Cover letters, round 2
May 25, 2006 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Job filter: any advice for a recent graduate trying to write a cover letter that isn't all inane buzzwords and useless filler?

I've read the excellent advice given in earlier threads about cover letters and such, but most of it seems tailored to folks with, well, useful experience to write about. I just got my shiny new degree in computer science, and am looking for work in Boston, to little avail. Any ideas how I can play up the work I've done in school and over summers to make it sound like I know what I'm doing?
posted by Mayor West to Work & Money (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Don't write what you think they're looking for. Write about your passions, how they relate to your experiences, and how they relate to the job you want.
posted by trevyn at 10:04 AM on May 25, 2006

Not applicable in all instances, but I found this guy's advice useful.
posted by milarepa at 10:05 AM on May 25, 2006

Cover letter should be tailored to the job even more than the resume. Pick out the skills they are looking for in the job, and then give specific examples that prove you have those skills. It's easier where you have work experience, but that can be anything that demonstrates the skills including school projects that you completed that incorporate the skills.

For me, confidence gets more attention than earnestness, which can be hard for younger people since people with less experience tend to have more of the latter than the former. If you can speak confidently about your skills, you'll be a leg up on your other students who are all about how they're quick learners and just really, really need a chance.
posted by willnot at 10:35 AM on May 25, 2006

Best answer: I would look for any out-of-the-ordinary skills (specific or general) that are mentioned in the job description. By out-of-the-ordinary, that means you can overlook the usual "team player" / "task-oriented" / "highly motivated self-starter" boilerplate. What you are looking for is a clue for what makes this job different from other jobs. For example, this line pulled from an online job center: "We are searching for exceptional developers who routinely complete tasks in 1/3 the time most programmers do."

Okay, assuming that you possess such panther-quick coding skills, you tell a story of the time you were part of a team who came on board at the last minute, and the project manager had pretty much despaired of meeting the deadline, and then much to the surprise of the PM, your code was finished long before the deadline and you were able to go back in and do two more big chunks of code while everybody else was still futzing about with the first assigment.

Obviously, you modify the details to correspond with the truth as your references remember it.

Now, personally I prefer a slightly subtle approach here, which means that you don't directly refer to the language in the listing; in other words, you don't begin your paragraph with "As an exceptional developer who routinely completes my tasks in 1/3 the time most programmers do." You just tell the story and let the recruiter infer that you possess those qualities.

And I will second trevyn on the "passion" bit: if you are genuiinely in love with your work and you can manage to express that emotion in your writing, that will make your letter stand out from all the "I read with interest..." snoozers that clutter recruiters' inboxes.
posted by La Cieca at 10:36 AM on May 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

Look at job requirements: A,B,C,X,Y,Z. Odds are, A,C,X, and Y will already be on your resume.


Dear whoever,

Please consider me for your current FFFF opening, advertised at (location).

I'm passionate about (field), and -- as my resume shows -- I already have experience with A, C, X and Y.

There's more to me than my resume reveals, however.

During (anecdote), I developed skill B. And in (name of class), I studied and wrote a paper on skill Z. *

In short, I've the skills, abilities and experiences that you're looking for. I'd also bring my intense enthusiasm and my love of teamwork to the job.

I look forward to discussing my application with you in greater detail. Thank you for your time.


(Your name)

* Come up with your own -- true -- explanations of how you qualify for the skills you don't have the experience to put on your resume.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:58 AM on May 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

Do your best to take experiences you actually have and make them make sense for your potential future employer. Example - my wife works in a library, doing a lot of very library-specific things. Listing these on a resume for a non-library job isn't very helpful, as people who see them often won't know what the hell these duties are or why they matter. Your cover letter is where you explain this arcane stuff so that the person reviewing the app can pick up, in one minute or less, what kind of person you are and what skills you bring to the table, in real world terms.

In your case, you'd be doing almost the opposite - taking your non-computer skills and explaining why they are useful in the job you are shooting for. You have more experience than you think - it just isn't full-time work experience in your field of choice. Take what you do have, think about what it says about you as a person, and explain it in simple terms.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:12 AM on May 25, 2006

I think we sometimes put resume/cover letter readers in too much of an Ivory Tower and think there's a magical key to opening it.

The bottom line, really, is that it could be any sort of joe/jane on the other end and they may not be formally trained in identifying talent based on specific criteria in cover letters / resumes.

As a result, the key is to write something universally appealing. Keep it relatively short (2-3 paragraphs) and cover:
- Why you are interested in the position
- Some skill(s) you couldn't really squeeze on to your resume that will help you in the position
- How you are a good fit for the position/company in the long term

Also, end a cover letter on a positive/optimistic note. I like to say "I look forward to hearing from you" or something similar -- you're using language to say flat out that you are expecting to hear from them and not get thrown on the poop pile. It's a minor thing, but anecdotally I can say I think it is helpful.

Finally, as a general rule - proofread it aloud multiple times and have someone else proofread it too. You want it to not only lack typos, but to read well out loud. It's a letter, not a research paper, so it should read as such.

Good luck!
posted by twiggy at 11:53 AM on May 25, 2006

I've got a cs degree too, and I've worked as a programmer. I found that my coding experiences in school were often much more complicated and detailed than what I did on the job. School assignments usually require you to be everything from the designer to the tester, whereas in many work assignments, you are a tiny cog in a big effort.

My point is that you probably have much more experience in a wider variety of areas than you are giving yourself credit for. The problem, obviously, is in the real world, unless you get paid for that work, people tend to discount it. So play up your flexibility - you've no doubt had experience with different types of assignments and different roles on those assignments - and that due to this flexibility, you can hit the ground running.

Good luck!! (And if you need to acquire even more experience while you're job-hunting, look for a volunteer opportunity to beef up your resume and list of references.)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:56 AM on May 25, 2006

I like to say "I look forward to hearing from you" or something similar -- you're using language to say flat out that you are expecting to hear from them and not get thrown on the poop pile. It's a minor thing, but anecdotally I can say I think it is helpful.

I agree, but with one caveat: when I did hiring, I found cover letters that ended with, "I look forward to your positive response" unbearably I-read-a-book-about-writing-business-letters-ish.
posted by joannemerriam at 12:43 PM on May 25, 2006

Write a T-letter (described here). Basically, a T-letter pulls the "desired qualifications" out of an ad and lists your relevant experience next to each one.

This approach offers some major advantages. In particular, if you have relevant experience but it doesn't exactly leap out from your resume and grab the hiring manager's throat, the T-letter lets you connect the dots, showing where a class project or volunteer work or self-study is relevant to their list.

It also makes it easier for the HR person to figure out why you're applying for this job. Never underestimate the "make it easy" factor, especially when applying for a job that will get a lot of applications. The easier you make it for them to see a match, the more likely they'll put your resume in the "interview" pile.
posted by jaed at 1:40 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Your cover letter may or may not be filled with buzzwords, but what's important is that when ever you make any claim about some positive attribute that you back it up with an example demonstrating how you have demonstrated the quality or experience you claim to possess. So, not just 'team player' but 'worked within a team to do X, Y, Z...'.

Also, limit the number of points you make in a cover letter. 5 key points as an absolute maximum.
posted by biffa at 2:02 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

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