As a career counselor, I cringe every time I hear someone say they’re using a cover letter “template”, meaning they’re using the same cover letter for every job application.
What’s a cover letter and why should I write one?
If you’ve never heard of a cover letter before, it’s a letter that goes along with your resume when applying to jobs. Its purpose is to show an employer why you’d be a good fit for the position to which you are applying, and can promote you in a way the resume can’t. Some applications will require you write a cover letter, some may say it’s optional, and others won’t say anything about a letter at all. It’s still in your best interest to write one – it provides an example of your business communication and writing ability, allows you to go into more detail about your best qualifications, and shows just how much you’re interested in the job, because you bothered to take the extra time and effort.
Can I use the same letter for every job application?
It’s understandable that a job candidate, who is probably applying to many jobs, would find
it time-consuming to write separate letters for each job and decide to use the same basic letter for each job. But what usually ends up happening is that, in their effort to appeal to a wide audience, they end up writing a letter that is so vague, that employers don’t believe the candidate can actually do the specific job. The best way to convince an employer that you have the potential to do their job is to address the specific qualifications for that job. Yes, it takes more time to write those letters, but it’s more effective at getting an employer’s attention. Imagine that a public relations firm is hiring an entry-level staff member to write press releases and pitch to the media. Are they more likely to interview the candidate who generically mentions their “strong communication skills,” or the candidate who details their previous co-op experience writing press releases and the promotional skills they developed while raising money for charity?
Do I really have to write a brand-new letter every time?
Writing a targeted letter doesn’t always mean that the letter has to be brand-new or original every time you write one – it just needs to be relevant to that particular job. If you’re applying to jobs that require similar skills, you’ll most likely be able to use some of the same content in your letters (but please, oh please, remember to use the correct company name and job title!).
What are employers looking for?
I’ve repeatedly served on search committees to fill open jobs in our office, and I can tell you that the candidates we’re more likely to interview (assuming they have the basic qualifications, of course) are the people who write a clear and thoughtful letter, with explicit examples of how their qualifications match the job. Candidates that make vague statements without backing them up (“I’m good working with people”) or describe unrelated work experiences (such as the lawyer who talked about her contract negotiation skills for a counseling job), don’t make the cut. Anyone can say they have a particular skill, but you’re much better off when you show your skills.
How do I start?
Writing an effective, targeted cover letter starts with analyzing the job description, identifying the most important skill sets and which of those skills you have, and highlighting a few of them in your letter. If you need help getting started, take a look at some useful tips and examples, and if you’d like feedback on a specific letter, you can come to walk-ins (10-15 minute letter or resume critiques every day from 1:30-3:30 pm on the first floor of Stearns) or schedule an appointment with one of our staff via myneu.
Tina Mello is Associate Director of University Career Services, and has worked at Northeastern for 11 years. Nicknamed the “information guru” by other members of the staff, she loves to research and read about various job/career/education topics. For more career advice, follow her on twitter @CareerCoachTina.