My son, a freshman at UCLA, recently asked me how to write a cover letter. He’s planning to major in communications, and an upper classman who’s already in the major (you have to apply), forwarded him a listing for an internship at a boutique Los Angeles public relations firm whose client list includes major brands like Dove and Banana Republic.
I’ve been covering careers for four years now and one of my most-trafficked stories, with more than 1.7 million page-views, is about precisely that topic. (You can read it here.) But it’s geared toward mid-career professionals, not kids starting out, whose only work experience, like my son’s, may be volunteering at a non-profit bike shop, interning on a political campaign and working as a tennis coach for eight-year-olds. Oh, and feeding the cats for an overly generous neighbor who paid him $20 a day. How would any of this translate into a convincing cover letter for a PR internship?
I realized it was time to write another cover letter story, this one geared to kids who have no fancy internships or summer jobs on their razor-thin résumés. (I wrote a story about early-career résumés here.)
For advice I turned to Lauren Berger, who runs a website called Internqueen.com and has written two books about getting started in a career, All Work No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Resume, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience andWelcome to the Real World: Finding Your Place, Perfecting Your Work, and Turning Your Job into Your Dream Career. A story I wrote using Berger’s wisdom about how to land internships was also one of my most-viewed pieces. You can read it here. Plus I talked to four college placement officers and four career coaches, including Jill Tipograph, who specializes in helping young people.
Here is their combined wisdom:
1. The first paragraph should say who you are, where you go to school, what the job is that you’re applying for and how you came to apply. It helps a lot if you can include a name of someone with a personal connection. You should also clarify where you’re located geographically. If the internship is in a city other than where you live or go to school, say you are planning to be there during the dates of the job. Don’t say you “could” be there. “If the student shows hesitation, that translates to ambivalence about whether they want the job,” says Berger.
Say where you learned about the job. Example: My name is Susan and I’m a freshman at UCLA, planning to major in communications. An upper classman from the department forwarded your flyer about the summer internship at Frankenheimer Public Relations in New York City. I’m very interested in the internship, which sounds like it would be my ideal job. I’m a New York native and plan to be in the city from June 1 through early September.” Better yet: “Lucy McGillicutty, who interned at Frankenheimeir Public Relations last summer, suggested I apply for your internship program.” All job seekers, even college freshmen, should have a LinkedIn profile, which can be a great place to discover whether you know someone connected to the company where you want to work.
2. The second paragraph has to connect the dots between you and the employer. Before you write it, print out the job posting and go through it with a highlighter. Note the buzzwords and incorporate them into this part of the letter. Also spend at least an hour on the company site reading and thinking, including clicking through every link. If the firm has a blog, read at least a dozen entries. Check out the firm’s presence on social media and do a wide-ranging Google search. Describe how your experiences meet the challenges presented in the job description. If you’re a college freshman, it’s fine to evoke experience you gained in high school. Example: “I see you’re looking for a self-starter with social media skills. I ran a Facebook page that successfully recruited musicians for a student-produced musical. I conducted auditions, organized rehearsals and arranged the score.” Or: “I see you’re looking for someone who has the ability to multitask while staying organized and being efficient. When I worked at Frank’s Bicycles I juggled a demanding backlog of deadline-sensitive repairs with the responsibility of staffing the counter and waiting on customers.”
3. In the third paragraph, further describe your personal traits and how they make you a great candidate for the job. You’re cooperative, work well with others, you have a great work ethic. Again, give short but specific examples of those skills. Katharine Brooks, executive director of the campus career placement office at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and author of You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career, says you should try to tell one- or two-line stories about yourself that show how your skills match the job and expand upon the job descriptions in your résumés. Example: “I worked on a team of interns for the successful political campaign of city councilwoman Mary Smith where we organized events and then staffed them, sometimes until 1 A.M.” Or: “When I was working at Frank’s Bicycles, I helped a client who was looking for a Dahon folding bike, which the store didn’t stock. Within an hour I found a distributor willing to make a one-time delivery of the bike the customer wanted.”
4. To wrap up, say when you’ll get in touch. “I’ll try you by phone next Tuesday at 2:00 and hope we can connect.”
5. In most cases, send the letter as an attachment and format it like an old-fashioned business letter with your address at the top, then the date and then the address of the recipient.Most coaches will advise this but I would say formatting is fluid. I’ve written cover letters in the body of an email with the résumé as an attachment. Or you can send the letter as an attachment and just start with a date and a salutation. Your sign-off can be formal, like “Sincerely,” or something warmer, like “All the best.” When in doubt, make the salutation formal: “Dear Ms. Adams” or “To whom it may concern.”