Cover Letter 101

Cover letters can feel a bit like your job search thesis. It serves not only as your story, but a writing sample. Think of it this way, if you can’t write about yourself—a subject about which you are the undisputed expert—in an articulate and compelling way, how can you write something for a client or an organization?  Telling your story and selling your experiences isn’t always so easy so here are some tips to get you started.

1.  Tailor it.  Even companies and hiring managers want to feel special.  They can spot a templated cover letter from a mile away.  Avoid this by tailoring each and every cover letter you send.  In the first paragraph make sure to discuss why you are interested in the position and why that company/organization.  And not just that it’s a “great company” or you “like their mission.” Take it a step further – why is it a great company and what do you identify with as part of their mission?

2. Make sure it’s a final draft.  Cover letters, like resumes, often get tossed aside due to typos and other errors. Make sure yours is error free, your grammar and punctuation is correct, and you are using the proper business format.  The number one way to make sure your cover letter and resume make it to the trash bin is by including the wrong company name (you’d be surprised how much this happens)!  Double check you are submitting the correct version before you hit “send.”

3. Format for ease.  Send a pdf version if possible to avoid conversion issues.

4. Make it short & sweet. Cover letters should take up no more than a page, typically about 3 paragraphs.

  • Paragraph 1: Indicate the position  you are applying for and why you are interested in that position with that company/organization (see #1). It also includes a brief synopsis of your skill set.
  • Paragraph 2: This is the most important paragraph, summarizing the top 2-3 skills you bring to the table with specific examples.  This is the one that difficult to nail.  Package your experience/background/skills in a way that addresses exactly what the organization seeks in candidates.  Make sure the skills you discuss are relevant to the job description and the skills they are seeking. Do NOT just repeat your resume. Provide the context and connect the dots. Tell your story.
  • Paragraph 3:  Reiterate your interest and contact information.

5.  Avoid “To Whom It May Concern.”  If possible, determine the hiring manager and address it to them directly. This can often be researched online or via networking with contacts at that company or organization.

6. Email vs. Attachment?  If you are e-mailing a resume and cover letter, you have two options. You can put the cover letter in the message section of the e-mail itself or you can attach it (ideally as a pdf). If you attach it, make sure you include some type of message in the email body referencing the attached cover letter and resume. Of course, you should follow directions if an employer requests a specific way to send your cover letter and resume.

7. Eliminate the fluff.  Interpersonal skills… multi-tasking skills… enthusiastic… passionate. All fluff. UNLESS you are able to provide specific examples.  Instead of just saying you multi-task well, prove it.  Anyone can say they are enthusiastic even if they are the company Eeyore.  Prove your enthusiasm by showcasing your research into the position and company.

8.  Think about your story.  How does your combination of skills, education, and experience set you apart from the competition?

9.  Do your homework.  Make sure you not only research the company and position but demonstrate that research in your cover letter.  Part of this is knowing your audience and making sure that both the skills discussed in your cover letter, as well as the tone of your cover letter, align with the position and company/organization.  A cover letter for an investment bank will likely read differently than one for a start up.  Companies are looking for “cultural fit.”

10.  Be a problem solver.  At the end of the day, that’s what companies and managers are looking for.  They want someone who will make their job easier.  Prove that you can do that. 

How have you made your cover letter stand out?  Check out our webinar archive for cover letter related webinars like this one.

Getting Out of Newb Status

Many of you may know Leadership Coach John Keyser (C’59), a very loyal Hoya who has presented almost a dozen webinars and can be seen in the stands at every basketball game.  Through his company Common Sense Leadership, John works with executives and business owners to help them develop higher energy, collaborative and more loyal teams.  Anyone who knows John or reads his weekly Ideas & Advice blog can attest to the weight that John places on relationship building, which he believes starts with active listening skills and meaningful conversations.

I 100% agree with John’s viewpoints, and enjoyed reading this week’s blog post that focused on his favorite subject. John writes about his friend (let’s just call him Tim), who also places an emphasis on meaningful connections in the workplace.   After starting at a new company, Tim asked his boss for the names of 20 people he should make an effort to get close with in the organization.  In each of those 20 conversations he had, Tim came prepared with thoughtful questions and asked for recommendations on additional colleagues he should speak to for advice.  After just a brief time at this new and unfamiliar place, Tim is not equipped with organization knowledge and a roladex of colleagues he may otherwise have never come across.

As Bridget pointed out recently, one of your most important assets in a new position is understanding the office culture (personalities, politics, policies, go-to people, etc.).  While you may feel overwhelmed and see internal networking as additional work to pile on to your brand new duties, know that it will only increase the value of your presence and contributions.  As these interactions may take place in the form of a scheduled coffee date, or wind up occurring unexpectedly at the water cooler, here are some trusted moves for successfully investigating your workplace culture:

1.  Asking [appropriate] questions.  Even if your colleague speaks bluntly or succumbs to gossip, keep your comments objective.  Especially as a new employee, you never know who is listening or repeating what you say.

2.  When someone provides you with information, LISTEN!  Active listening is a skill to be practiced, and it shows great respect to your conversation partner.  If you do not show interest, why would they feel the need to share their knowledge with you in the future?

3.  Do your research on your colleagues area of expertise so you can compliment them on their work. This personal touch will go a long way.

4.  Keep it light, or serious, or both!  That sounds annoying, but you have to read the situation and figure out whether you colleague wants to keep the conversation a bit more fun and social, or if it’s the kind of person that does not want their time wasted at all and only wants to talk professional strategy.

5.  Build on the initial conversation.  Stay in touch by inviting your colleague to lunch, sending them an article that pertains to their department, or stop to ask how they are doing if you see them in the office.  Remember comments from previous conversations and circle back to them later on.

6.  Be ready for rejection.  Not every person you speak with will be helpful, warm, or want to be friends with you.  Stay professional and graceful, and over time prove that you are a great colleague.

Career Infographic Round Up: Our Favorites






Most Asked Job Interview Questions

Women at work: The trends are slowly changing #women #career #infographic


Should you ask for a raise? #Career #Infographic

Nailing the Internal Interview

If you are looking to get ahead in your organization don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to step up.  Put yourself out there!  Applying for an internal promotion/new position within your company?  Here’s what you need to know.

1.  Rest on your laurels. Know your reputation before you interview. Are you known as being a team player?  Intrapreneur? Getting things done?  Capitalize on that!  Know your personal brand and speak to it in your interview by providing specific examples.

2.  Don’t rest on your laurels. Yes, this is the opposite of what I said above and yes this is purposeful.  While you need to know your personal brand within the office and highlight the strengths of your brand, you also can’t rely on it.  Make sure you take this interview just as seriously even if you know the interviewers. Just because you’re known internally for being a great employee doesn’t mean you don’t have to answer the questions well in an interview.  Don’t assume that just because you work at the organization the interviewer is going to know your accomplishments.  Even if they do, it’s okay to remind them of the highlights.

3. Treat it like any interview… but this time you have an advantage. Wear a suit even if you don’t wear a suit every day to the office.  Send a thank you note to your interviewer even if it’s a colleague in the cube next to you. Ask questions – don’t assume that because you work there you know it all.

4.  Research the future instead of the past. In a normal interview you need to research the organization extensively. In this case you have been doing research the entire time you’ve been working there.  Take a step back and think about how the new position is different, consider if it is in a different department or on a different team.  Instead of doing baseline research, you can wow them with your insights. Instead of answering only with your past experience, you can talk about future directions based on historical knowledge.

5. Don’t assume you will get the job. Just because you are an internal candidate doesn’t mean you’ll get the job.  The process is competitive so treat it as such.

6. Among friends? Interviewing with colleagues and friends can be awkward. Even if you are friends/colleagues with those involved in the process, you can have a familiar tone but make sure you remain professional.  Be up front with them that you may repeat things they already know but that you want to be thorough in your answers. Also consider how this will affect your relationships with friends/colleagues if you will be managing them in the new position – it may come up in the interview.

The age old question is whether to tell your boss about applying for the new position.  The age old answer is… it depends.  A good manager will want you to succeed and grow within the organization. If you have a positive relationship with your boss, honesty is the best policy.  You don’t want them hearing through the grapevine before you have an opportunity to address it yourself.  If you have a challenging relationship with your boss this can be a tough conversation and you need to determine how this will impact your relationship with them whether you get the job… or don’t get the job.

Starting A New Job? Tips for Making the Transition

Starting a new job?  The first few weeks can be a combination of being overwhelmed and bored all at the same time! It’s not always possible to truly “hit the ground running” – you may not own your projects fully quite yet and you haven’t learned just how to get things done in the company or organization.  Here are a few tips to hopefully make the transition a bit smoother.

1. Listen.  If you jump in too quick and forget to listen and learn first it can really rub people the wrong way.  Take a bit of time to learn the ropes, hear about the history of various projects, teams, and initiatives, and understand your stakeholders.  You need to do a little market research before you can make an appropriate and informed impact. 

2.  Learn the culture.  It’s the little idiosyncrasies of company culture that  can be tough to pick up on… So don’t be afraid to ask.  For example, how are meetings coordinated? Are people more apt to use email or phone for quick questions?

3.  Go on tour.  Meet with key stakeholders, members of other teams you may interact with as well as teams you may not interact with as much.  Learn the entire organization so you can understand the big picture of the impact of your work.  Start with those closest to your role and then go from there.  There may be opportunities for collaboration and innovation that haven’t happened in the past.

4.  Learn the language.  What office lingo do people use or not use and what does that lingo mean in this particular organization (it can vary slightly from company to company).  Learn the acronyms. Learn the stock phrases.  Learn the voice of the organization.

5.  Get to know your boss.  What is most important to them?  What are their pet peeves and preferences?  Don’t be afraid to ask those questions! Check out our post on managing up to learn more!

6.  Play the “new” card..  Use it as an excuse to learn and connect with people across the organization!

7.  Be entrepreneurial.  While you’re waiting to fully “own” your projects figure out smaller ways to make an impact.  Prove your value by identifying some problems and solutions.  In the absence of work or direction in the first few weeks, don’t just check facebook! Keep busy by creating your own projects and concept papers to be presented later.

8.  Find other newbies.   You can learn the ropes together.

9.  Look around. Notice people’s schedules, the dress code, what people do for lunch, how people interact.  Just paying attention can teach you alot about the organization.

10.  Ask questions. But not too many.  There is definitely a balance between asking questions so that you learn what you need to know for your new position and being able to seek that information out and learn on your own.  Our advice: try to find the information first or, at least the person with the information, before you ask your manager. Managers value those who do research and are autonomous when appropriate.

When all else fails, baked goods can always help make a few friends!  What are your tips for navigating the first few weeks of a new job?

Top 5 Issues We See in Alumni Resume Reviews

Did you know Alumni Career Services provides free virtual resume and cover letter reviews?  
You can simply submit your resume and/or cover letter to with a brief description of the types of things you will be using it for and a member of our staff with respond via email with a critique within 10 business days.  Did I mention this service was free?  For full details visit our website.   In the meantime, get a head start  by reviewing the 5 most common pieces of advice we provide alumni in their critiques.

1.  You need a stronger professional summary.  Once you have gained significant experience in your industry/field (generally 10+ years post graduation), a summary statement is a great way to highlight key skills and strengths. It allows you to highlight themes in your work experience and skills.  Check out our recent blog post dedicated to the dreaded professional summary.

2. Consider a functional format.  Functional resumes can be particularly useful during career transitions to emphasize transferable skills or if you are re-entering the workforce and you want to de-emphasize a gap on your resume. Functional resumes organize your accomplishments by skill area (i.e., management experience, communications experience, technical expertise, etc) with employer information (organization, title, and time frame) listed at the end of the resume).

3.  Consider length.  Given the fact that recruiters only have a few seconds to take in all that is on your resume, typically resumes should not go over 2 full pages. In order to maximize the space on the page try increasing your margins to .5 all the way around and decreasing the point size between sections to 5. You can also try decreasing your font size but we do not recommend going below a 10 point font.  Check out our recent blog post on maximizing space on your resume.

4.  Create your bucket lists.  It is often a good idea to group like experiences into categories. Some examples may include “Related Work Experience,” “Leadership Experience,” “Community Outreach,” “Higher Education Experience,” “Research Experience,” “Writing Experience,” etc.  Always put the most relevant/important groupings toward the top. These “buckets” will help a recruiter very quickly be able to glean information about your skill set/experiences.

5.  Don’t undersell! Often alumni sell themselves short in their employment descriptions. Quantify where possible to give the reader a sense of scope. For example, budget numbers, employee numbers, business size, etc would all help paint a picture of your work and just how busy you are! Additionally, you may be able to give a bit more detail in some cases. For example, go through your bullet points and for each ask who? what? and how? Are you providing the reader with not only the task but the process and accomplishment associated with it?

Check out our recent webinar on Resumes, Interviewing, & the World of Work along with many others about resume writing on our YouTube channel:

Collecting No’s

Tonight’s homework: collecting no’s.

First, I must give credit where credit is due.  Joe Scafidi (B’95) casually mentioned the concept of “collecting no’s” when I ran into him an a Hoya networking event. I was immediately and enthusiastically intrigued. In fact, I think I might have scared him with how I reacted to this little exercise. It’s brilliant on so many levels.  It’s a short experiment in human nature and social behavior, but one that has daily implications.

The concept is this: ask people for things. See what they say.  And you’ll probably be surprised how often the answer is yes. Ask a stranger for an umbrella.  A professor for an extension on a deadline. Ask your boss to leave early.  Ask someone for career advice.  The only rules are you can’t ask the same person twice and each ask must be different.  What you typically learn is that very rarely is the answer no and that everything can be a negotiation.  The question is, how many asks do you need to make in order to get 10 no’s? Probably more than you think.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Just ask.  Someone once told me that FEAR stands for “False Expectations About Risk.” Many times we assume the answer is no before we even ask so we don’t even bother.
  • We all want to be liked. Human nature general seeks to please (or at least makes us feel like it’s socially unacceptable to say no).  This works in your favor when you are the one asking, but also provides lessons for those of us who can’t say no to the barrage of requests that abound daily.  The fact is, it’s often easier for people to say yes than to risk conflict and if the ask is in the future it’s easy to say yes in the present.
  • It’s all about the negotiation.  Things are rarely as black and white as “yes” and “no.” How do you get to the place of “yes” by understanding the needs and wants of the other party?  If you’re really negotiating there isn’t a “winner” or “loser,” you both walk away happy.
  • It’s all in how you ask. How can you ask in a way that makes it even tougher to say no?

And some implications:

  • The good news: When it comes to career networking and reaching out to acquaintances and strangers for advice, this is great news. People will probably say yes more often than they say no.  If there is a mutual connection (friend, alma mater, etc.) I would venture to guess that this increases the likelihood of yes.
  • The bad news: When it comes to our own time management and work/life balance this tendency toward yes works against us.  We over commit and wonder why we are stressed and exhausted.

Let us know how your “collecting no’s” goes!  Tweet us at #GUCollectNos

Phone Interview How To’s

Phone interviews are used more and more as a round one screening process. They are time and cost effective. For the most part, preparation is similar to a regular interview. Do your research. Connect with the interviewer. Give specific examples.  Know your story.  Know your strengths.  Listen. Ask questions. Send a thoughtful thank you note. What can be intimidating about the phone interview is the limited visual and verbal feedback we come to rely on in social situations.  While that’s great because they can’t tell if you’re twirling your hair, it can also be a bit disconcerting.

Here are a few tips to make your next phone interview a bit more comfortable.

1.  Don’t drop the call.  If possible, take the call from a land line.  If you need to take the call from your cell make sure you have good coverage and a full battery.  Make sure you have the interviewer’s phone number in case something happens with your service.  And in case we need to state the  obvious: take the call from a quiet location.  No dogs, babies, traffic, wind, or slot machines in the background.  If you are currently employed, step out of the office.  Do NOT huddle in the corner of your office whispering.  Not only will the interviewer not be able to hear you, but you’ll be more nervous about someone overhearing you than the content of your answers. Finally, do NOT take the call on speaker.  There is nothing worse than the vortex of speaker phone.

2.  It’s open book.  Feel free to have notes in front of you, including your resume and cover letter and any research you have amassed on the company.  Hopefully it goes without saying that research should be done prior to the call, not during the call.  That being said having the company website up on your computer can help in a pinch. Take notes during the interview but don’t type the notes.  The noise is distracting and may lead them to believe you aren’t fully focused on the conversation.  Finally, have a glass of water in front of you – you’ll be doing a lot of talking!

3.  Short & sweet.  Phone interviews are usually fairly short – typically about 30 minutes.   Consequently, keep your answers concise. You may not be able to go into every single detail of every single example you provide and your interviewer knows that.  The point is to give them enough information that they want to bring you in for an in-person interview.

4.  Picture perfect. Put a face with the name. See if you can Google the interviewer and have a picture up on your computer screen.  At least then you can visualize the feedback you may be receiving.

5.  Be nimble. Your interviewer may call a few minutes early or a few minutes late – be ready! That being said, an employer also may call you unannounced.  If that is case, and the timing doesn’t work for you it is perfectly acceptable for you to ask to select an alternative time.  Just make sure they know that you are still enthusiastic about the position and speaking with them.

Many people advise wearing professional clothing during a phone interview.   Others advise smiling while you talk in order to convey your enthusiasm and personality.  I find these to be personal preferences and they may work for you or may not. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend spouting your proudest accomplishments while laying on your couch.  Or before your morning coffee. Or while looking the mirror.  Because that’s just awkward.

Any tips we’re missing? We want to know!