Dear Recent College Grads, Here’s How to Write a Great Cover Letter was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
A job search can quickly become a full-time job on its own. As a recent graduate looking for your next step, you might be tempted to attach your resume and click apply without bothering to send an accompanying cover letter. But taking the time to write one is worth the effort. This is the only place where you have free rein to explain why you’re interested in the job and how exactly you’re a good match. A compelling letter makes it so much easier for the reader to think, “Yes! Let’s interview them!”
In my experience as a hiring manager, a cover letter can make or break my interest in moving forward with a candidate. If an application doesn’t include one, I’m almost certain to pass unless the resume is pretty much a perfect match. Admittedly, there are other recruiters and hiring managers who don’t look at the cover letter at all—but it’s best to assume that they will (it certainly beats wondering if you didn’t make the cut just because you didn’t send one!). And even if they don’t read it, you’re still ahead of the game in your preparation if you get called for an interview.
The basics of a cover letter boil down to this outline:
- An introductory paragraph (who you are, why this company and this job, and a bridge between the two)
- One or two themed paragraphs (highlighting and showing you have skills that match the job)
- A closing paragraph (some quick additional highlights and a request to speak further)
Four paragraphs should be a breeze—I bet you’ve written plenty of assignments longer than that to earn your degree! So how can you leverage your letter to effectively win over the recruiter or hiring manager even as a new grad who doesn’t have much experience?
Here are seven tips along with an example of what a recent college graduate cover letter could look like.
Right off the bat, the person reading your letter is going to want to know some basic information in the introductory paragraph—like a quick synopsis of who you are, what you’re applying for, and why you’re interested in this opportunity. Sharing up front that you’re a recent grad signals that you’re likely able to be onboarded quickly, which is great if they need an expedited hiring process (or if they’re looking to train new talent). Here’s what a quick opening might look like:
Dear Mr. Fortman,
I am excited to submit my application for the UX Designer opening at CompanyDesign. As a recent graduate with a software engineering degree from Big State University, I am confident I could contribute to the success of your team.
Once you introduce yourself, it’s time to tell the reader why you’re trying to land a job at this specific organization. Showing them clearly and explicitly why you’re interested, excited, or passionate about the work they do and explaining how you’re connected to it can help convince them to add you to their interview list.
If you have some sort of contact at the company—someone at the company referred you, you spoke to a recruiter at your college’s career fair or info session, or you have a friend who interned there—mention what you learned from them and how what they shared makes you feel this would be an exciting opportunity and a good fit. Be specific where you can. If you were applying for that UX design role, you might say:
In February, I had the pleasure of speaking with Allison Ro from the product team at a career panel on campus. After learning about the company’s focus on human-centered design and your multidisciplinary team approach to creating products that improve the world, I knew CompanyDesign was where I wanted to work.
If you don’t have any “ins” at the company or first-hand information like this, don’t worry! You can do a bit of sleuthing and research in other ways. What can you find on their website or Muse profile about their work that excites you? Do they have values that are top priorities for you—like sustainability? Check out their mission page to find out! Is their work culture the type of environment where you can thrive and contribute? Have they been in the news recently for innovation or a new product? Find some nuggets of information that resonate with you and weave those specifics into answering the all-important “Why this company?” question.
No matter where you got your information, you want to show you understand the company and what you can add as a new hire. Conveying an interest and excitement for working specifically for this job at this company—rather than a desire to get any job at any company that’ll pay you a salary—can go a long way. After all, it can be easier to hire someone who is super into the work you do and needs a bit of training over someone with all the skills who doesn’t care about the work or mesh with the team.
Once you’ve connected at a higher level with the company, the next two paragraphs can help you stand out as a top candidate if you align yourself and your skills closely with what the company needs. Unlike cover letters you may have written when applying to internships, where it may make sense to talk about being excited for the learning opportunity, your focus as a new grad seeking full-time employment should shift to how you can meet the company’s needs. It’s all about how you can contribute to their success rather than the other way around.
The best way to do this is to identify the top skills and qualities for the role and explicitly match those with what you have to offer. Use the job description as your blueprint. Typically, the most important attributes of the role will be mentioned higher up in the description. Pay attention to themes that are repeated throughout, too. If they mention design skills, or aspects of design, in multiple spots that’s an area you should highlight. If they mention collaboration, teamwork, and communication, that’s another clue for a theme you should address.
Unfortunately, not all job descriptions are detailed. If you need more information to figure out what recruiters and hiring managers are looking for, see if you can find a person currently (or previously) in this role—or a similar role—at the company by searching on LinkedIn. You’re likely to get some good insights from their experience entries or the recommendations their colleagues or clients wrote for them. If you have any connections at the company you may be able to get a better sense of what they look for through an informational interview. However, be mindful not to wait too long to get your application in!
Once you’ve done some reconnaissance, pick three or four of the main themes you identified that correlate to the skills, strengths, and attributes you have. Your goal in the next couple of paragraphs of your cover letter will be to share a few stories that demonstrate how you’ll bring those skills, strengths, and attributes to the position.
Having recently graduated, you may be applying to your very first full-time job or trying to get your foot in the door in a role or field you don’t have direct experience in. That’s OK! College classes, internships, research experiences, part-time jobs, work-study programs, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and personal projects can all be used as examples to back up and show your value to the employer. And you can always highlight transferable and additive skills.
If you’re applying to a marketing job and you didn’t land a marketing internship before you graduated, for example, you may have had a relevant class project or gained experience using a similar skill set when you advertised events as a Resident Assistant. Maybe you had a work-study job at the campus bookstore and you maintained its social media pages, or you were in charge of recruiting new students to your student club and increased the membership. Perhaps you had a job where you had to be a data whiz in a fast-paced and collaborative environment and that could be an added benefit to this employer. Find the connections between some of the skills you used in these situations—advertising, telling a story to reach your audience, increasing engagement, and making data-informed decisions—and explain how they can transfer into what was outlined in the job description.
One common pitfall to avoid as a new grad is highlighting things you don’t specifically have yet. If you’re leading with a negative like, “Although I don’t have…”—skip it! Jump right to what you were going to say next. So instead of saying:
Although I don’t have experience with Tableau, I have experience leveraging analytics to make data informed decisions using Looker.
You should just say:
I have experience leveraging analytics to make data informed decisions using Looker.
Remember, with these paragraphs you want to tell a compelling story. Don’t just reiterate the facts on your resume. Take time to highlight the theme(s) you’re focusing on at the beginning of the paragraph. Next, show you have these qualities instead of just saying you have them with nothing to back it up. Share an example that highlights the value you added and connects back to the job opportunity. So if you’re applying for a data analyst role, your paragraph might look like this:
I have experience using business intelligence software and leveraging analytics to make data-informed decisions. While interning at Startup, I used Looker to analyze customer service ratings and identified trends that correlated with high satisfaction ratings. I presented the data to my team along with three key recommendations that I predicted could increase overall customer service ratings by 10%. I discovered that I most enjoy trying to understand the “why” behind the data and translating that into strategies for improvement. I would be thrilled to apply this same motivation to help A-Company manage and gain insights from their data to drive innovation.
When reviewing the job and deciding what to highlight, remember that soft skills, like collaboration and communication, are often highly sought after as well. Technical skills are no use to an employer if you can’t communicate with a client or lead a project to completion. If these skills frequently show up in a job description you may choose to highlight them in a separate paragraph. You can also demonstrate them within stories that showcase your technical themes.
Group projects for internships or classes are prime experiences that can help you highlight many interpersonal skills. Collaborative work, like being on athletic teams or in student clubs, are also gold mines to draw upon as examples.
A word of caution: I often see new grads relay the entire story from the group “we” perspective, which can be detrimental as the employer doesn’t know what you did. It’s important to give context about the makeup of the team, and certainly give credit where credit is due, but then it’s most useful to transition and describe what responsibilities you had, how you contributed to the overall project, and what the outcome was. Here’s an example of how to set up that transition:
Through my Business Insights class, I was part of a team of four students tasked with developing and pitching a new business idea. Once we landed on an idea for a new food delivery service targeting college students, I led our efforts on market analysis…
Instead of calling it quits after highlighting relevant past experiences and demonstrating your skills and qualities, be sure to tell the reader how what you’re sharing matches with the role and company. This takes the guesswork out of how or if you might be a fit. Don’t assume they’ll make the connections themselves. Spell them out and make them impossible to miss!
You might be noticing a theme here: You should keep looping back to the specific role and company you’re applying for at every turn. From the intro to the experience paragraphs to the closing, you can only strengthen your cover letter by directly aligning yourself with this opportunity.
The content of your letter is most important, but here are some helpful formatting tips for traditional cover letters if you’re new to writing them.
The top of your document should include the following information:
- Your name, address, and contact information
- The date
- The company’s address
If you’re writing the cover letter directly in an email, then you can skip those details at the top. But either way, try to include the name of the person to whom you are writing in your greeting. It’s always best if you can find the recruiter or the supervisor for the position so you can address your cover letter to them. If you can’t, then go with something more general like, “Dear Hiring Manager,” or “Dear Editorial Team.” Just stay far away from, “To Whom It May Concern”!
A few additional pointers:
- Don’t go over the one-page mark.
- Margins are usually between one and 0.7 inches.
- Make sure your font and font size are easily readable. Think Times New Roman or Arial at a font size of 11 or above.
- Sign off formally (“Sincerely” is always solid) and include your contact information below your signature if you didn’t include it elsewhere.
So what does all of this actually look like in practice? Below is a sample cover letter for an entry-level job. Anything in bold directly aligns this candidate with the job description.
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am excited to apply for the Content Specialist (Req. #04321) opening at Consumer P. Company. As a recent graduate from Local College with a communications major and a digital media concentration, I have a passion for elevating consumer products that change the world. After speaking with Tanya Jones at our spring career fair and learning about CPC’s fast-paced environment, collaborative spirit, and goal to reach its audience in creative ways, I knew this role would be perfect. I admire CPC’s mission to design five-star products that make life easier and believe my knowledge and experiences would allow me to add value to the marketing team.
Through my internship at ContentCo I gained hands-on experience in understanding consumer insights, building partnerships with influencers, and developing content strategies. Working on a tight deadline prior to a new product launch, my fellow intern and I gathered early user testimonials, stories, and media. I also developed a short video mockup for a social media campaign that I’m proud to say was selected to be part of the launch. I would be eager to bring these same skills and passion for storytelling to CPC’s brand and world-class products.
During my time at Local College I also gained experience interpreting data and leading social media campaigns. As part of a semester-long project, my group collaborated with a local bakery on their marketing strategies. I led our efforts to launch a new Instagram account and was responsible for data collection and interpretation. Our client implemented several of our recommendations, which resulted in an increase in social media traffic and purchases. I was particularly motivated by the bakery’s commitment to the community—donating daily to local food pantries—and am excited to know CPC similarly values giving back to the community.
Through my internship and academic experiences in communications, along with my involvement in our college chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), where I learned new trends for innovation in design, I have developed a strong skill set to add value as a CPC Content Specialist. I would be thrilled to speak with you further about how I can contribute to the marketing team. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.