In my role as career advisor to college students and recent grads, I see plenty of cover letters. They almost always begin with a fairly lengthy description of all the wonderful qualities the candidate brings to the organization. And frequently these letters end with something like, “I am confident that Company X will benefit from my strong communication skills (or quantitative skills).” And there is “I know I can learn a great deal at Company X and look forward to making a strong an immediate impact”.
These phrases all raise red flags for employers. They make the candidate look naive and arrogant. So I say to you, dear candidate, as I did on Twitter the other day, “It’s not about what the company can do for you, it’s what you can do for the company.”
When you’re young and don’t have a lot of experience, it’s hard to know what to say in a cover letter to further your candidacy. Some people simply leave out the cover letter or introductory email altogether, which is even worse than writing a self-centered one.
So what’s the right approach to get an employer’s attention?
Know whom you’re addressing.
It’s tough to send a letter when you don’t know the person’s name. I always advise to never send your letter “To Whom It May Concern”. Instead, see if you can network your way to a hiring manager. If not, at least find out the name of the person you are sending your resume to. You’d be surprised how infrequently this is done and therefore it’s much appreciated when someone takes the time to get a name.
Show that you’ve done your homework.
Spend time researching the company as well as some of its competitors, so you have some perspective on problems they are trying to solve. Try and weave some of that knowledge into your letter in a way that demonstrates both your interest and your grasp of the position itself. This is not easy and will take you some time.
Adopt a friendly and professional tone.
Avoid business-speak and try and engage with the reader (who is bored to tears reading all of the terrible cover letters s/he’s receiving!) Do not start by stating your name—it’s amazing how many people do this—but rather, introduce yourself as a recent graduate of X college majoring in Y.
Let them know you’ll follow up.
If appropriate (for example, if you’re applying through an ad, it may say “no calls”), tell the employer you will call in a week to check on your application. And then do it. Since Millenials rarely use the phone outside of calling their friends, preferring to hide behind email, the phone is the secret weapon of job search. And it gives you the opportunity to leave a voicemail to promote your candidacy, so be prepared for that beep with a strong, confident pitch.
Don’t fall into the trap of being viewed as an entitled Millenial who’s above taking an entry-level job. Show the company that you are ready and willing to work really hard and do anything they ask—in the hopes that you’ll gain some great experience you can tout to the next employer.