College Student Looking for Work? Treat Your Cover Letter Like a College Essay

We're excited to feature the work of our summer intern, Darby Hennessey, a native Portlander and journalism student at the University of Mississippi. This one's for all of of you graduating college students and young adults who may be navigating your first(ish) job search. 

If you’re like any typical college student, you probably feel like you’re perpetually on the lookout for a summer internship, part-time job or (gasp!) your first real job. That can feel daunting under the best of circumstances; even more so when it’s a nationally competitive job opening.

So, how (exactly) do you go about snagging that dream internship or first job?

For starters, you’ve got to craft a brilliant resume and cover letter so that you stand out among hundreds—sometimes thousands—of applicants who have the goods, just like you. 

Yikes. Where to begin? 

Try flashing back to your senior year of high school. Amid the chemistry and math assignments, you surely remember the countless applications for schools and scholarships, and all the essays and long-answer questions that went along with them. 

So. Many. Essays.

After months of crafting the perfect college essay to wow the acceptance committee, and many revisions before pressing “submit,” that 500-word piece of art was surely more important than any school assignment in your four years. Heck, teachers and advisors made it seem like it would practically determine your whole life.

Now fast forward to present day. Instead of college applications, you’re doing job applications, and the processes can seem quite similar. (Don’t convulse. This be a good thing, believe it or not.) Now that you’re staring a great new job in the face, consider just telling the decision makers what you do best. Tell them precisely what you have to offer, and how that may benefit that organization.

Just like you did in your college essays, only now the “organization” is a company, not a university.

In your college essay, you probably talked about some deep, inspiring, or challenging moment in your life and explained how it made you a better person, neatly tying it up with why you would be a good fit for University of Whatever. In a single anecdote, you somehow convinced your dream school that you’re a super rad person who is likable, relevant and a great match for that specific program. 

Isn’t that the same thing you’re trying to do with your job applications? Yes, it is. 
And aren’t cover letters just more professional college essays?

Short answer: Yes, yes they are. So don’t let them get the best of you. You’re already a veteran.

Here’s a quick secret that I’ll bet no one through all of your schooling has ever told you:

Your cover letters don’t have to be boring and bland.

Shocking, I know. (And also, incredibly liberating.) 

You don’t have to start your cover letter with the dreaded “To Whom It May Concern.” That phrase is meant for complaining adults in strongly worded emails (if it should be used at all); it’s not the right salutation or tone for a 20-something job seeker looking for the next big internship at Google. 

The people hiring you aren’t stupid. They know you’re much more creative than some run-of-the-mill cover letter, robotically dictating what you want or what you can bring to their company. So give yourself permission to spice it up and stand out.

Need a few tips? 

Start off with a (relevant) anecdote. If you’re applying for a job at Nike, describe how you cried in 4th grade when your mom bought you a competitor’s brand that didn’t have their iconic swoosh. If you’re seeking a job for Mercy Corp, talk about your love of community service and how you’re a regular at your local soup kitchen, where you feed homeless folks every weekend. Make it real, make it true, and add just a hint of brag in there. You’re trying to sell yourself, after all. You’re already a perfect fit for the company, you just have to convince them of that, too. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should be overly creative and over-the-top spunky in a cover letter for a job within a conservative corporation. You should always gauge the personality and vibe of the company and go from there. But, above all else, make yourself stand out. Even if you’re only one of two applicants and you’ve got an amazing resume, you’re going to be picked over the other guy much faster if your cover letter captivates the reviewer. People like people who relate to them, even on a company level. 

If you’re applying for a job – even if it’s just something you need so that you can pay for next semester’s textbooks – you can never give off the impression of “I just need the money.” Nooooo. Companies want to know what’s in it for them if they hire you, not what YOU need out of the deal.

Talk about this in your cover letter. Why, specifically, would you love to work there? Why are you a good fit? What, exactly, can you bring to the company? Write clearly, bluntly, and with confidence. You’ve got all the finesse for the job, so just tell them about it. 

Remember, you’ve already pulled this off, in your college essay. You pulled that off, so remind yourself that you can do it again. You already know how to put together all the pieces you need to snag that perfect job. So go put your skills to work and be the candidate that a company can’t help but hire. 

Photo: Creative Commons / Keith Williamson