Tailoring Your Cover Letter in Four Easy Steps
By Laura Riley
Laura Riley is a writer who specializes in career advice and professional development. She has a master’s degree in student affairs and higher education from Miami University.
As we’ve discussed in our full “How to Write a Cover Letter” guide, one of the most important part of your internship or job cover letter is demonstrating how you match the requirements outlined in the job description—aka tailoring your cover letter. You have less than one page to highlight how you match your would-be employer’s very specific needs. To ensure you check every box, we’re going to use a handy four-step process:
- Highlight the job description.
- Select three job responsibilities you want to focus on in your cover letter.
- Identify three of your accomplishments that are relevant to those responsibilities.
- Connect your accomplishments to the qualifications the employer seeks.
Now, let’s review how to tailor your cover letter step by step.
Step 1: Highlight the job description
The job description is basically your cheat sheet; it shows exactly what the employer is looking for so that you can reflect those qualities and responsibilities in your cover letter.
Either print a hard copy and grab a highlighter or copy and paste the job description into your word processing program. Then, make note of the core responsibilities, preferred qualifications, keywords, patterns, and/or themes. A job description will typically label the core responsibilities, required qualifications, and preferred qualifications, but there won’t be any sections titled “Keywords” or “Themes.” This is where you have to do a little work.
You need to read through the job description and determine what is most important to the employer. Ask yourself: What words are repeated throughout the job description? What responsibilities are emphasized?
Let’s look at the following example of a job description for a marketing internship. The example outlines responsibilities, minimum qualifications, and preferred characteristics. Carefully read through each section.
Marketing Internship Job Description
- Conduct social media marketing campaigns
- Collect quantitative and qualitative data
- Perform market analysis and research on competitors
- Collaborate with co-interns and marketing team to analyze data
- Support marketing team in daily administrative tasks
- Present findings to marketing team
- Sophomore or junior standing
- Pursuing a bachelor’s degree
- Interested in marketing and/or business-related career
- Effective written and verbal communication skills
- Pursuing a degree in marketing, business, graphic design, communications, or a related area of study
After reviewing this job description, you’ll quickly see that the employer is looking for an intern who is interested in social media marketing and data analysis. After further review, you can also conclude that they’re seeking an intern who is an effective communicator. How? Well, the job description not only requires someone with “effective written and verbal communication skills,” but the intern must also be able to “collaborate” with colleagues and “present findings to the marketing team.” Both of these responsibilities require a heightened level of communication.
That’s a pattern or theme. After reviewing the job description in detail, you observe a common thread across multiple bullet points. Use this knowledge to your advantage.
We’ve now identified social media, data analysis, and communication skills as themes. It’s clear that they also want someone who can conduct research and perform administrative tasks. These tasks require organizational skills, dependability, and the ability to work on a team. You might see even more as you read through the example.
Okay, so you’ve reviewed the job description and highlighted the core responsibilities and qualifications. Do you write about all of them? Probably not. After all, a cover letter needs to be short and sweet.
So how do you determine what to focus on? This is where step two comes in.
Step 2: Select three job responsibilities you want to focus on in your cover letter
Now, you need to choose which of the many responsibilities you want to focus on in your cover letter. Unless the job description is very short—and the company only highlights three requirements—it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to discuss every single requirement in your cover letter.
So, you need to determine what the company values most. At the same time, take into consideration your own experience and qualifications. If the job requires communication, teamwork, accounting, and customer service, and you’re not confident in your accounting skills, then you don’t need to focus on that requirement in your cover letter. A crucial caveat: if accounting skills are listed as a minimum required qualification, then you’re probably not qualified for the role.
Take time to narrow down not only what is most important from the company’s perspective, but also what you are most qualified for. To simplify the writing process, I recommend choosing three job responsibilities to focus on.
In our marketing internship example, let’s focus in on communication skills, social media, and research. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready for step three.
Step 3: Identify specific accomplishments that are relevant to those responsibilities
After you’ve identified three job responsibilities—as outlined in the job description—you need to identify specific accomplishments that are relevant to those responsibilities. Keep in mind that you should only highlight your most relevant accomplishments. Consider all your classes, clubs, jobs, and extracurriculars. Think about what you’ve learned and ask yourself if it’s relevant to this specific role. For example, one way to highlight your communication skills might be:
After reviewing the job description, it is clear that XYZ Company values effective communication. As your marketing intern, I would leverage my experience as a member of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping members develop public speaking and leadership skills. The Toastmasters community provides an inclusive, team-oriented environment in which all members motivate each other through honest and clear feedback.
Now, it’s time to put those puzzle pieces together.
Step 4: Connect your accomplishments to the qualifications the employer seeks
You now have three job qualifications and three accomplishments. You just need to connect the dots. Building on our example above, you want to link the other two responsibilities (social media and research) to two more accomplishments to show why you’re a great candidate. A tailored body section using our handy four-step process would then look like this:
After reviewing the job description, it is clear that XYZ Company values effective communication and teamwork. As your marketing intern, I would leverage my experience with Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping members develop public speaking and leadership skills. The Toastmasters community provides an inclusive, team-oriented environment in which all members motivate each other through honest and clear feedback.
In my day-to-day coursework, I’ve made the Dean’s List four semesters in a row, taking a variety of courses that necessitate strong research and organizational skills. After class ends, I volunteer as the social media coordinator for Furry Friends, a local animal shelter. Since joining the organization, I’ve increased their Facebook followership by 11% (thanks, Google Analytics!) and rebranded their long-dormant Instagram account. I love strategizing on how timing, formatting, and voice impact our reach and engagement.
That’s all there is to it. This method will see you through any application, with a fully tailored, super persuasive cover letter. Time to get writing!