4 tips for writing cover letters for job applications

For this week’s assignment, each student is identifying a media-related opportunity and writing a cover letter and resume to apply for that position.

Even though most of the 278 students in the course have written a cover letter before, most have never written a cover letter to apply for a position.  Here are four tips on writing cover letters based on their questions about the assignment and my observations about their letters.

1. Review your resume as a starting point for planning your cover letter.

Your resume includes lists, concise summaries and bullet points. Determine which of those should be pulled out and discussed in your cover letter.

2. Be specific rather than using broad statements.

One student’s cover letter included the statement that “I have extensive travel experience,” which she said would help her in a business setting better understand different cultures.

“So how extensive is your travel experience?” I asked her after she read that line from her cover letter. “Tell me the countries you’ve traveled to.”

“Japan, Korea, China, France, Germany, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico…”

I stopped her. “You’re right. That is extensive travel. But you need to provide some specifics in your cover letter. You don’t need to list every country, but you should say that you’ve traveled to Asia, Europe and South America and perhaps include examples of one or two countries you visited that have provided you with cultural insights.”

She hadn’t thought of listing continents or countries. She agreed that would help the person reading her cover letter better understand her travel experience.

3. If you can tell a story to help make a point about yourself, do so.

The student’s cover letter said that she wanted to work for her local newspaper because she had “many bright ideas” about how the newspaper could be improved.

“How have you come up with your  ideas about improving the newspaper?” I asked.

“I’ve always read that newspaper, and I can see how the newspaper could include a regular feature that would be popular.”

We discussed the fact that her parents have subscribed to the local newspaper for years and that she has been reading the newspaper regularly since elementary school.

Ah, that’s just what the local newspaper wants to hear – The story of a family of loyal readers with the college-aged daughter who really does have a good idea for a regular feature. I told her to tell the story of her reading the local paper and then move to her idea.

We agreed that most businesses are interested in new ideas and making productive changes but that she shouldn’t come across in her letter applying for an entry-level internship as being ready to tell the newspaper management what to change.

4. Determine how your experience illustrates strengths you could bring to an internship or job.

One student was concerned that most of her resume was a list of restaurant jobs. She didn’t have any experience that was media related and had few high school activities.

In talking with her, she explained that she has been responsible for many of her own expenses since she was 16. That’s why she had jobs instead of joining student organizations or playing sports.

That explanation became a part of her cover letter, telling about her financial responsibilities and time management skills.

Employers often are looking for two kinds of experience. They want to know about the experience that you have related to their particular business and the particular job. But they also want to know if you have employee skills – being on time to work, being able to work with the public, being honest and dependable.

When I asked the student about her work experience at one restaurant, she had opened and closed the business, handled money, trained employees and even had been given a key to the restaurant.

Those specific examples of her work experience became part of her cover letter, too.

One aspect I really enjoy about teaching are those discussions – with one student or the whole class – when you can see that “Now I get it!” look.  That happens in these conversations about cover letters, as the students recognize how they can do a better job of presenting who they are by providing specifics and telling stories.

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