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The Complete Cover Letter Guide For College Students

Whether you are applying for an internship while in school or a job after graduation, you will need a resume and a cover letter. It is best to prepare a resume first and then the cover letter, as you will be using information from your resume in your cover letter.

Employers receive hundreds and thousands of applications, so you need to craft a resume and cover letter that will pique their interest. If you haven’t already prepared a resume, save yourself some time and aggravation. Check out the The Complete Resume Guide for College Students: 12 Rules for Resume Perfection!, which will equip you with the tools you need for a winning resume. Even if you have a resume, read the article to determine if you can improve your resume. You want to get past the first cut!

Here are 12 rules for a cover letter to help you get your preferred internship.

1. Have your resume handy

Review the internship posting and your resume before you start drafting your cover letter, so you can organize your thoughts. It will be helpful to print out the posting and resume and have them next to you, so you can consult them without switching screens.

2. Be honest

Like your resume, your cover letter must not contain false information.

3. Be professional

You should always be professional in your communication with employers. You have just 6 seconds to grab their attention and impress them, so don’t waste the opportunity.  

Don’t fall into the trap of treating online applications carelessly; treat online applications with the same formality as applications by mail. Always use correct grammar and phraseology in your cover letter.

4. Tailor your cover letter

If you are applying to more than one employer, it’s tempting to prepare a generic cover letter that you can shoot out to all the companies by merely changing the addressee information. Don’t do that. That tactic may be easier, but it won’t be effective. Employers want to know why you are interested in them and the particular position you are applying for, and what you can bring to the table. How can you tailor your cover letter? Use the keywords in the internship posting and apply those keywords to your cover letter. If you’ve read The Complete Resume Guide, you will have already tailored your resume, so a cover letter should be much easier to write.

5. Don’t let errors escape you

As I’ve mentioned before, you have only 6 seconds to convince the employer not to toss your application to the “reject” pile. So make sure your cover letter (and resume) are FREE of errors before you click the “send” button.

Check for grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors. Is your apostrophe in the right place? If you use compound words, do you need a hyphen? If you aren’t sure, you should double-check if a hyphen is necessary. Here’s a quick refresher on hyphenation.

6. Make it easy to read

Your cover letter should be easy to read and understand. Avoid convoluted sentences, colloquialism and technical language. Keep in mind that the first cut may be made by someone who is not well-versed in technical language, so break it all down into simple language.

7. Show, don’t tell

Employers are not interested in you singing your own praises. Instead of telling them how many wonderful qualities you possess, use examples from your work or volunteer experience to show that you have those qualities.

I recently reviewed a cover letter where the applicant stated: I possess a strong passion for learning and educating people about individuals with potentially marginalized positions.” It sounds good, right? The problem is that a gratuitous statement like that won’t convince the employers. There was nothing to back up that statement in the cover letter or resume, even if an employer were to check (like I did for the purpose of this article).

Another applicant declared that she had “a passion for people,” but would have been better off mentioning what she gained through the many volunteer projects she listed in her resume.

8. Identify your document

Will “Cover Letter (11)” help an employer find your document if it’s mixed up with others? The answer is, as you might have guessed, a resounding NO. Remember that employers receive hundreds and thousands of resumes, so you want to make it easy for them. You don’t want to give them a reason for rejecting your application. So give your cover letter a name that helps the employer identify your application. A simple first name and last name followed by the words cover letter will be perfect, e.g., Jane Doe Cover Letter.  

9. Make it look appealing

Your cover letter should be neat, organized and visually pleasing. The trend is leaning towards online application, but use bond paper for your cover letter (and resume) if you are submitting your application by mail.

Also, if you are applying online and can’t upload your cover letter as an attachment, you still need to go through the process of writing the cover letter. You can cut and paste the contents of your cover letter onto the “message” area.

Your cover letter should not be longer than one page. Use the same font that you used in your resume for uniformity. Use the default margin – 1” on all 4 sides. Line spacing between two lines should be at least “single” to make it readable. Line spacing between paragraphs should be double that.  

10. Mind your content

A cover letter serves as an introduction and a tool to urge the employer to delve into your resume. To be effective, a cover letter must contain the following information.

  • Letterhead

The cover letter should be on your letterhead, i.e., with your name and mailing address. Your name should be at the top of the page, centered and bolded, followed by your mailing address (also centered). The example below uses 18 pts font for the name and 12 pts for the address. (In my formatting examples, I will include the preceding section to illustrate justification and spacing between sections.)

  • Date

Place the date — Month, Day and Year — below the letterhead (flushed left) with a line between them, as shown in the example below.

Cover Letters for College Students - Heading

  • Addressee

The addressee section fits below the date on the left with a line between them.

Don’t even think of using “To Whom it May Concern.” It’s terribly impersonal, and won’t help you make a personal connection with the reader. Your cover letter should be addressed to a particular person, group or department (in that order). Include the title of the person addressed, the full name of the company and street address.

If you can’t tell the name of the person from the posting or the company’s website, pick up the phone and call the company. Be polite and explain your mission. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned way of connecting, but it works most of the time! If you still can’t get a contact person’s name, use a department or a function, such as the Human Resources Department or Human Resources Manager.  

Cover Letters for College Students - Address

  • Subject Line

Help the employer focus by spelling out the position you are applying for. Place it right below the addressee section. You can use summer internship, for example, as your subject if you are looking for general summer internship. You can narrow down your description if you are seeking a summer internship in a particular field, such as Summer Internship in Communications, Advertising Internship, Financial Services Internship etc. In my example, I used “Summer Internship in Marketing.”

The same rules would apply if you are looking for a job after graduation. Your subject line would be the position you are applying for, such as Customer Service Representative, Financial Analyst, Sales & Marketing, Sales & Business Development, Production Accounting Assistant, and so on. Use the description in the job posting if you are responding to an advertisement.

Cover Letters for College Students - Re Line

  • Salutation

Be formal in your salutation. “Hello” and “Hi” are inappropriate, as they are informal.

If you know the name of your contact person, the correct salutation is “Dear Mr. Smith” or “Dear Ms. James.” In the case of an educator, you can use “Dear Professor Hanson,” or “Dear Dr. Stevens” if your professor has a doctorate degree (PhD).

But what if you can’t tell the gender of a first name like Jamie, Jordan, Morgan and Taylor? You should research online to see if you can clarify the puzzle. As a last resort, you can use the person’s full name, so your salutation would be “Dear Jamie McDonald.”

How about cases where you can’t get the name of a contact person? You should use a function then, so it would be “Dear Human Resources Manager” or “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear ABC Company Recruiter.” Use what’s appropriate based on the posting and any publicly available information.

NOTE:  The salutation is always closed with a semi-colon, not a comma, as shown in the example below.

Cover Letters for College Students - Introduction Format

  • Introduction

In the introductory paragraph, which follows the salutation, you should indicate the position you are seeking. You can also indicate how you learned about the position, whether it’s through someone (state their full name), an online job board, a newspaper ad, etc.

Cover Letters for College Students - First Sentence format

  • Body

The body of the letter could be one or two paragraphs long, depending on your relevant work experience. Separate each paragraph with a line between them.

Use this section to explain to the employer why your qualifications and prior experience make you an ideal candidate for the position you are applying for. Don’t just list your general qualities. Instead, link relevant achievements and skills with the position to SHOW the employer why you are the best candidate for the job.

You can also indicate when you could start if you were offered the position.

  • Closing

Close your letter by thanking the employer for considering your application. You can also mention that you look forward to discussing your interest and qualifications in person as well as the best way to contact you.

Whew! You’re done with all the hard work. Now let’s be sure to end your letter formally. You can’t go wrong with “Yours sincerely,” “Sincerely,” or “Yours truly.” You will need a comma after your preferred closing.

Never use any of the terms you would use for your family and friends, such as xoxo, Take Care, Fondly, Cheers, Have a great day! etc. You are seeking a job, not a friend, and you want the employer to take you seriously.

Cover Letters for College Students - Closing format

  • Signature block

If you are mailing a hard copy, make sure that you have space to sign your name above the signature block. You should provide your email address and phone number if you closed your letter by stating that you could be reached in that manner. Your resume contains that information, but you should include it anyway to make it more convenient for the employer.

Also, even though it is assumed that your cover letter is being submitted with a resume, you should indicate that by including “Encl.” at the end.

Cover Letters for College Students - the signature block

11. Follow the mantra

The mantra “location, location, location” serves for real estate. My mantra for a cover letter is “proofread, proofread, proofread.” If you are satisfied with your cover letter, print it out so you can see how it looks and then proofread it. If you have time, put it aside for a day or two and then go back to look at it with fresh eyes. Read for sense and watch for typos and errors. Remember, you have 6 seconds to impress the reader, so there is NO room for errors in your cover letter.

It will be helpful if your family or friends can review your cover letter. Ideally, you should show your cover letter to someone in the industry to get critical feedback.

12. Test before submitting

Check the instructions and submit your application accordingly. But before submitting your application, send the cover letter (and the resume) to yourself to see if the attachments come through and if they look right.

Once you are happy with your cover letter (and resume), click that “send” button!