I Don’t Know What to Write…Help!

By: David Ross

We all have those moments when we’re working on something and just don’t know how to get started. As a counselor, I’ll receive several questions about cover letters. What are they? What should be included? What are recruiters and hiring managers looking for? What makes a strong cover letter? How do I write the best, most unique, outstanding cover letter ever written? Slight exaggeration – but people always want to know this.

So why cover letters? What the’s purpose? A cover letter is a great chance to tell your story – not a detailed autobiography from childhood, but your story. Ideally you can use this forum to give more insight into your background – skills, qualifications, experience and convince an employer to interview you for a position. A strong, well written cover letter by itself will not get you hired but may be helpful as one piece of your application for a position.

What are areas or topics to cover in a letter? You want to think carefully about your education (not only majors/minors/classes, but also projects/cases/presentations), activities and of course work experiences. Identify the most relevant things you’ve done and highlight them in your cover letter.

Another thing that’s easy to overlook is your interest in the employer and organization. It’s natural to assume that because you’re applying for a position that you are demonstrating interest and the employer realizes this. However, that does not explain the rationale or motivation behind why you want to work for a certain company or organization in a specific role. You may actually make your letter more memorable if you express your reasons for being interested in the position. If you can include something interesting you’ve found in your research on the company, even better. But of course avoid common, trite generalities here.

Having read many cover letters and cover letter drafts, I would recommend avoiding the following pitfalls. Number one – try to avoid using a negative tone and do not draw attention to your weaknesses or flaws. Your letter should focus on reasons to bring you in for an interview not the opposite. Number two – avoid going on tangents and dwelling too much on a single experience. You may have a very interesting and unique example to share, which is great. But try not to get caught up on providing a lengthy, detailed account of a single experience. Your letter should cover a few key areas of interest to the employer opposed to one particular experience. Number three – try not to write things just because you think the employer wants to see them. You do want to focus on the things an employer values in a candidate, but make the cover letter your story. Let your letter reveal something about you that may not be readily evident. And number four, do not restate verbatim what is listed on your resume. You can certainly expand on a few items on your resume or consider adding information to supplement what’s listed on your resume.

Author: David

David Ross is a Senior Associate Director of Career Services for Wharton undergraduates and occasional blogger for "Penn & Beyond."