“What’s a Cover Letter?”

That’s the response I often hear when introducing the subject in conversation with a high school or college student. It shouldn’t be, as a cover letter is a critical component in the application process for most jobs—even part-time jobs and internships in high school. 

I like to work practical life skills into the tutoring mix when possible. Critical thinking and argument formation, communication strategies with other teachers and adults, and, yep, resume and cover letter writing are all invaluable competencies. So, I’ll often create discussion of and even a small unit on the subject of cover letter writing. 

I tell them the job force isn’t what it once was: it used to be that a person would stay with an employer for decades, if not their entire working lives. Now it’s not uncommon to switch jobs every 2-5 years, or even more frequently. A cover letter is a necessary component of any job search and application process, and even if it isn’t required, you should include one because it gives you an edge. Sure, sometimes the job you want is all but guaranteed and a cover letter isn’t needed. Other times, though, competition is fierce and a cover letter could easily be the factor that sets you apart as an applicant. A cover letter is an introduction of yourself. Much like the college application personal statement, it takes the place of an in-person meeting and gives a curated glimpse into who you are, your goals and ambitions, and what you can contribute to the company, organization, or internship program you’re hoping to be hired into. It sets you apart.  

I share anonymous examples of cover letters other students have created, those I’ve written for clients on the writing and editing side of my business, or my own past cover letters. We work on the basics: what to include, tailoring it to the company you’re applying to (and how that can only be accomplished by thorough review of the company website, mission statement or company goals, company history, and so forth), and sincerity and tone. We work on the personalization process, and write practice cover letters to fictitious, semi-fictitious, or real job or internship openings. We discuss the basics of a good cover letter, and that it needs to be:

  • Approachable. Communication in a cover letter needs to be professional, but it should also be conversational and relatable.
  • Informative. Include the important, relevant details and highlights that address the job requirements. 
  • Tailored. While working from a template is fine, you still need to ensure you’re addressing the company directly and demonstrating you’ve done your homework on them.
  • Succinct. There’s a lot to pack into one page. And it should always be kept to one page.
  • Sincere. Write authentically. Don’t tell them you’re a perfect fit for the job; show them with compelling narrative writing and strong word choice.

Cover letter writing is an important life skill, and one likely to be called upon multiple times over the course of one’s career. Developing a comfort with and expertise in the process goes a long way, as a cover letter is often the initial introduction of oneself to a potential employer—and could be the key that unlocks that dream job.

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