Don’t stick to a template
You could easily Google “cover letter template” to get some ideas on how to write it. Don’t.
“You need to think about your audience,” said Kristen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of career and professional development at Harvard Business School. “Who’s reading it? How do you capture their attention enough so they move you from one pile to another?”
This is your time to show your communication skills and your personality. You must make the case that the other 99 percent of applicants don’t have what you have. Following a template, or otherwise putting little effort into making your letter stand out, suggests you’re just another applicant.
Don’t rehash your résumé
Focus on the organization you’re writing to and the job description of the open position. If you nail your cover letter, the hiring manager will end up reading your résumé anyway, so don’t waste precious space duplicating it by going down the list of where you’ve worked.
“It’s to complement your résumé, not repeat it,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Cover letters where you’re just rewriting the content of your résumé aren’t effective.”
Instead, you could list some specific examples of projects you’ve worked on, and explain what you learned from them and how that knowledge would apply to the open position. Or you could offer some new ideas, showing from the start that you understand the company’s goals and would bring creativity.
(Related: Getting past the first cut with a résumé that grabs digital eyes)
Don’t state the obvious
Read your letter again, and zap any clichés or platitudes that don’t say something meaningful about you, the position or the company.
As an example: Don’t say you’re a “hard worker.” Everyone says that, and it would be easy to lie about if you weren’t, making it a meaningless sentiment to include. It merely takes up space that could be better spent on something that actually sets you apart from the other candidates.
“It’s not even worth saying,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. “You’ll show you’re a hard worker by going above and beyond in writing a letter.”
Do your research
This requires going past the first page of Google results.
You could go to a library to sift through professional databases that might have more information, or get coffee with someone who works at the company you’re applying to. Show a familiarity with recent projects, acquisitions and public statements. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but a few sentences to show you’ve put time into it could go a long way.
If you’re not preparing for something as crucial as a cover letter, why would they trust you would prepare for an important meeting?
Focus on what you can offer them
A lot of applicants spend too much time talking about why they love the company, Ms. Fitzpatrick said.
“How many letters does Apple read that say, ‘I couldn’t live without my iPhone’? Probably a lot,” she said. “So you want to show you are unique and you’ve done your research.”
You do want to make it clear that you respect the company and explain why you’re interested, but the focus should be on what you can do for them.
“You want to avoid too many ‘I’ statements — ‘I know this,’ ‘I did this,’ ‘I can do X, Y or Z’ — because that’s too much about what you’re going to get out of this opportunity,” Mr. O’Neill said.
The company isn’t posting a job for charity, or to improve your life; they’re trying to fill a position they consider essential. Convince them that you’re the one who would most help them, not that you’d benefit most from it.
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Sample cover letter for Internship position at New York Times
I bought The New York Times Magazine: Photographs collection as a Christmas gift to myself when the book was first released. Since then, along with my Sunday Times subscription, it has been my main reference for magazine photography.
While looking through the book on the first pass, the portrait of Joan Didion by Eugene Richards stood out to me. On first glance, I won’t lie; I definitely had a “what’s that doing in here?” attitude toward the photo.
But the more I looked — the more I read Richards’ and Gerald Marzorati’s notes, the piece Joan had written that accompanied the photos, and what type of person Joan is and how her personality affected the work — I realized that no other photo in the book would affect me as much as this one.
When I was in college, I never thought that a massively distributed photo, let alone a cover shot, could look like this. The way I was taught was to fill up the frame, make the image tack sharp and always have an easily identifiable moment. Richards’ photo in particular reminds me that I don’t think like that anymore.
It’s such an interesting and brilliant photo to discuss — the way her body is listing, the jewelry around her neck, the depth of field. Why we can’t see what’s behind her on the mantle. Her frail arms and head flecked with grey hair. Her veins. They way only one-fourth of her right eye is in frame. And most of all, her expression. And the way Richards waited and waited for it.
When photos like these come back from assignments, it must be an editor’s dream.
If I joined The New York Times Magazine’s team, being a part of these discussions would be just one way I could contribute.
Attached is my resume, as well as a few links to my work. Thank you very much for taking the time to hear my thoughts.
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