Every time I write a new cover letter, I find myself saying, “Damn, I wish I had known this before I sent my previous cover letter.” I hate saying that. Cover letters can be really tricky to write, especially if it’s your first time writing one and I hate seeing other people make the same mistakes that I have made, which is why I decided to write this post (and basically start this blog). In my internship search experience (last year + this year), I have written three types of cover letters:
- One that got me an interview, and eventually, the position
- One that got me just an interview
- One that got me nothing
I am NOT a hiring team expert; I’m just a college kid like you looking for my bit of summer experience before I venture out into the real world. In other words, I, like you, still do not have the *perfect* cover letter writing formula that will get you an interview every time. But in the meantime, I do have some mistakes to share that I sure as hell will never make again — and mistakes that you’d want to hear about before it’s too late.
1. Don’t try to be overly funny.
I know you have a wonderful personality full of sarcasm, puns, and a love for cat sweaters (a.k.a. all of my favorite things) but don’t try too hard to be funny. If you’re pursuing an internship at a fun, vibrant company, you’ll feel like you need to express a bit of your personality there. I get this struggle, but I personally feel like it’s much better (and safer) to convey your passion for the company and its mission than to convey how good (you think) you are at cracking jokes while sounding professional. Being funny works if your joke is actually funny. There are some things that sound way better when you say it rather than write it. Show off your personality some other way. Remember that a hiring team will spend about 30 seconds looking at your cover letter; you don’t want those 30 seconds to be spent trying to figure out your joke.
2. Don’t basically re-write your resume.
I was warned against this many times. If you’re going to restate everything in your resume in your cover letter then what’s even the point of a resume? Your cover letter should hit on points that your resume doesn’t. Are you currently undertaking a huge multimedia project as video production assistant for your school’s athletics department? Did you hit huge goals during your time as contributing editor for your school magazine? Good, say that. If you did something that relates perfectly to the job you’re applying to, use your cover letter to briefly talk about it. This brings me to my next point…
3. Don’t be vague — show, don’t tell.
Don’t tell a hiring manager that you are good at time management. SHOW them. Were you able to balance seven classes, a part-time job, and your positions as student body president and writing center tutor? Awesome. These are details that show an employer that you’re an asset by providing specific examples. I didn’t back up lots of my claims in past cover letters, but I know to do that now thanks to advice from one of my professors.
4. Stop sending cover letters without getting a second opinion.
Go to a professor you trust or your school’s career center. And if your friends are master cover letter writers, go to them, too. Other people can usually catch things that you yourself can’t. Don’t be afraid of asking questions for clarification — it’s better to completely understand the mistake than to pretend you do and make it again later. Because people can be really busy and you don’t want to annoy them, you’ll have to plan ahead. If your deadline is Tuesday at noon, don’t email your cover letter to your best friend at midnight on Monday because that doesn’t give them a lot of time to read and edit. If anything, they’re probably already cranky from having to study for an upcoming test and not getting enough sleep. Do you really want someone who’s cranky editing your cover letter when it’s past their bedtime? Probably not.
5. Stop not sending your cover letter in the BODY of an email.
I recently found out about this tip and I’m SO MAD I didn’t hear about it before I sent out three cover letters as email attachments. If you send your cover letter as the body of an email rather than as an attachment, it ensures your cover letter gets read. And I don’t mean saying:
My name is such and such and I’m applying for the position of blah, blah, blah. Below, you will find my cover letter.
(begin cover letter)
Nope. I mean having your cover letter BE the email. It sounds kind of bold but it’s also pretty smart. What better way to make a potential employer read your cover letter? Of course, company instructions trump blog tips, so if the hiring team explicitly says send your cover letter and resume as email attachments, then do what they say. You could have written the world’s greatest cover letter but if you don’t follow instructions, you WILL be rejected.
6. Saying: Dear Sir/Madam
If you’ve written a few cover letters already, you probably know to never, ever address a cover letter like this. This is cover letter suicide. Do some expert digging and try to find the name of the hiring manager who will read your application material. It helps to know a bit about other positions at the company because sometimes there is a specific position that handles internships and you won’t even know it. Hint: If you’re applying for a position at a magazine, that position would be editorial assistant. It’s different for every company in every field, so make sure you do your research. If you can’t find the name of the person to address the cover letter to, you can say: Dear Hiring Team. It’s much better than “Sir/Madam” and a HELLUVA lot better than “To Whom It May Concern.”
What cover letter mistakes have you made and what are your tips?