TUN sits down with Andre Fontenelle, the associate director for internships and employer relations at Brooklyn College, to discuss tips on how students should write cover letters.
TUN: Andre, thanks so much for joining us.
FONTENELLE: Thanks for having me.
To start off, what is the purpose of a cover letter?
The purpose of the cover letter is similar to the purpose of the resume. It’s to try to get you an interview.
For the recruiters that do request one, your cover letter should be written in language that’s a little bit lighter than your resume, which can be a dry document. Your cover letter allows you to put a little bit of your personality in there to seal the deal.
This is an exercise in trying to form a relationship. It’s a working relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless.
So, the cover letter is your chance to talk about the qualities you have that marry you to this particular position.
They are looking for a particular person to work for them. You are looking to work for a particular type of employer. I say, you have to bring a little romance to this because nobody wants to just pick a candidate who just wants to work. They want someone who wants to work for that specific company. So, you’re going to describe why this is the perfect union.
Great. I think the best way is to go paragraph by paragraph. In the standard three- or four-paragraph cover letter, what should applicants include in the first paragraph?
Let’s go back a minute and think about the resume. They’re looking at that very fast. They’re scanning that, right? When they’re reading a cover letter, don’t think that they’re so eager to read a lot of text.
So, because it is going to be a human who’s reading your cover letter, you want to keep the level of excitement up. You want to try to grab their attention as soon as possible, include some level of enthusiasm for the particular position that you’re applying for, spell out what position it actually is and talk about why it’s a good match for you.
That means, if this is a company that has certain values that you particularly feel connected to, you would want to spell that out.
Sometimes, people say, “I’ve been following you on LinkedIn for a long time.” Why did they write that? Because they saw that written somewhere. Again, you don’t need to make up anything. Whatever is true, write that down. Because, they could also go on LinkedIn and see that you don’t even have a LinkedIn account or that you’re not even connected.
So, again, include all real statements but some level of excitement. As a candidate, there is something that you can tap into in terms of your excitement for a potential new position.
Great. So, what should applicants include in the second paragraph of their cover letter?
That first paragraph sort of lays into making it clear I’m applying for this position. This is why we’re connected.
The second and potentially third or fourth paragraphs are the meat, right?
They said on the job description that they’re looking for, let’s say, four or five things that they really want this candidate to have. Now, you’re not going to have time to talk about all four or five, but you may want to give a brief story or two that connects with why you have, let’s say, two or three of those different items that are listed in this job description.
Great. What should applicants include in the final paragraph of their cover letter?
The final paragraph of a cover letter is very simple. You’re basically thanking someone for actually reading this document that you’ve prepared in order to try to make this connection.
You’re thanking them. You are then also making sure that they have all the means to connect with you. So, you’ll say, “Thank you for reading my document.” And then, you include your contact information to help them get a hold of you. And, if you want to re-emphasize the enthusiasm you have for this position, you can do that there as well.
So, as far as style goes, is it okay to show a little bit of personality and be conversational in your cover letter or should your writing be very formal?
As I said before, it’s a human who’s potentially looked at lots of these documents. You’re going to have to be conversational. The formal approach is what we had on that resume, so this is now the chance to put in a little bit of personality.
However, with that said, how much personality are we talking about? That’s really what you want to know.
I always like to use analogies. I would say, it’s the version of you that’s going to meet your significant other’s parents for the first time at Thanksgiving. Like, it’s going to be you, but you’re going to be a little bit more buttoned up. This is not going to be the you that’s 10 years married to your spouse and you’re going to your in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving. That’s a different version of you. That is way too comfortable for the context of a cover letter. This is an introduction. This is the start of a potential budding relationship. You would want to be you, but you don’t want to use any informal vernacular or anything of that sort.
Great. So, it’s common advice to address the cover letter to the employer or to the hiring manager. But, if the application doesn’t specify who will be reading your cover letter, who should applicants address it to?
Well, I think that addressing it to, “Dear Hiring Manager” is fine on its own. Let’s say you’re trying to get into marketing, you could address it “to the “Dear Marketing Director.” Whoever you think is likely to be the person reading your cover letter is fine.
You could obviously call or find out through other means who the actual person is. If you don’t do that, or cannot do that, you should not fret at all. As long as you make a fair attempt at addressing the person who’s likely to get it or if you use a general term like “hiring manager” or “selection committee.”
I have not, in any selection committee that I have been on, or ever heard from any recruiter, that this simple attempt at trying to label the person ever went wrong. As long as you’re not putting in the wrong person’s name, you’re fine. No one is going to knock you. But, you want to try to give a title that is, again, likely to be the person actually reading the cover letter.
Great. So, are there any common cover letter mistakes that you would caution applicants to avoid?
Yes. During resume writing, cover letter writing, interviewing — this whole process — you want to be a focused person. You don’t want to be lazy about it. Don’t take the easy way out.
What’s the easy way out? Copying and pasting. So, common mistakes that I’ve seen, and that a lot of other folks have seen as well, are people who forgot to change the file name.
For example, if I’m applying to one accounting firm, the resume may say “John Smith’s resume” and the last place that they applied to. So, make sure that the file name says your first name, last name and resume or cover letter. That’s the best way to do it.
In addition, you also want to make sure that in the content there’s nothing that would look as if you were just copying and pasting. Because, as I said before, they would like to know that you want to work for them specifically. If anything looks like you’re doing copy and paste and you just want to work anywhere, that’s going to be a knock against you.
Check TUN’s interview with Marcie Kirk Holland, the executive director of the Internship and Career Center at the University of California, Davis, for tips on how to write a cover letter for an internship.
Great. Have we missed anything? Do you have any additional tips for students?
Yes. I have one that might surprise you. Many recruiters admit they do not read cover letters. That’s just the way it is folks.
Now, you would say to yourself, “Why are they asking me to write said cover letter if they’re not even going to read it?” Well, I’ll tell you this again. Recruiters are busy. They’ve got a lot to do.
What did I say before? They want a candidate who actually wants to work there. This has been proven time and time again. If you put a step in place for someone to apply, the people who really want to apply will follow that step. The people who are casually interested will probably not.
So I’ll often say, “You could pretend that Cardi B said that she was single, she was going to be looking for a date and that all Brooklyn College students could send in their applications to go on a date with her. If she said, ‘Just send in a picture,’ a lot of people would send in the picture. But, if she said, ‘Send in a picture and write me 250 words about why would you like to go on a date with me,’ a large percentage of the people who would have applied won’t because they just don’t want to write that 250 words. With that in mind, she would believe that the people who did do that were people who were interested in actually going on a date with her.
Similarly, the recruiter may not even read these cover letters. They just know that someone went that extra step to apply.
Now, for the ones that do read the cover letters, you don’t need to rack your brain or feel that you’re not going to apply because you can’t write the most romantic cover letter.
Simply do your due diligence. Make sure that you express some level of enthusiasm when you’re writing this. Talk about why you think you’re a good fit. And that’s that.
Again, for the most part, they just want to see that there’s a reason why you want to apply there. They don’t want casual people just applying.
Great. Thanks, Andre, for joining us today.
This interview has been edited for clarity.