When you’re searching for a job, you have to include a unique cover letter with each application. This is not a generic letter describing yourself. It is not a casual note explaining that your real application materials are attached. And it is a mandatory part of any application (even if it’s not explicitly listed, you have to put a “cover” on the other application materials).
The cover letter should be the first thing potential employers see. And it is difficult to prepare. Here’s what to do (and why it is so hard):
1) read over the entire job description carefully. Highlight key words, skills, experiences, educational requirements. Be prepared to use those same terms throughout your letter.
2) research the organization, take notes on their priorities, practices, values–anything that you can use to tie yourself to the job description
3) open your letter with a reference to the company and position, mentioning something you have in common. For example, “Like company XXX, my priority is [something you found researching the company]”.
This is your one chance to catch their attention and get them to read more–but it can’t be cheesy (“Ever since I was two-years-old…”) or canned (“I am writing to inquire about…”)
If you start by making a compelling connection between you and the company, that is a win-win. They want to hear about themselves & know that you have “done your homework” and you want them to associate you with the position. Plus as an added bonus, this gets you started on balancing the entire letter with information about you and about the company/position.
4) build the letter around matching very specific examples of your own experience with the highlighted elements from step 1. You can start with a two-column outline that simply matches up these elements. Then write paragraphs. Specific examples can include a time you took the lead on a course project and an explanation of how you did that, an off-campus service project you participated in and details of your work that illustrate a skill or experience listed in the job description, or a summer opportunity.
5) Edit, edit, edit. You have to keep this entire letter to one page in many cases. You have to make sure your specific examples aren’t used elsewhere in your application (don’t repeat stuff from a personal statement or a resume in the cover letter–they don’t ask for 3 different things so you can repeat the same stuff 3 times. Keep each document unique).
Make sure you have someone else go over the letter. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done this, how far along you are in your career, or how many times you proofread yourself–you will probably over-use certain terms or have common typos that spellcheck doesn’t catch.