A cover letter is the letter that you send an employer along with your resume.
When you’re explicitly asked to write “a cover letter” to apply for a job, the letter should be a business-style letter, complete with formal salutation and signature. It should convey your enthusiasm for the position, along with your understanding of what they job entails. It should also draw connections between the experience you’ve outlined on your resume and the requirements of the position you’re applying for. Sometimes such a letter is called a “job application letter” or a “statement of interest.” If you’re explicitly asked for a cover letter, it’s probably best to make it an email attachment, like your resume, rather than writing an email that serves as a cover letter.
Sometimes job or internship ads do NOT explicitly ask for a cover letter–they ask you to fill out an online application, download a resume, email a resume, send in writing samples, or some combination thereof, and and the words “cover letter” never appear. In these cases, the absence of a cover letter may not be fatal. Still, it’s an opportunity to highlight your strengths (including your excellent writing skills), your enthusiasm for the position, and your professionalism. A cover letter can be one of the documents you upload for an online application, or it can be the email you send with your resume as an attachment. Whatever form it takes, this letter should do the same work as the formal letter described above: it should express your enthusiasm for the position, convey your understanding of what the job entails, and detail how your experience matches the requirements of the job.
The length and style of an effective cover letter varies from industry to industry. The rule that “shorter is better” doesn’t necessarily apply to the kinds of communication-rich jobs that English department majors gravitate to, nor is it always the case that a cover letter has to be dry and formal. For some kinds of marketing and media jobs, it’s important to demonstrate your wit and originality alongside your professionalism. If your “fit” for a particular job isn’t self-evident from your resume, it’s worth taking a risk on a longer letter that persuasively conveys the relevance of your work experience and your passion for the business. For these reasons, it’s important to
- Read the job ad carefully
- Do your research
- Use your network (if you have one)
Read the job/internship ad carefully. If there are words or phrases in it that you do know or can only guess at, look them up! Are there words or phrases that occur more than once? Make sure you use them in your cover letter to demonstrate your understanding of the position and your fit with the company. Note each of the “requirements” for the job, particularly the ones at the top of the list, and think about how you can emphasize your ability to meet those specific requirements. Keep in mind that the audience for this letter is not interested in you as a person–only in your ability to do the job.
Do your research. Look up the company or organization website. If the company works in an industry you’re unfamiliar with, read up on the industry. Read up on their current projects, find their mission statement, learn as much as you can. Use this information to convey your enthusiasm in a way that is specific to that job and that organization. Also: if you don’t know who to address the letter to, call the company to find out the name of the person doing the hiring.
Use your network. We all have networks, whether we think we do or not. Have you met someone in one of your classes doing an internship like the one you’re applying for? Does your roommate’s aunt work in an office that frequently hires professional staff? Did your cousin just land a job after being unemployed for a while? Have you found someone in the Alumni Mentoring Network who works in the field you’re hoping to enter? All of these kinds of people can help you figure out whether your letter hits the mark: you don’t have to go it alone. There’s nothing wrong with asking for feedback and advice from people who may know more than you do. You may get conflicting advice, but if you also get reasons for that advice, you can pick and choose what makes the most sense for your situation. Just make sure you pay the favor forward once you land a job.
There’s lots of advice out there to help you craft a good cover letter for the job you want. Some good places to start:
31 Attention-Grabbing Cover Letter Examples (from themuse.com; if you steer carefully through the ads-masquerading-as-copy, you can find good and up-to-date advice on this site)