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.

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:

Job Posting Site Roundup

There are a million job search and job posting websites out there… I have found that I continually recommend a few to people depending on their interest areas. Here they are:

GU Alumni Job Postings-
General –
Higher Education –
Non Profit –
Publishing –
Journalism –
Philanthropy –
Local Government –
Independent Education-
Human Resources –

What are your favorites? We’ll add them to the list!