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About 50 percent of the respondents to a recentStudent Health 101 survey think cover letters are essential for making a good impression on prospective employers, but 25 percent have never written one. What about you? Nicole B., a first-year graduate student at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, says, “I would love to know how to even start one.”

Quentin Schultze, author of Résumé 101: A Student and Recent-Grad Guide to Crafting Résumés and Cover Letters That Land Jobs, says you can’t underestimate the value of a strong cover letter. It’s the first thing a potential employer sees about you, and may be your one opportunity to make a great impression and be invited for the next step in the hiring process.

Here are the five questions to answer in a powerful cover letter:

1. Where are you applying?

Ken Heinzel, author of Private Notes of a Headhunter, spent years as a recruiter for high-level employees before becoming an instructor at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. He says, “You should be able to write a short paper” about any company to which you’re applying.

Do your research and demonstrate that your letter is about a particular position.

2. To whom are you writing?

Forget “To Whom It May Concern.” Find out the name of the hiring manager. If it’s not listed, call human resources (HR). Also ask if the person goes by Mr., Mrs., or another prefix. This demonstrates initiative and that you’re genuinely interested—not just applying blindly.

Heinzel says many people get jobs via networking: “Maybe a friend of a friend knows someone at the company,” he notes. If so, mention your connection in the cover letter. If you spoke with an HR representative, include that person’s name. This demonstrates attention to detail, and the person may put in a good word for you.

3. Why are you applying?

Put your purpose in your opening paragraph. Reference the job title that was posted and your objective. Explain why you want the job, and why you want to work at this company in particular. For example, Heinzel suggests mentioning a recent piece of news about the company and how that relates to your goals.

4. Why you?

This is the real meat of the letter. Explain why you’re right for the position that’s available (or for the company as a whole). You don’t want to sound like you’re bragging, but it’s important to talk about your skills, talents, and achievements—particularly as they relate to the job’s responsibilities.

Use specific examples whenever possible. They’re more convincing and you’re less likely to sound conceited.

For example, saying you were an amazing club president is vague. Instead, explain that as president of the club, you organized record-breaking fundraisers or increased attendance at events.

Be specific about successes you’ve had. Heinzel says companies want to hear about results.

Just remember to keep it succinct. Shreyans S., a senior at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, says, “You’ve had [many experiences] over a span of months and sometimes even years. [You need to fit them] in four short paragraphs.”

Schultze says your cover letter can mention volunteer work, school projects, and even personal stories—if they relate to the position for which you’re applying. “The employer is looking to hire a whole person,” he explains.

Ashley W., a senior at the University of Maryland in College Park, suggests, “You don’t want to repeat what’s in your résumé. Use the cover letter to elaborate on your experiences and how they’ve helped enhance your skills.”

5. Does the letter (therefore you) look good?

Always use spell-check and confirm that names of people and the company are correct. Reading the letter aloud can be a good way to detect awkward sentences. Find a second pair of eyes, too. Your school’s career services center is a good place to ask for help.

Finally, make sure you have all the headers in the right place and your paragraphs aligned properly. The font and formatting should match your résumé. If it’s a paper copy, sign it. If it’s electronic, make sure it’s saved in such a way that the formatting and information won’t change when transmitted and it will print well in black and white.

About half of the respondents to the Student Health 101 survey said they revise their cover letters slightly for each job application. That’s a start, but for most jobs it’s best to really individualize the contents. This will help you explain why you want this job at this company.

Andrew R., a junior at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, who has applied successfully for a few internships, says he has a “winning formula” for his cover letters. If you work at it, you can discover your own.

Take Action:

  • Direct your letter to a specific person.
  • Tailor cover letters to the requirements of each position.
  • Describe how your skills match what the job entails.
  • Provide concrete examples of your accomplishments.
  • Visit your school’s career center for help.

Cover Letter Contents

Here’s a general outline of a cover letter:

Paragraph 1: 
Explain why you’re writing. For what position are you applying, where did you see it posted, and why are you interested?

Paragraphs 2 & 3: 
Without repeating what’s on your résumé, explain why you’re right for the job. Use specific examples that relate to the position’s responsibilities.

Paragraph 4: 
Close your letter by thanking the reader and explain how you’ll follow up. For example, “I will call next week to connect with you,” or “I look forward to discussing the position with you.”

Use a simple sign-off, such as the classic “Sincerely.” Even if you’ll be signing the document, type your first and last names as well.

Keep it short! Cover letters should be no longer than one page.

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