Columns, Opinions

Calvelli ’19: How to write a cover letter

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 28, 2019

For us high-achieving college students, late February doesn’t mean winter: It means job and internship application season. (Unless, of course, you sold your soul to an on-campus recruiter last fall.) Like Halloween in fall, writing cover letters is the most haunting part of this season. Everyone I know hates doing them. They seem robotic and superfluous, both self-congratulatory and boring. Yet maybe the problem isn’t with cover letters themselves; it’s in the rote approach we often take to writing them.

Instead of seeing them as unavoidable necessities, we should try to see the cover letter in its ideal light: as an opportunity to express our passions and explore how the job we’re applying for fits within our values and goals. This, admittedly, takes a rosy vision of work, and many people, myself included, have to apply to jobs for the more mundane purpose of earning a living. Still, part of the privilege of attending a university like Brown — with its expansive network, elite reputation and insanely good post-graduate employment statistics — is that there’s an incredible range of opportunities available to us.

I’d like to believe the stereotype that Brown students actually want to change the world, that our four years here teaches us how we can best serve our communities. If that’s true, then our cover letters can and should reflect the full breadth of our creativity and enthusiasm.

That sounds nice in theory. The question remains, though, how can you actually write an interesting cover letter. Well, for starters, you’ll have to move beyond the standard template. I’m sure you’ve written a version of this letter (just maybe with a few more words): “I’m writing to apply to Job X. I want this job because it aligns with my career goals. Look at this experience I’ve had that shows how talented I am. Look at this other experience I’ve had that shows again how talented I am. To repeat myself, this job sounds great and you should just give it to me already. Interview me please. All the best, [your name].”

Booooo-ring. If I were an employer who wanted to hire someone with real personality, there’s no way I’d give that letter-writer a second look. (Coincidentally, I’ve written lots of cover letters like this, and have never been hired for any of those jobs.)

The first step is to allow yourself creative leeway. Start by thinking of why the job would make you excited to get out of bed every morning. Conveying that with sincerity will show that you’re interested in the organization’s work, not just the idea of having employment anywhere. Then, of course, you have to explain why you’d be valuable to the company — they will be the one paying you, after all. But this shouldn’t be a tepid rehashing of your most highfalutin accomplishments; it should tell an engaging story about an achievement you’re sincerely proud of and how that experience will inform your perspective in the new job.

Most importantly, the letter should be uniquely yours. This means not copying the example you found on resumegenius.com during your frantic 2 a.m. “howto rite a covr letter” Google search.

In my high school creative writing class, the first assignment was to write a cover letter. This seemed like the opposite of creative. Once you start having a little fun, though, the opportunities are endless; for example, my final draft started not with “I’m writing to apply…” but with “The SAT is fun.” Since then, my letters have gotten more boring. (Hopefully, I haven’t too.) Regardless, the point remains: the cover letter is an expression of yourself. It should embody all of the imagination, zeal and dedication that makes you, you.

When I first sat down to write this column, my advice for writing a cover letter was a satirical five-rule process. Each of those rules involves breaking a standard cover letter convention. Rule 1: start every sentence with “I.” Rule 2: consult a thesaurus for every adjective you want to use. Rule 3: copy-paste your resume, just with transition words. Rule 4: transform your letter into a mini-memoir. Rule 5: close every letter with “love, [your name].”

Of course, you probably (read: definitely) shouldn’t follow that advice. Though if you do and it works, please cite this column. And in all honesty, there is something to be said for much of the standard advice. You probably won’t get an interview if you submit a poem or a memoir in place of an actual letter.

But the fear of rejection that comes with applying to any job shouldn’t stop you from applying as the full version of yourself. The cover letter is a place for you to take the most creative license in doing just that, writing with all the eagerness you feel about the opportunity to find meaningful work. After all, what’s the point of going to a unique school like Brown if you present yourself like a Standard Applicant From University Just Outside of Boston?  There isn’t one. So go sit down at your computer, and try to have at least a little fun writing. If you’re really stuck, give my five rules a try. They might not make it into the final draft, but it’s good to smile through a process that’s usually a yawn.

I look forward to hearing more from you about this column.

Love,

Aidan

 

Aidan Calvelli ’19 is not and has never been affiliated with CareerLAB. If you’d like personal feedback on your cover letter for just $19.99, he can be reached at aidan_calvelli@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to  letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.