Cover letters are intimidating! Here's how to approach them (Great for 2020 grads)

When I was in college, a lot of people were intimidated by cover letters, and I imagine that’s still the case. It’s tough because it’s this blank canvas, and often it’s hard to figure out what to say.

There are a lot of resources that describe what to put in each paragraph of your cover letter, and I think that’s helpful so it looks and sounds professional, but if you just follow their formula, your cover letter will blend in with every other cover letter. But you should try to stand out!

Approach the cover letter like it’s the only chance you have to talk to the company. If you don’t get an interview, it really is your only chance to talk to them. So you should put all of the enthusiasm you plan to bring to the interview—why you’re excited about the role and why, even though you may not necessarily be a picture perfect candidate, you bring a few unique qualities to the role that they won’t be able to find anywhere else.

They’d much rather hire 1 unique imperfect person and 9 robots than just hire a team of 10 robots. Don’t be afraid to get a little bit personal or unprofessional, as long as it’s genuine and tells what you really think about the role. You’re trying to stand out, after all!

FWIW: Recently reviewed sample cover letters for Stanford Law grads with a few years of legal experience (attorneys applying to major law firms as laterals with either prior law firm or judicial clerkship experience). Seemed to be designed as friendly introductions with some specifics.

Did not seem to emphasize unique qualities as much as placing an emphasis on suitability. But then, biglaw law firms prefer robotic qualities over unique individuality.

My point is that cover letters change with experience and vary by industry although the objective remains the same-- to get the reader to continue on to one’s resume.

I have been in corporate recruiting for over 30 years.

The ideal cover letter does not have grammatical errors, spells the name of the company you are applying to accurately, and is not written in a fancy font in 8 point type.

Seriously, that’s it. And you cannot believe the number of cover letters which violate Blossoms rule of three, above. If you use a blue background and purple colored letters in your cover letter- I guarantee you that nobody on the receiving end will be able to read the type. And I used to be charitable about obvious errors- spelling, grammar, etc. since everyone is human- but if you won’t take three minutes to proof your cover letter, how do I know you won’t be sending documents to the CFO with misplaced decimal points (hey, whats the difference between a billion dollars or ten million dollars?) or disclosure filings to the SEC with inaccurate data?

Don’t overthink it. But proofread…that’s it. And some automated systems don’t allow cover letters at all- they get kicked out before your resume is submitted…

Thanks for such an insightful reply.

I had the same question.

I would only add that it’s important to write with precision and impact. Keep it short, make your points, and make it memorable.

Being concise is a skill valued by many employers.