Draft Your Cover Letter: A guide for first year undergraduates

A cover letter is a perfect companion piece to your resume. Now that you have a better understanding of how to write your resume, let’s now talk about cover letters.

Resumes are really good at capturing attributes about you that you currently have; making your resume a snapshot of your relevant attributes at a specific point in time. However, to provide a complete picture of you as a candidate, it is sometimes helpful to look towards the future—and this is where your cover letter can come in quite handy.

Alignment

Your cover letter can help demonstrate your alignment with the opportunity. Where your resume may demonstrate how you fit a specific job, the cover letter allows you to zoom out and show how you might be a good fit for the culture, mission, values, or other intangible attributes of an opportunity. The narrative structure of a cover letter can give you freedom to show additional ways you can support the organization and the work that needs to be done. It might also be beneficial to convey attributes like your passion, enthusiasm, drive, and energy—attributes that may not be as clear through just your resume.

Your cover letter and resume form two halves of the same whole: you as the applicant. So try to avoid using the cover letter as simply a narrative version of your resume.

ResumesCover Letters
Relevance to jobAlignment to company
Past orientationFuture orientation
Bulleted structureNarrative structure
Tangible attributesIntangible attributes
Primary documentPositive differentiator

Even though it is a called a cover letter, it is more likely that a recruiter or hiring manager will look at your resume first. This does not mean that your cover letter is not beneficial. Recruiters and hiring managers may leverage the cover letter to help them further determine who they might want to contact for an interview—so don’t waste this opportunity by providing a generic letter. Instead, use it as a way to further highlight why you are a good fit for them.

Preparation

Writing a cover letter without some amount of preparation can be make drafting your letter much more challenging. In preparation for writing your cover letter, I recommend that you seek information from different sources. These sources will give you additional ideas about how you might be a good fit for their organization.

Job descriptionsHow do you align with the duties and responsibilities, meet requirements, or have preferred qualifications?
Company websitesWhat about the company resonates with you? How do you align with their mission, values, or work?
Recruiters and alumni connectionsHow do you fit within their organizational culture? What are some of the upcoming opportunities to which you can align?
News and media sourcesWhat are they in the news for? How might you align yourself with their brand or public image?


These questions may help you start your search, but there are no limits to the ways you can find how to align yourself with the organization through your cover letter.

Structuring

You may groan from the thought of this, but an outline can help you organize your thoughts quickly and provide you a big picture idea of how you want to direct the reader through your letter. Here you can assemble the information you have gathered from your research and start to align yourself with your findings.

Try to answer the following questions:

  1. What position are you applying to?
  2. How did you learn about the position?
  3. What are 2-3 attributes that you feel you can contribute to the role/organization?

This information will help set the foundation for your letter and give you the basis for your letter’s introduction. You may find it helpful to use question number 3 to help draft a thesis statement.

For example: “I am a good fit for this position because of [1], [2], [3] (attributes)”.

To support your thesis, you will want to think about the topic sentences for the associated body paragraphs that will elaborate on the attributes you have to support the 2-3 reasons mentioned in your thesis. Don’t worry about writing in complete sentences at this time. The outline will help give you a sense of structure and direction that you can take with your letter. Keeping it in the outline will provide some flexibility to move items up and down until you are comfortable with moving on with your draft.

Writing

Now that you have your outline, writing your letter should come easily. A cover letter is fundamentally a letter. For most industry cover letters, you will want to keep it to no more than one page, typed.

It is important for you to have each of the common elements of a letter, principally:

Heading

Here you will provide your contact information. You may choose to use a header similar to your resume header on your cover letter—this will act as a kind of letter head, visually tying together your documents. Some versions of letters (e.g. standard business correspondence) may include the company name and their address. If not requested, you may choose to leave their address off from your header.

Greeting/Salutation

You will want to address your letter to an individual if possible. It could be a contact from the job description or from your networking contacts. If you do not know of an actual person to address your letter, you may default to a position title (e.g. Internship Coordinator, Recruiter, HR Manager, etc.). Avoid “dear sir or madam” and I would never use “to whom it may concern”.

Introduction

Your introduction is namely where you introduce yourself. In addition, indicate the position you are applying to along with how you have learned about the position. If you heard about the position through a networking connection who works there, include their name as well. Finally, include a thesis statement that concisely explains why you are a good fit for the position.

Body

The body is usually two or three paragraphs that support your thesis. Use the narrative structure to align yourself with their needs and promote relevant attributes about yourself. Try to avoid simply repeating exactly what is on your resume (they will see your resume), and instead build upon their understanding so that they have additional insight into how you might be a good fit for their opportunity.

Conclusion/Closing

The conclusion brings your letter to a close. Here you may find it beneficial to reaffirm your thesis. I also recommend adding a statement of gratitude and a statement encouraging them to keep the conversation going.

Signature

Include your full preferred name.

You can find samples of cover letters on our website if you need additional ideas about how to write yours.

Polishing

Prior to submitting your full application (including your cover letter), it is not a bad idea to take the following steps:

1)     Format it

Visual appeal is important for your cover letter. Spend time to format it in parallel to your resume, for example:

  • Use a 10/11pt+ font that matches your resume
  • Keep 0.5 to 1-inch margins

2)     Reread it

Take a moment to read through it. Do you like the way you sound? Do you feel that you are clear in your message? If you are in a rush, one quick way to spot some poorly structured sentences and poor word choice is to read your writing backwards—it might help you catch that silly error your brain didn’t catch the first few times reading through it.

Sometimes it helps to sleep on it between drafts. This is not literally to say you should print it out and place it under your pillow. Instead, give it a few hours, or a day or two (if you are not faced with a deadline) to allow your brain to refresh so when you reread it, you approach it with a fresh perspective.

3)     Get someone else to read it

CAPD is certainly one group who can read through it, but you can also have peers, family members, friends, and other people you know read through it. Sometimes it is also helpful to have current (or past) employees of the company read it—you might even find someone on Advisors Hub.

Finishing

Now that you have gone through the basics, I hope that you are finding it much easier to write a cover letter. Remember that this letter will carry your name, so seek out help if you still lacking the confidence to submit it. We can certainly meet with you: schedule an appointment with CAPD.

By Erik Pavesic
Erik Pavesic Assistant Director, First Year Engagement