Writing a compelling cover letter

Cover letters are typically considered less important documents than resumes and therefore, receive less attention. However, a well-written letter can help create a compelling reason for a hiring manager to respond to you and may tip the scale in your favor if your competition chooses not to use one.

The purpose of a resume is to communicate your accomplishments, experiences, education, and skills. The purpose of a cover letter is to explain to a hiring manager how your accomplishments, experiences, education, and skills add value to the specific needs of the organization or business. Simply put, a cover letter gives a compelling reason for the hiring manager to interview you.

A cover letter for an internship should answer four questions.

  1. Why am I a good fit for your organization?
  2. How are my qualifications well-matched for an internship within the organization?
  3. Why now?
  4. What should be the next step in pursuing an interview?

The answers you provide to these questions help the hiring manager understand how your resume fits the specific requirements of the internship. A cover letter allows you to draw similarities between your past and the employer's present needs. This helps the company understand how your skills, abilities and education can benefit the organization. A cover letter offers directions that point out how your strengths can be incorporated into the organization.

Cover letter content

A cover letter should be written with a focus on the employer's interests, NOT yours.

Think about the way you sort through mail at home. It is likely that the first thing you do is separate the priority mail and junk mail. If the envelope is addressed to "Current Resident," it is likely to end up in the trash. This is because you know that the information inside is general sales communication and not specific to you.

On the other hand, if you receive an overnight package from FedEx, you are likely to open it right away. The information is perceived as so important and time sensitive that the sender was willing to rush the delivery. The same holds true if the letter is sent in either a large envelope or in a fine linen envelope and addressed specifically to you.

The key point here is that if you perceive information to be important, you are more likely to pay attention.

Now imagine you receive a high quality linen envelope in the mail and your name and address are correct but there is no return address. You are likely to open it out of curiosity. If the first sentence says, "Our organization wants to sell you our latest product," you would likely throw it away because they are trying to sell you something.

However, if you have an interest in technology and the first sentence says, "Recognizing that you appreciate the latest in technology advancements, we are excited to introduce an innovative new product," your attention will be peaked, and you will read the next sentence.

In both scenarios, the company is trying to sell you something, but in the second approach, it makes the effort to create a compelling reason for you to want to know more about the product by making it more relevant to you.

People prefer to buy, not be sold. In order to buy something, you must need or want it. If no need exists, you are not buying, you are being sold something. When you buy something, you are fulfilling a need or creating a solution. It follows then, that in order for hiring managers to read your cover letter, you must identify their needs and utilize your letter to address the solutions you can offer to the organization.

Poorly written cover letters focus on your agenda. For example, a poorly written cover letter communicates the following information:

  • I am responding to the advertised position.
  • I am interested in this position.
  • I have developed strong skills through my past employment experiences.
  • I want to interview for the job.
  • Please call me.

Notice in this example almost every sentence starts with "I" and is focused on the writer's wants and interests. It is saying to the employer, "My wants and needs are important for you to know and once you understand what I am looking for, you should reach out to me and help me achieve my goals."

This type of cover letter does not answer any of the questions relevant to the employer. It does not create a need or describe the solutions you will provide. In fact, it puts the responsibility of your internship on the employer.

A well-written cover letter addresses the specifics of the organization, the position, and the action steps you will take to facilitate the interview/hiring process.

Customizing your cover letter

The more you customize your cover letter to reflect the specific needs of the organization, internship and industry, the better results you will achieve. Additionally, focus your cover letter on those elements of your resume that are most attractive to the organization.

For example, if the position is in sales, you may want to emphasize accomplishments, coursework and class projects that show not only your sales capabilities, but also your relationship and communication skills.

If you don't have direct work or academic accomplishments relating to the needs of the position you're interested in, then focus on your knowledge of the profession as it aligns with the needs of the organization.

Cover letters, like resumes, are formal documents; they need to be written on high quality paper, using a format that matches your resume and be no more than one page in length.

Cover letter formatting

Date

  • Full Name
  • Title
  • Organization
  • Address

Dear (Mr./Ms.) Last Name:

Note: If you are unable to obtain the name of hiring managers, then address them by their title or as the "hiring manager."

Alternate title examples--

  • Dear Human Resources Director:
  • Dear Hiring Manager:
  • Dear Selection Committee:
  • Dear Search Committee:

Do NOT use:

  • Dear Sir:
  • Dear Sir or Madam:
  • Dear Sirs:
  • To whom it may concern:

All of these are too vague and hold no one accountable to respond to your letter. At least with a title you can follow-up on your campaign by requesting the hiring manager responsible for the search.