Use What You’ve Got to Write a Persuasive Entry-Level Cover Letter
Writer’s block got you down? Here’s how to write a winning cover letter, regardless of your experience .
By: Ryan Thornton | Contributor for Let’s Eat, Grandma
Let’s face it: Writing a cover letter can be a chore even under the best circumstances.
For students and recent graduates who are just embarking on their professional journeys, the task is especially daunting. Filling out those few critical paragraphs without years of experience to draw from can be challenging.
If this hits close to home, these tips are for you. They will help you use a cover letter to your advantage by highlighting the qualities and skills that set you apart from other applicants and making the most of your accomplishments.
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Leverage your education and extracurricular activities
Remember that everyone has to start somewhere. If you have completed or are on track to complete a college degree, if you have formal training in a skill, or if you have been active in volunteer or extracurricular groups, these are all great assets for you to elucidate in a cover letter.
A gentle reminder: A cover letter is not a personal essay or a summary of your time in college. Rather, it’s an opportunity to illustrate a handful of your greatest achievements that help demonstrate how and why the items listed on your resume make you a great pick for the job.
In the end, a cover letter should fit easily within a single page, so you’ll only have space to elaborate on a few key points. Take a look at your resume and think back on the past few years. Consider any specific courses you excelled in, assignments you completed, or extracurricular activities you participated in that stand out to you.
Coursework can have a tremendous impact on our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Likewise, time spent volunteering, leading group activities, or organizing around a cause can expand our horizons and impart valuable lessons about our abilities. Don’t shy away from mentioning that particular research paper or group assignment you completed that solidified your interest in a profession.
It bears repeating: You want to avoid going into too much detail over any one event. On the other hand, it won’t do you much good to simply restate the components already listed in your resume. Your stories should help contextualize your resume while giving the reader a sense of your character.
Craft a compelling narrative
Often those just beginning their career struggle with placing value on their achievements. Self doubt and negative self-talk can complicate the search for meaningful work and can show up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in a cover letter. Counter this by crafting a personal narrative based on all that you have overcome and what you hope to get out of your career.
If you aren’t sure about your professional trajectory, we recommend checking out Kerri Twigg’s excellent advice on how to use tools like meditation and journaling to develop your inner story. This may prove foundational to your job hunt and will help you write honest and compelling cover letters based on a clear vision and foundation of self-worth.
Let your ambitions show
As an entry-level candidate, your cover letter is where you should articulate your passion for a job and its broader professional field. Your passion indicates a commitment to this line of work in the absence of years of steady professional experience.
Your long-term goals may be a particularly welcome addition to your cover letter if they align well with the specific niche of the company. This alignment signals your interest in staying with the company into the future and suggests a personal investment in the position besides getting a paycheck, both of which could help your chances.
Like the paragraphs describing your experiences, any summary of your professional goals should be brief. You’ll want to spend most of the letter clarifying the ways you are capable of helping the company accomplish its mission, not how the job will help you advance your career.
Embrace your “soft” skills
Many entry-level job applicants have difficulty filling out a cover letter with measurable “hard” skills like foreign language fluency, computer programming, or competency with technical tools or software. While most jobs do require some form of technical skill, you can greatly improve your cover letter by discussing deftness in one or two skills that aren’t so easily measured.
According to some leading thinkers, soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication, critical thinking, and leadership are arguably the most essential skills for work in the 21st century. Some people are now even swapping the term soft skills in favor of “power skills,” a phrase that demonstrates the increasing importance of these capacities and does not perpetuate misconceptions about the work involved in developing these skills.
Explain red flags
When it comes to life’s twists and turns, it’s often best to be honest with potential employers up front. If your resume contains any gaps from time away from school or an incomplete degree, you’ll want to save some room in your cover letter to provide some context for those periods.
There are hundreds of reasons why you may have not been able to complete a degree program or chose to take some time off from school or work. You do not need to feel pressured to justify your decision here. The important thing is that you make the effort to explain any general circumstances that led to your decision and, if possible, demonstrate how you recovered or are currently bouncing back from any personal setbacks.
In some instances, it may be appropriate to mention how these experiences outside of school or work contributed something of benefit to your story. For example, if you took time off to go backpacking in a foreign country or bicycle to Alaska, you might note how these adventures helped you define your personal goals and stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone.
Another potential red flag is a dramatic shift in a career path, or a decision to enter a career that is not explicitly relevant to your education. However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be an issue. In your cover letter, you will want to pick out the common threads between what you previously did and what you now want to be doing. There are likely important values at the heart of your previous and current endeavors; you can help assuage any concerns by articulating those continuities.
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