Cover Letter Tips for Students and Recent Grads
Landing a job as a recent college graduate is challenging, especially if you have little or 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 given in your resume, expresses a professional narrative, and shows recruiters and hiring managers you are an effective communicator.
Aside from adding a personal touch, a good cover letter speaks directly to the requirements of the position and reflects 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 that are increasingly used by employers.
The following guide provides cover letter tips for formatting, content creation, and revision that will help you stand out from other applicants.
Format Your 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 10-12 points guarantees readability.
Set the Margins
Use one-inch margins on all sides and ensure the text is left-aligned. Some employers may want to print your cover letter and make notes in the margins, and leaving extra space also improves the readability of your cover letter and prevents you from trying to cram in too much information.
If your cover letter breeches two pages, first consider removing unnecessary details. If you are still struggling to fit all the text, you can shorten the margins to around 0.75 inches until the cover letter is one page. These days, hiring managers are deluged with applications, so make sure your cover letter gets straight to the point.
Include Contact Information
Place your contact information in the top left corner, including your name, street address, city, state, and zip code, phone number, email address. Then, provide the date and the company's address. You should format each of these elements as their own single-spaced block of text with a space in between each block.
While the employer will most likely seek out information about your online presence, do not include a link to your portfolio, website, or social media unless they ask for it or unless it's a best practice in your industry.
Use Short Paragraphs
Keep your cover letter to 3-4 paragraphs and paragraphs to between 3-5 sentences. To illustrate your skills and respond to any application prompts, each paragraph should make specific points that convince hiring managers you are well-suited for the job.
However, it’s equally important to keep these paragraphs concise and straightforward. Never send a cover letter that is one or two large blocks of text, as this immediately shows the employer you don't know how to communicate effectively.
Do Your Research
Carefully Research the Job and Company
Research is the most important step in the application process. 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?
Obtaining information on 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 required and preferred skills. If the skills are listed as required, ensure you point out each of these skills in your resume and cover letter and use potential keywords.
To research an employer, consult the company website, industry publications, and social media platforms. Here, LinkedIn is a particularly useful tool, as it lists a company's mission and hiring practices on its profile. You can also find articles that mention the employer for information on past and current projects.
Write Your Cover Letter
Name the Hiring Manager and Company
The job search can feel anonymous, especially if you submit an online application, but it is crucial to make a good, personalized impression. Recruiters and hiring managers are real people who will appreciate the time you took to find out who they are.
If the company website and online searches do not yield a hiring professional's name and title, you can contact the employer directly and ask politely for the information. If you can't find the individual's name, you may begin the letter with "Dear Hiring Manager" or, if you're more old-fashioned, "To Whom It May Concern" is also acceptable.
Craft an Engaging Opening Statement
Hiring managers typically spend a few seconds scanning a cover letter before deciding whether or not they want a closer look. This means you need to grab their attention with the first two sentences. It pays to be direct. Let the reader know the position you are vying for and express excitement about the opportunity to use your skills for the benefit of the employer. Inject keywords where appropriate.
Support your claim of being a dedicated professional by briefly mentioning an accomplishment. Here, 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.
Go Beyond Your Resume
A cover letter should add to the information included in your resume, not just repeat it. Use the letter to elaborate important experiences, skills, and responsibilities, particularly ones that led to notable successes. Explain how your college studies and extracurriculars helped you gain qualifications listed in the job description.
Mention your major, especially if it directly relates to the job, but do not turn the cover letter into an overview of your academic history. If you mention your academic history, explain how your studies, seasonal/part-time/on-campus work, and extracurricular activities helped you gain the qualifications listed in the job description. If you have a good GPA, it may be worth mentioning in your resume, but not your cover letter.
Highlight the Right Experiences
After the opening statement, the bulk of the remaining cover letter should show your professional readiness. Highlight the skills employers care about by showing how your work or college experiences have made you an effective leader, communicator, or team player.
For example, if you are applying to become an entry-level software engineer, you can bring up specific projects you completed during your studies or during a summer internship. Note the challenges you overcame and how you worked with your team to overcome them, then bring up any positive results that came from your efforts.
If you are applying to become a communication associate at a nonprofit organization, you might describe a scenario in which you had to respond to an urgent situation with an effective communication strategy. If you are struggling to contextualize your skills due to a lack of work experience, consider other life situations or activities where these skills were necessary.
Showcase Your Skills
As a college student, writing a cover letter can seem daunting because you may not fully satisfy the increasingly long list of requirements for entry-level positions. However, a lack of work experience does not equal a lack of qualifications. One way to identify your qualifications is to match your transferable skills to those valued by the employer
In their career readiness report, the National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies eight transferable skills employers look for in candidates. One major competency is leadership, defined as the way in which a professional motivates a team and leverages their collective strength to achieve a common goal.
If you have a knack for leadership, showcase it in the context of a group project, athletic competition, or summer internship. As you relay an appropriate experience, remember to directly connect it back to the employer's needs.
Use Action Verbs
Ultimately, employers want to know that you can achieve results. Action verbs not only make your cover letter much more engaging; they show you understand how to communicate in a direct, confident manner. Apply action verbs when listing hard skills and previous work experience. For example, you might list accomplishments in the following manner: "Increased high-intent traffic," "Coordinated a 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 seeming out of place. A quick online search will yield list after list of action verbs, but use them thoughtfully to maintain textual clarity and an accessible tone.
If the first paragraph needs to grab the hiring manager's attention, the last paragraph needs to seal the deal and get you an interview. The excited tone of your cover letter should also convey confidence as you explain what specific aspects of the job or the company you find attractive. Detail the broad goals you wish to achieve in the position or how you plan to bring value to the employer.
Finally, express gratitude for the opportunity and thank the hiring team for their time and consideration. You can also express how you would be glad to discuss your qualifications more in person or over the phone.
Finalize Your Cover Letter
Carefully Edit and Proofread
The job application process is competitive regardless of industry. When recruiters are sifting through piles of applications, a spelling or grammatical error can ruin your chances of getting an interview. After completing a first draft of your cover letter, take a 24-hour break. Then edit carefully, without relying entirely on spellcheck to spot all typos.
For most people, printing out the cover letter and reading it out loud is the best way to make effective close edits. Check for the accuracy of personal information, cohesion between paragraphs, and consistency in your narrative.
Have Someone Else Read Your Cover Letter
After an initial edit, recruit the assistance of a peer, teacher, mentor, or, if you currently attend college, a writing center counselor.
At this point in the writing process, you have spent a substantial amount of time with the text, which may blind you to obvious and not-so-obvious errors. By asking for feedback, you will gain valuable insight into the clarity and persuasiveness of your cover letter. You’ll also have an opportunity to ask someone you trust about their job search experiences.