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At Work

How to Write a Cover Letter

Because pandemic or not, those one-shot first impressions aren’t going anywhere

By Lisa Szabo, ’16 BA

September 16, 2020 •

Kitchen tables have transformed into home offices. Skype meetings have made pants almost optional. Jobs are harder to find. But one thing that hasn’t changed: the importance of a cover letter. This one-page document isn’t just a summary of your skills — and it certainly isn’t a resumé recap. It’s your first opportunity to show an employer how your experience and personality make you the right fit. Career adviser Emily Marriott, ’17 BA, spoke with host Matt Rea, ’13 PhD, about cover letters in an episode of What The Job? last fall. A student services adviser at the U of A’s Career Centre, she gives tips to turn this standard document into a stand-out first impression.

1: Start with the job posting

“The cover letter is an opportunity to explain how your experience, your skills and your accomplishments make you a good fit for an organization,” says Marriott. To do that, you need to know what they’re looking for. Familiarize yourself with the organization’s mission statement and values, and get up close and personal with the job posting by reading it thoroughly and identifying the most important skills listed in the posting — then be strategic. Instead of trying to hit every skill they mention, focus on the areas where your strengths meet their needs.

2: Show them you care

If you’re applying for several jobs in a similar field, it might be tempting to use the same cover letter. “We often see people make standardized cover letters that they use for every job, and that’s no good,” Marriott says. By tailoring your cover letter to the specific job, you show the employer that you care about the position enough to write what she calls “a sometimes painful” document.

3: Be clear and avoid jargon

As a general rule, you should write a cover letter in standard business format, but that doesn’t mean it has to be stuffy. “You want to match the tone of the organization and make sure that your personality is coming through,” says Marriott. So, resist falling into sterile descriptions. “You’re trying to show [the employer], ‘I’m somebody that you’re going to want to see every day.’” Write in clear prose that is easy to understand and avoids industry jargon.

4: Don’t just summarize

“A cover letter is not a summation of your resumé,” says Marriott. “It’s a complementary document.” While a resumé breaks down your skills and work experience, the cover letter should give more insight into your personality. Avoid double dipping from your resumé. And resist reciting a laundry list of skills — just saying you work well on a team won’t be enough to convince an employer. Instead, share stories about times that you put your relevant skills and experience into practise.

5: Use the Career Centre

As a U of A grad, you can book a one-on-one appointment with an adviser from the U of A Career Centre to fine-tune your resumé and cover letter. “An adviser will sit down with you and go through your cover letter,” says Marriott, identifying your strengths and what you can improve. The career centre also provides a cover letter checklist and template on its website, as well as a variety of other career resources.

Listen to the full episode of What the Job? featuring Emily Marriot.

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