Five Tips to Ace Your Next Cover Letter

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School. 

Summer is in full swing, and many among our GradCat community are likely searching for a new job. Whether you’re a recent grad looking for that perfect career-related opportunity or a current student seeking an on-campus job for the fall, it’s important to craft solid application materials in order to maximize your chances of securing an interview. According to this article by The Muse, many people find cover letters to be the most stressful and frustrating aspect of a job application. However, for many employers, they are a key consideration in the hiring process and are viewed as a way for applicants to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Read on for some tips to take the stress away and write your best cover letter today. 

Man submitting an application online.
  1. Keep the purpose of the cover letter in mind as you write. If you don’t understand why an employer might ask for a cover letter in the first place, it’s tricky to write one that represents you well. I like to view the purpose of a cover letter as twofold: firstly, it serves as a means of filling in the gaps of your resume and conveying your personality, and secondly, cover letters provide a chance to showcase your writing ability. Your cover letter shouldn’t be a comprehensive laundry list of your past experiences, skills, and accomplishments; that’s what the resume is for! Rather, cover letters provide a chance to summarize the key points in your resume, draw connections and pick out themes between your qualifications, and match these qualifications to the opportunity at hand. A cover letter lets you show what makes you special, and gives the employers an important glimpse into your personality and values.

  2. Think of a thesis statement of sorts and include it in your first paragraph. If you still feel confused about the point of a cover letter or the overall structure, it may help to conceptualize it as a mini essay of sorts, like one you might write for class. When you write an academic essay, you are often linking different writings and theories together and using these connections to prove a novel point or theory of your own. Similarly, within the context of a cover letter, you are connecting your personal values and experience with the job description, company values, and industry trends to create a novel point about why you are a great fit for the opportunity. Your thesis should be specific, impactful, and multifaceted; it’s not enough to say that “I would be great for this job because I have good customer service skills.” Instead, shoot for something with more of a punch; try, “My years of experience holding a multitude of roles within the food service industry combined with my academic background in operations management means that I am well-suited to understand the customer experience holistically and work within a dynamic and multi-tiered customer service support team.” Then, spend the rest of the cover letter using specific bits of your experience and skills to back up this thesis! In the example shared above, the author would spend a paragraph fleshing out their food service industry experience and big takeaways from those roles and parallels to the job at hand, and then another paragraph doing the same for their education experience. Check out this article for some more examples of cover letter theses.

  3. Tailor your cover letter to the job at hand. It should go without saying that cover letters are not one-size-fits-all. Even if you are applying to many similar jobs, you should devote substantial time to researching each specific role and company and including those specificities within your writing. Your formatting and big-picture ideas can remain the same cover letter to cover letter, but you need to include company- and role-specific details to show that you’ve done your homework for each application. Recruiters and HR professionals are experts in evaluating application materials, and they will be able to tell if you’ve changed four words from an old or already-used cover letter and resubmitted it. Look at the company’s mission statement or core values, the job description, and preferred candidate qualities; even for similar openings or companies, they will not be the same! It’s true that this process can get repetitive and the urge to recycle old cover letters is tempting, but it will not serve you in the long run. Remember, quality over quantity matters when it comes to job applications. 

  4. Keep it succinct but detailed. A good rule of thumb is to keep your cover letter under a page, and make sure you don’t have any paragraphs that run on and on. You do have to cover a lot of ground, but it’s important to figure out how to do that in a way that uses less words to say more. That’s where editing comes in—write the ideas out fully, get them onto the page, and then go back a few times to cut extraneous words and ideas. Get a friend, mentor, or someone else to help you distill your writing down to the main points. Good writing, especially professional writing, isn’t flowery or overly verbose; it is clear, concise, and conveys information in a thoughtful and genuine way. Have patience with yourself in the editing process and remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your perfect cover letter!

  5. Use your resources. Like any good piece of writing, the perfect cover letter doesn’t come together in a single draft, and an extra set of eyes or two will do wonders. The Bearcat Promise Career Studio is UC’s one-stop shop for all things job search and career development, and students can make an appointment with a professional career coach through Handshake to get one-on-one support writing and editing cover letters (and much, much more!). During spring and fall semesters, students can also access drop-in career advising hours with peer career coaches. The Promise Studio also has a downloadable cover letter template, accessible here. The Academic Writing Center is another great resource to help with cover letters and is open during the summer for both virtual and in-person appointments.