Your cover letter is an excellent opportunity to communicate your personality, enthusiasm and professional strengths to an employer. It gives you a chance to highlight those experiences and interests that make you a unique applicant.
Go into detail about your background and skills instead of reiterating what is already on your resume. More and more, interview decisions rest on the employer’s sense of you as a person. Your cover letter plays a pivotal role in creating this impression.
Keep in mind that your letter gives the employer a sample of how well you write. Be careful about typos, spell-check your letter, and edit any grammatical mistakes. Vary your sentence structure to keep the employer interested; for example, do not begin every sentence with “I (verb).”
We also encourage you to watch the OCS/OPIA Cover Letter Workshop video.
Length & Tone
Cover letters should be about one full page. Your letter is an uninterrupted chance to tell an employer about yourself and to add depth to the credentials highlighted on your resume. Treat the cover letter much like a one-sided interview, using a personal, yet professional, tone in your cover letters that adds a sense of who you are as an individual, why you are interested in this particular employer and why you will work well at that particular office. The less standardized your letter is, the better it will be remembered.
Addressing Your Letter
Try to address your cover letter to the particular person responsible for hiring in each office. Call the human resources office or hiring contact and ask for the hiring attorney’s name. Avoid addressing a letter “to whom it may concern.” Show that you took the initiative to find out the person’s name and title. Remember to confirm all contacts’ information, as changes are inevitable. When all else fails, you can address your letter to the “Hiring Coordinator.”
Paragraph of Introduction
The first paragraph of your letter should serve to identify you (e.g., I am a first year student at Harvard Law School) and should explain why you are contacting them (e.g., I am applying for a summer internship with your office.). Mention how you learned about the organization or the specific job opening, whether it was from a previous intern in the office, an article in the paper, a speaker on a panel or a job announcement. Include a short sentence or two that summarizes why you are the right person for this job.
Qualifications & Interests
The middle paragraphs should stress those work experiences that are most relevant to the position without merely rehashing the descriptions in your resume. This section should include your public service experience, leadership positions, relevant course work, etc. Weave a story that explains your background and includes why you are seeking work with this particular employer (e.g., your interest in civil rights).
Focus on how your skills fulfill the employer’s needs. Doing so will show not only that you recognize your own capabilities, but that you also have done research about and understand the organization. Make specific connections between your skills and experience and the work the office does.
In this section, the employer expects to find out why he or she should consider you for the job. For this reason, you have to distinguish yourself from the crowd. Displaying genuine and informed enthusiasm for the position goes a long way, particularly when it is linked to your own work experience.
The last paragraph should thank the employer for his or her consideration, provide your contact information and indicate that you will call within the next few weeks to set up a time to meet. Let out-of-town employers know if you will be in their area at some time in the near future in order to facilitate scheduling an interview.
Unless an employer requests no phone inquiries, it is often a smart follow-up strategy to call the employer to confirm that your resume was received and indicate when you are available for an interview. Alternatively, you can send an email message to the hiring contact. It is particularly helpful to let an organization know if you will be coming to town and are available to meet.
You have to be careful to balance persistence and enthusiasm about the position against aggressiveness and overexuberance. The idea is for the employer to have your name in mind when turning his or her attention to final hiring decisions – not to harass them.
You can also send writing samples or other materials to update your resume if the hiring process takes some time. Calls or emails from practitioners or professors familiar with the employer are sure to impress potential employers and may land you an interview.
Sending Your Letter and Resume
If the employer states a preference for email or another format, definitely follow his/her guidelines. Many times an organization will accept both emailed and hard copy applications.
If you are sending your materials electronically, and no file format is specified, convert your files to PDF to preserve formatting. Be sure to include both your last name and the type of document (resume, writing sample, etc.) in the filename to facilitate the recipient’s ability to store and locate these files. Also, if you are writing to a federal agency in Washington, DC, it is often wise to send your letter electronically (email or fax) because mail for US Government offices is subject to security measures and is often delayed.