How to write a cover letter for competitive internships and jobs

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Cover letters

Cover letters are one of the greatest mysteries in the internship and full-time recruiting process.

Very few people know what a strong cover letter looks like. And I’ll be honest -- the cover letter I used throughout my recruiting process was a B grade at best.But after rethinking my approach and speaking with friends who cracked the cover letter mystery, I put together a guide on how to write an A+ grade cover letter.

There really is a formula for writing a seriously impressive cover letter. People who followed the guidelines below wrote cover letters that captivated the attention of resume screeners and consistently landed interviews at the world’s most competitive firms.

But before we get into the specifics, it’s important to take a step back and understand the role of a cover letter in the overall recruiting process.

Why is a Cover Letter Important?

A cover letter is a 1-page, professional document that many companies request along with your resume. Cover letters are used to humanize the applicant by drawing attention to the story behind an applicant’s resume and assess their fit for the job. I’ve used a variation of this chart in the past, which explains the components needed to land offers with the most competitive companies.

Formula to land a job offer

While critical to the recruiting process, cover letters and resumes are part of putting together a strong application, which is just one of three components to landing the interview.

Furthermore, cover letters will not help you convert an interview to an offer. At that point, it’s up to your technical and behavioral interview skills, along with a little luck.

If you have a track record of landing every interview you want, you’re doing something right and this guide is probably not going to help you land more offers.

However, if you are like the vast majority of applicants who keep getting rejected by their dream companies, then this guide will help you.

Cover Letters are like a Hail Mary

Most job applications require a resume and cover letter. However, I believe many employers are more interested in the resume than the cover letter.

I’ve heard stories of employers asking for cover letters then throwing them away (or not reading them), and nowadays, an increasing number of employers don’t even bother asking for a cover letter.

Does this mean cover letters are not important? Definitely not.

In fact, cover letters can swing you into the interview process when you otherwise would have been rejected.

Screening resumes for a position is a fairly straightforward process. There are some candidates who are obviously very strong fits, as evident by their incredible resume. Other candidates are the opposite and unfortunately don’t have much of a chance at an interview (unless they networked like crazy).

However, the majority of applicants fall somewhere in between -- their resumes are good but not rockstar quality. This is where it gets tough for the screener to choose who to give interviews to.

If you have a good resume and an internal referral, it is likely that you will have a massive advantage in landing an interview.

But the other way you can stand out is to write an incredible cover letter. (Massive bonus points if you write an incredible cover letter and get a referral.)

Cover letters are often an afterthought for even the strongest of applicants, so if you write a captivating cover letter, it very likely might get your resume into the “to-be interviewed” stack.

I think of them like a Hail Mary pass in football. For those of you who may not be familiar with this concept, a Hail Mary pass is

a very long forward pass in American football with only a small chance of success and time running out on the clock.

Hail Marys can literally win the game, but they are not consistent or reliable. Cover letters are similar -- an incredible cover letter could win you the interview despite a below-average resume, but you should not overly rely on it.

Cover letter do’s and don'ts

As a 10,000 foot overview, your cover letter is a place to show:

  • Key strengths that are not obvious from your resume
  • Directly call out any obvious weaknesses on your resume (eg. low GPA)
  • Show your fit for the job
  • Demonstrate your strong written communication skills

Your cover letter is not a place to show:

  • In-depth explanations of analyses you did in an internship or other bullets already on your resume
  • A laundry list of all your accomplishments
  • Your entire life story
  • You know every person at the company by liberally name-dropping people that you hardly know

With the basics out of the way, let’s drill down into the anatomy of a strong cover letter.

Cover Letter Housekeeping -- The Basics

Length and Spacing

Your cover letter should never be more than one page. Furthermore, this one page rule does not imply that you can cram the page with as much information as possible.

While you can get away with doing that on your resume, you cannot do that for your cover letter. You might write a great story on your cover letter and do all the right things, but if the page looks too crowded, it’s likely the screener will just throw it away and not read it.

Keep it to one page and use ample spacing.

Formal Writing

Cover letters are inherently formal documents -- make sure your language is slightly more formal than your typical writing style.

Remember that you aren’t talking to your best friend but a prospective employer that is using this document to judge whether you are worthy of an interview.

It’s also important to use the word “I” instead of “we.” I know it feels uncomfortable to make statements about what “I” accomplished, when in reality many accomplishments are team efforts and deserve the use of “we.”

However, your cover letter is about you. By using “we,” you risk discrediting yourself in the eyes of the reader.  I’ve included examples later in this guide; notice how I address the recipient, phrase certain sentences, and use “I” statements.

Zero Grammar and Spelling Errors

You are giving the screener a reason to reject you if there are any spelling or grammar errors on your cover letter or resume.

One of the most common mistakes is to copy and paste the same cover letter from a different company and forget to change the company name. First of all, if you copy and paste the same cover letter, do not forget to change all mentions of the old company name to the new company name.

More importantly, if the cover letter makes sense after copying the same content for another company, the cover is probably a C grade at best and is not tailored enough to the specific company you are applying to.

Cover Letter Example Content -- The Secret to Standing Out

I will be referencing sections of this fake cover letter I wrote throughout the rest of this guide. Don’t worry about reading it all at once -- there's also a version in text at the end of this article.

Cover Letter Full

The structure of an A+ cover letter is very simple. There are 4 parts:

  1. Header and Formalities: Standard, not very unique to each company
  2. Introduction: A few sentences to explain key facts about your background
  3. Body: The meat of the cover letter -- see below for details on how to make this section really stand out
  4. Conclusion: A few sentences to tie your story together

Part 3 is where you can really make your cover letter stand out, the rest of the parts are basics that any decent cover letter should have.

Cover Letter Header and Formalities

Cover letter Header

The first few lines on your cover letter should give the reader basic information about yourself. I prefer to left align and stack this information. Typically I include:

  • My Full Name
  • My Mailing Address
  • My Phone Number
  • My Email Address (optional)
  • Date

I space this information out appropriately before starting the cover letter by greeting the recipient -- usually a recruiter or the head of the program. Any variation of a formal introduction works, and if you don’t know the recipient’s identity you can use the phrase “To Whom it May Concern.” You may be thinking this is wasting a lot of space. That is purposeful.

You want to make it easy for the screener to read your cover letter, and stacking this information makes the cover letter look cleaner while forcing you to be concise later in the document.

Finally, start the cover letter off with a statement on the exact position, company, and office (if applicable) that you are applying to.

Cover Letter Introduction

Cover Letter Introduction

The introduction of your cover letter should be no more than a handful of lines long. Typically I include:

  • The position and company
  • My university name, major, and any relevant minors
  • Name dropping people who know me (use this sparingly)
  • Topic sentence outlining what value I plan on bringing to the company and proving that I did my research on the company culture or job duties

The first two bullets are straightforward, basic facts to include about your background. They should take up no more than 2 sentences. Then I mentioned a few people I spoke with and how that related to my understanding of the company. This flows nicely into the most important sentence in the introduction -- the topic sentence. Much like writing an essay, the topic sentence should inform the reader about the content in the body of your cover letter. I think about writing topic sentences as making unsubstantiated claims about the value you will bring to the firm.After reading the topic sentence, the reader should think to themself,

“Okay, this makes sense. But can you prove to me that you will bring the value you just promised?”  

Then, in the body of the cover letter, you will walk the reader through each claim in your topic sentence and substantiate them with stories one-by-one. Lastly, the introduction is a great place to get in front of any weaknesses in your application, such as a low GPA. For example, you could explicitly call out your low GPA and explain that it’s not a true measure of your value, then write a strong cover letter that better communicates your abilities.

Cover Letter Body

Cover Letter Body

This is the meat of the cover letter, where you can stand out from other candidates. There are a few obvious things I did to make this an A+ body section.

  1. I used bullets, bolded text, and indentation to make the body easier on the eyes. While this is a formal document, it’s okay to take some stylistic liberties for the sake of making the cover letter more legible for the reader.
  2. The topic sentence mentioned my “track record of mentorship, inclusion, and obligation to dissent.” Not coincidentally, those are also the key words bolded with each of my body section bullets.
  3. As mentioned earlier, the topic sentence should state a narrative about you and the body backs that narrative up with proof. So with each bullet, I showcased a story to prove proved my “track record” of each attribute. It’s important to minimize context and ruthlessly cut unnecessary details. The last sentence of each paragraph specifically states the impact I had on the situation. Driving results is always important.

Those of you with experience writing cover letters may be wondering “where is the personalization to the company?” After all, I mentioned that your cover letter is not tailored enough if you can replace the company name with their competitor and the content still makes sense.That brings us to the most important part of writing an A+ cover letter. Topic sentence attribute selection:

The attributes I chose to include in my topic sentences and bold with each bullet were not random -- they are specific values that McKinsey deeply cares about. After a few minutes of researching the firm’s values, I came across this:

McKinsey Values

I also confirmed that these values are important through actual conversations with members of McKinsey. To make my cover letter stand out, I chose three that most resonated with me and modeled my topic sentence and body paragraphs directly off them.

Cover Letter Conclusion

Cover Letter Conclusion

The last part of the cover letter is a conclusion to tie the whole document together. This is a great place to further personalize the cover letter by mentioning unique characteristics about the company. In my introduction paragraph, I mentioned my conversations with John and Sarah. Here, I briefly explained what resonated with me from my conversations. It also ties well with the narrative in my body paragraphs. Lastly, I included a McKinsey-specific word that the reader will subconsciously understand. McKinsey refers to consulting projects as “studies”, and by subtly using the company's language it helps convince the screener that I am a strong fit.

How to know when you’ve written a strong cover letter

From the Do’s and Don’ts of writing cover letters, I mentioned that at a 10,000 foot view, your cover letter should include:

  • Key strengths that are not obvious from your resume
  • Directly call out any obvious weaknesses on your resume (eg. low GPA)
  • Show your fit for the job
  • Demonstrate your strong written communication skills

As the McKinsey screener reads my cover letter, I want them to believe the following:

  1. I have strong written communication skills
  2. I did my research and deeply understand the unique values of McKinsey
  3. I exemplify those values throughout my life
  4. I have strong leadership and problem solving experience (showcased through my stories)
  5. I would fit right in at the firm

Finally, if you Control+F and replace McKinsey with Bain in my cover letter, the whole document falls apart. There’s no logic in applying to Bain and discussing “the obligation to dissent,” a uniquely McKinsey phrase. That’s the formula for a cover letter that will grab the screener’s attention. While everyone else kicks aside their cover letters (including myself during the recruiting process), you can stand out by investing a small amount of time into writing an A+ cover letter. Lastly, adapt this structure however you’d like to make it uniquely yours. This formula is a great starting point, but be creative and be yourself!

Mock Cover Letter

Rohan Punamia

123 First Street San Francisco, CA 94110

(999) 123 4567

August 15th, 2018

Dear Ms. Yates,I am a rising senior at UC Berkeley-Haas, studying business administration and technology. After speaking extensively with John Doe and Sarah Smith, I believe I am a strong fit for McKinsey’s unique culture and would bring to the firm my track record of mentorship, inclusion, and obligation to dissent.

  • Mentorship at Scale: At UC Berkeley, I noticed a small number of students received multiple job offers while many graduated unemployed. After speaking with over 50 students across this spectrum, I realized students graduating with multiple job offers often had access to high-quality career advice that was circulated internally amongst exclusive student organizations. In response to this problem, I built a career advice blog to democratize access to quality career advice and help create economic opportunity for students at scale. To date, I’ve written over 40 career advice articles, grown my subscriber base to 6,000 readers, and directly helped hundreds of students launch their careers.
  • Nonhierarchical and Inclusive: During my tenure as president of the entrepreneurship fraternity Sigma Eta Pi, I faced resistance from a few members who disagreed with my leadership decisions due to differing beliefs of the fraternity’s long-term vision. Rather than ignoring them and continuing to drive decisions, I led an all-hands workshop to include members in the executive team decision-making process. We sourced 50 variations of vision statements from all members, and aligned on a single, uniting vision to guide future decisions. Today, leadership and members make difficult decisions together, enabling the fraternity to evolve at a rapid pace.
  • Obligation to Dissent: As a member of a social impact consulting club, I noticed that our organization was facing a major talent roadblock. Our final round talent pipeline was saturated with business students and lacked diverse candidates with social impact interest. The president strongly believed in our strict case-interview process, while I believed that we our evaluation criteria was biased. Despite the gap in authority, I disagreed with his opinion and convinced him that other skills were more predictive of performance by analyzing the club’s top performers and their case interview scores. Afterwards, I spearheaded the development of a new recruiting process that tested for problem solving, mission alignment, and commitment to reduce bias and recruit diverse candidates.

In my informational interview with John Doe, he explained the firm’s flat organizational structure and how business analysts are encouraged to leverage highly experienced and global industry experts throughout studies. Sarah Smith spoke admiringly of McKinsey’s well-structured BA program, with extensive formal and informal mentorship and thoughtful benchmarks to pace analyst development.For these reasons and many others, the BA program seems like a stellar fit for my background, personality, and long-term goal of being a strategic leader in the technology industry.Thank you for considering my application for the Business Analyst position with McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco Office.Sincerely,Rohan Punamia

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