The cover letter is your shot at getting a hiring editor’s attention so that he or she will move to the next step and take a look at your employment history and work samples. More practically, it announces the job or internship for which you are applying.
So when a job posting’s application instructions doesn’t specify sending a cover letter, you probably should include one anyway.
* Keep your letter to one short page. (That’s three or four short paragraphs, if you’re sending the letter as an email to which you are attaching your resume and clips.)
* Make it concise, clear and conversational. But not gimmicky: Most hiring editors aren’t charmed by an applicant’s childhood memories of sitting on dad’s lap reading the paper. Nor are they swayed by such opening lines as “Stop. You’ve found the perfect candidate.”
* Indeed, don’t try to stand out by using adjectives to praise yourself anywhere in your letter. Describing yourself as “talented” or “the ideal person for this job” isn’t the way to bring editors to such conclusions. The best way for your letter to stand out is for it to be engaging — informative, lively, well-written.
* Tailor the letter to the job or internship you’re seeking. Yes, this means writing a fresh cover letter for each application. Include a line or two that shows you’re familiar with the publication, website or broadcast outlet in question. And if you can possibly help it, don’t send a letter addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern.” (Granted, some postings insist on a generic way to apply, so you may be unable to avoid this.) You’re a journalist, so do a little research to find the correct name, title and e-mail address of the person to whom you should apply. Make a phone call to the outlet, if necessary, to ask for that email address.
* Edit and proofread. In our business, this is especially important. And if you’re sending the letter as a hard copy, don’t forget to sign it.
The letter should consist of three or four brief paragraphs:
OPENING PARAGRAPH: Give the basics.
* Why you’re writing. You’re writing to apply for the job or internship opening at XX publication. If a professor or other contact knows the editor to whom you’re writing and has told you to mention his/her name, do that in the first sentence.
* “Where” you are right now [FOR INTERNSHIP: "I'm currently a student at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I specialize in xxxxx," or some such. FOR JOB: "In mid-December, I'll be graduating from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where I specialize in xxxxx."] Think about omitting the specialty if it doesn’t relate to the job or internship you’re after.
*Add something to suggest what makes you a good fit for the job — without using those words. ["While a student here, I've discovered hyperlocal reporting — freelancing for xxxx and completing a summer internship at xxxx. For me, this kind of journalism combines the best of xxxxx and xxxxx."] OR: ["I arrived at J-school with a print background but quickly fell in love with radio, interning at xxxxx and xxxx." etc. ]
MIDDLE PARAGRAPH(S): Here’s where you describe, in two sentences max, your relevant qualifications. Don’t just repeat what’s on your resume; flesh out the most interesting work you’ve done — before and during J-school.
The middle part is also the place to clarify information on your resume, if need be ["Although most of my experience has been at weeklies, I've been meeting daily — sometimes hourly — deadlines at my internship at xxxx. So I feel ready to take on breaking news stories."]
Finally, this middle graf (or grafs) should reflect your interest in the outlet. A sentence or two is fine. Be specific: Don’t praise the organization; instead, refer knowledgeably to the kind of pieces it produces — explaining your interest and your grounding in these subjects. ["I follow your education coverage religiously and would love the chance to contribute to it. I covered school issues in my urban reporting class and at my internship at xxx; I'm fascinated by the subject and think I now have a solid understanding of what covering it entails."]
CLOSING PARAGRAPH: End by keeping the door open. Mention any enclosures or attachments (resume, references, clips). “Attached [or enclosed] are xxxxx.” Your final sentence should be courteous: “Thank you for your consideration.” Don’t say that you’ll be calling to set up an interview (that’s the employer’s choice) or that you “hope to hear” from someone “soon.”
NOTES ON STYLE:
* Take a journalistic approach: Think of the letter as having a lede, expansions on that lede and a windup. Define things that need defining. (“Before enrolling in J-school, I was a general assignment reporter at the Oconomowoc Focus, which covers townships in southern Wisconsin.”)
*Think about the flow between paragraphs.
*Don’t be afraid to write informally, using dashes and parentheses where it makes sense to do so.
* Every writer needs an editor, so don’t forget that the Office of Career Services is here to help you! We are happy to review your cover letter before you send to your potential employer.