A Clarifying Conversation About Cover Letters
OCD Career Corner
Published: Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 10:11
Thanksgiving is typically that time of year when MBA1s are busy feasting on turkey leftovers while scurrying to pull together their cover letters. For many, this is the first cover letter they've written in a long time, perhaps the first cover letter ever. Katie Volz, a Career Counselor in OCD, and Richard Rivera, an MBA2 Graduate Fellow in OCD, sat down to discuss cover letters and their role in landing that dream job.
Richard Rivera: Do cover letters really matter? Does anyone actually read them?
Katie Volz: The short answer is, you have to assume it matters. When it comes time for an employer to select the candidates they want to interview, each company has its own method. For many, the cover letter plays a critical role in determining who has demonstrated the best understanding of what it takes to be successful in the role and connected their experiences to those skills, as well as who has expressed the most desire to work for that organization through their writing. Based on my experience as a former recruiter at an investment bank, the company representatives and school teams get to know the students very well through the recruiting process, but there will always be more students in consideration than there are interview slots. When it comes time to create that "short list" of candidates for the actual interviews, oftentimes it is supplemental materials such as the cover letter that can make the difference between whether a student makes the list. If you're applying to companies who mainly recruit off-campus, the cover letter is just as valuable a component to your application, as recruiters will use it to get to develop a greater sense for who you are and what your abilities are, beyond simply the resume.
RR: If I have never written a cover letter before, how do I begin?
KV: We have a number of great resources for you! Be sure to check out the Career Resources Hub section of your Career Account (in the Documents & Resources tab), where you'll find our Cover Letter Guide, along with some cover letter samples. In addition, WetFeet and Vault have helpful Cover Letter Insider Guides and articles, which you can access through the Career Research section of the Career Resources Hub. As a Stern student, we make these valuable guides available to you, so take advantage of them!
RR: What should a cover letter include?
KV: There are of course the basics, which include who you are and what position you're applying to. However, beyond that, you want to tell a compelling story about why you can do this job, and why you want to do this job for THEM. Your writing can provide more color to specific experiences you've had that are relevant to the job you're applying to, and why these experiences make you a fit for the role. Your paragraphs should complement, not duplicate, the bullet points in your resume. And while you may want to use your resume to explain your particular interest in pursuing this function, the experiences you choose to highlight, if positioned properly, can effectively draw that connection for you.
In addition to highlighting your accomplishments, it's very important to take time in your cover letter to convey why this company is a top company of interest for you; go beyond their website and identify what makes them unique, referencing conversations you've had with individuals in the organization, if applicable, and current or recent developments. Keep in mind that the "real estate" you dedicate on your cover letter to discussing your experiences should be balanced with information about the company.
Finally, rather than emphasizing what working at their company can do for you, communicate the ways in which you will be a valuable addition to their organization and team.
RR: How do I make my cover letter stand out?
KV: It's worth mentioning that you never want to stand out for the wrong reasons (unique format or font, colorful paper if submitting a hard copy, etc.). Consider industry norms in terms of the overall cover letter style and stay within those norms (see above resources).
Taking the time to thoroughly research the position and company can have an immense payoff – not only will you be able to tailor your cover letter statements to the specific skills and qualifications that they are seeking, you will be able to demonstrate your true interest and commitment to this particular company. It's often surprising to me how much time students spend online applying to positions without tailoring their applications for the specific roles and then wonder why they're not called for interviews; if you're going to spend the time to apply, why not take a few extra minutes to consider what they're specifically looking for, and tailor your experiences to their needs? That extra 10 minutes you spend may make the difference between whether or not you are selected to interview, and isn't that worth it?
RR: I have some final basic questions: How long should it be? What date should I use? What if I don't have the recruiter's name or address?
KV: A cover letter should never be more than one page – you have a limited amount of time to capture the employer's attention to begin with, and one page is sufficient. Use the actual date you're applying, and as far as the address and salutation, always try to get the name and address of a specific contact, versus a generic one. If the recruiter's name is not provided in the job description, conduct some due diligence to get their name – work your connections within the organization, speak with current students and alumni to identify a name if possible. Recruiters really prefer to be addressed by their name (e.g. "Dear Ms. ___ or Dear Mr. ___) as opposed to "To Whom It May Concern". That said, if you've thoroughly exhausted your research options and cannot identify a specific name, you can write "Dear Hiring Manager," but this is a last option.