Career corner: Crafting a creative cover letter that will get you the job

A cartoon person with a red tie writes a cover letter while thinking about different aspects of a cover letter (strengths, knowledge, awards, etc.).
Graphic by Annie Wu

Like resumes, there are several ways to write a good cover letter. Here are some tips to help your letter go above and beyond based on some of my favorite letters I’ve seen as a career consultant, as well as a few basics to keep things neat and easily readable.

The first thing you should know is that a cover letter is what it sounds like: an introduction to your application. The goal of a cover letter is to allow the reader to become acquainted with your most relevant experiences and your interest in their organization.

So it’s a resume, but with more words? Not quite. What you include in your cover letter should highlight something on your resume, but it shouldn’t just regurgitate the same information. 

Think of the phrase your high school English teacher said: “Show, don’t tell.” Cover letters are for demonstrating rather than listing qualifications.

As intimidating as it may seem, writing a cover letter is actually very similar to writing an essay, but about yourself and your goals rather than the book you read for class. Like papers you’ve written at school, cover letters have an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. However, cover letters are (thankfully) much shorter than the average essay — about three-quarters to a full page, single spaced. 

The introduction paragraph of a cover letter is the best place to describe specifically why you want to work for said organization. Maybe you aren’t big on being around kids, but there must be a reason you’re applying to work in a mentorship program. Anecdotes — maybe you listened to NPR since you were eight years old and want to intern there — are a good way to show interest. 

My usual strategy is to check out an organization’s mission, vision or values statements. Try to be real and specific about why you want to work there, and don’t forget to sprinkle a basic introduction of who you are in the first paragraph, too. Your school, major and class year are a good baseline, and if it’s relevant, you can also incorporate that information into the “interest” piece.

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Before you get too far into writing an essay, you want to understand the prompt. In this case, that’s the job description. 

Seek out keywords that describe the role and its qualifications, like “strategic thinking” or “teamwork,” and try to think of what examples you can provide from your experiences in one to two body paragraphs. At the end, integrate your story like you would a quote in an analytical essay — include a sentence that analyzes how your experience fits the company’s needs. 

Since recruiters look at many cover letters, make it easy for them to connect the dots on why you’re a good fit. Your cover letter should be tailored to the position you’re applying for in a way that makes it crystal clear to the person reading it how your experiences fit the criteria listed in the job description.

That’s not to say you can’t have a stock cover letter, but you still should try to make some customizations to the employers you’re reaching out to. If you have interests in several areas, maybe have a stock letter for each area, since the government probably isn’t as interested in the music you’ve produced as much as a record label would be.

Your conclusion can be short; mine is usually two or three lines. Just say your thesis (why you’re a good candidate), thanks for reading and that you’re looking forward to further discussing your qualifications.

As far as formatting goes, use the same template as your resume, but make the font size a bit more standard — 11- or 12-point is probably easiest on the eyes.

Last, but not least, like any good essay, you need to do your research. Who will be looking at your application? Address your letter to the name of a person if there’s one listed on the posting, or simply put “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Program Coordinator,” whichever seems more accurate. “To whom it may concern” is a bit too open-ended.

Personally, what I love about working on cover letters is hearing about each student’s diverse experiences and helping rethink the resume bullets into a narrative. The best cover letters I’ve read are the ones where the student tells a story that makes me want to learn more. Ultimately, you want the reader to be curious enough to request an interview.

Like an essay, how you develop your cover letter is largely up to your discretion. It may take a few tries to get it how you want it, but don’t let that discourage you from telling your story.

Got career-related questions? Submit them to olivia.truesdale@tsl.news or anonymously at bit.ly/CareerCornerTSL.

Olivia Truesdale SC ’21 is TSL’s career columnist. She is a career consultant at Scripps Career Planning & Resources and currently studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea. She encourages you to check out the resources available at your campus career center.

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