for College Students and Recent Grads

Cover Letter Tips for College Students and Recent Grads

By Chinh Ngo

Published on May 21, 2021

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Landing a job as a recent college graduate can be challenging, especially if you have little to no work experience. Fortunately, you can make up for a sparse resume with a strong cover letter. A well-crafted cover letter expands on the facts included in your resume, expresses a professional narrative, and demonstrates your ability to communicate effectively.

Aside from adding a personal touch, a good cover letter speaks directly to the requirements of the position you're applying for and succinctly sums up your personality, drive, skills, and accomplishments. Targeting keywords in the job description will also help your application get picked up by automatic application scanners and tracking systems.

In this guide, we show you how to write a cover letter, step by step. We'll look at formatting and go over what to include in a cover letter so that you immediately grab hiring managers' attention.

Research the Company Before Writing a Cover Letter

Research is one of the most important steps when applying for jobs. If you haven't researched the company you're applying for, how do you even know you want the job? Moreover, how could you possibly convince an employer you want a job if you know nothing about the company?

Learning more about an employer helps you tailor your cover letter to the company.

Learning more about an employer helps you tailor your cover letter to the company's mission, culture, and operations.

Start by analyzing the job description, paying close attention to the required and preferred skills. If skills are listed as required, ensure you point out each of these in your resume and cover letter, ideally using the same keywords from the job posting.

To research a potential employer, consult the company's website, industry publications, and social media. LinkedIn is a particularly useful tool for reading about companies' missions and hiring practices. You can also look for articles that mention the employer for details on past and current projects.

How to Format a Cover Letter

Choose a Professional Font and Font Size

Effective formatting visually organizes the content of your cover letter and reduces clutter that gets in the way of reader comprehension.

Pick the same standard font for both your cover letter and your resume. Options include Arial, Calibri, Courier New, Times New Roman, and Verdana. Depending on the font, text sizes between 10 and 12 pts should guarantee readability.

Use Appropriate Margins

Use 1-inch margins on all sides of your cover letter and ensure that the text is left-aligned. Some employers may want to print out your cover letter and add notes in the margins. Additionally, leaving extra space can improve the readability of a professional cover letter and help you avoid cramming in too much information.

How long should a cover letter be? Usually just one page. If your cover letter spills onto a second page, try removing unnecessary details. If you're still struggling to fit everything on one page, reduce your margins to around 0.75 inches. The key is to make sure your cover letter gets straight to the point.

Include a Heading With Contact Information

A traditional cover letter heading appears in the top-left corner and includes your contact information (i.e., your name, address, phone number, and email) in a single-spaced block of text, followed by the date and the company's contact information.

Alternatively, you may include your name in large lettering at the top and put your contact information on a single line beneath it (typically separating the different elements with colons, vertical lines, or some other symbol). This style is particularly useful for saving space.

Aim for Short Paragraphs

Keep your cover letter to 3-4 paragraphs, and keep paragraphs to 3-5 sentences. To illustrate your skills and respond to any application prompts, each paragraph should make specific points to convince hiring managers you're well suited for the job.

It's equally important, however, to keep these paragraphs concise and straightforward. Never send a cover letter with one or two huge blocks of text, as this immediately shows the employer you lack the ability to communicate effectively.

How to Write a Cover Letter: 7 Essential Tips

1. Address Your Letter to a Specific Person

The job search can feel anonymous, especially if you submit an online application, but it's crucial you make a good first impression by addressing your cover letter to the specific recruiter or hiring manager. After all, they're real people who will appreciate the time you took to find out who they are.

If the company website and your online searches fail to reveal a hiring professional's name and title, contact the employer directly and politely ask for the information. If you still can't find the hiring manager's name, you can begin your cover letter with "Dear Hiring Manager" or even the name of the team or department (e.g., "Dear Sales Department").

2. Craft an Engaging Opening

Hiring managers typically spend just a few seconds scanning a cover letter before deciding whether or not they want a closer look. This means you'll need to grab their attention within the first two sentences.

Try to insert keywords from the job posting wherever possible — and mention an accomplishment.

Let them know which position you're applying for while expressing excitement about the opportunity to use your skills for the benefit of the employer. Try to insert keywords from the job posting wherever possible.

You should also mention an accomplishment. Strive for quantifiable or demonstrable details relevant to the job in question. If your work experience is slim, think beyond paid work and draw from academic projects, internships, and volunteer experiences.

For example, a graphic design student who's won several art awards might write something like "I'm an award-winning graphic designer looking to enhance my portfolio and join a team that values both creative expression and user experience."

3. Go Beyond Your Resume

A good cover letter adds to the information included in your resume, not just repeats it. Use the letter to elaborate on important experiences, skills, and responsibilities, particularly any that led to notable successes. Explain how your college studies, extracurriculars, and any professional or volunteer experiences have helped you gain the qualifications listed in the job description.

It's fine to mention your major, especially if it directly relates to the job, but don't turn your cover letter into a monotonous overview of your academic history. If you have a high GPA, it's probably worth putting on your resume but not in your cover letter.

4. Highlight Relevant Experiences

The bulk of your cover letter should emphasize your professional readiness. Highlight the skills employers care about by showing how your work and college experiences have made you an effective leader, communicator, and/or team player.

Make sure to highlight the skills employers care about.

For example, if you're applying for an entry-level software engineer position, you could mention specific projects you completed in school or during a summer internship. Note any challenges you faced, how you worked either by yourself or with others to overcome them, and the positive results that came about from your efforts.

Or say you're applying to become a communication associate at a nonprofit. In that case, you might describe a time when you had to respond to an urgent situation with an effective communication strategy.

If you're struggling to contextualize your skills due to a lack of professional experience, consider other life situations or activities in which these skills were necessary.

5. Showcase Your Skills

Writing a college student cover letter can seem daunting because you may not fully satisfy the list of requirements. A lack of work experience, however, doesn't mean a lack of qualifications. One way to identify your qualifications is to match your transferable skills to those valued by the employer.

In its career readiness report, the National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies eight transferable skills employers look for in candidates. One competency is leadership, defined as the way in which a worker motivates a team and leverages the collective strength to achieve a common goal.

If you've got a knack for leadership, you can illustrate it in the context of a group project, athletic competition, or summer internship. Remember to always connect your skills back to the employer's needs.

6. Use Action Verbs

Employers want to know you can produce desirable results. Action verbs not only make your cover letter more engaging, but they also show you understand how to communicate in a direct, confident manner. Be sure to insert action verbs when describing your skills and any previous work experience.

For example, you might write phrases like "increased high-intent traffic," "coordinated a successful newsletter campaign," or "boosted sales in the first quarter." You can also use action verbs to integrate keywords into your cover letter without these terms sounding out of place.

Indeed maintains a list of nearly 200 action verbs you can use to get ideas.

7. Close Strong

The final paragraph of a college student or recent graduate cover letter needs to seal the deal and get you an interview. The excited tone of your letter should also convey confidence as you delve into the specific aspects of the job and company you find attractive. Detail the broad goals you wish to achieve in this position and how you plan to bring value to the employer.

Finally, express gratitude for the opportunity to apply and thank the hiring team for their time and consideration. You can also write that you'd be glad to discuss your qualifications more in person or over the phone.

Finalizing Your College Student Cover Letter

Carefully Edit and Proofread

When hiring managers sift through piles and piles of applications, a single spelling or grammatical error can destroy your chances of securing an interview. Once you finish the first draft of your cover letter, take a 24-hour break before going back to edit and proofread. Never rely solely on spellcheck to spot all typos.

Printing out your cover letter and reading it aloud can help you catch mistakes and inconsistencies more easily. As you read your cover letter, check that all contact information is correct and that your paragraphs are concise and cohesive.

Ask Someone to Look It Over

After an initial edit, recruit the assistance of a family member, peer, teacher, mentor, or advisor. By this point, you've spent a substantial amount of time with your letter, which may blind you to some obvious and not-so-obvious errors. By asking for feedback, you'll gain valuable insight into the clarity and cogency of your cover letter.


Feature Image: Westend61 / Getty Images

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