But nevertheless, there are still going to be places you want to intern despite not having a foot in the door already—internship programs that get your heart racing but seem totally out of your reach. The thought of an HR representative thumbing through a waist-high stack of applications with no reason to settle on yours is always nerve-wracking. But you can stand out from the bunch, even in a cold application. The key is to write an engaging cover letter that makes the reader want to learn more about you.
There are plenty of resources on the web that do a good job of explaining business letter format, the topics your letter should address, and the basic layout of a good cover letter, so I’m not going to try to expand on that here. And I am most certainly not an expert in the field; by all means, make use of your school’s career development office and friends and relatives who work in human resources for some more great cover letter advice. However, after writing close to a hundred cover letters for job and internship applications and keeping track of which types of letters have most often earned me a call back, I’ve learned a few tricks that can help your cover letter make it to the top of that stack of applications.
More than anything else, the best insight I can share on cover-letter writing is this: a good cover letter is just like a good commercial.
When you write to potential employers, you are trying to sell your most important commodity: your skills. Like the marketers behind any advertisement, you’re trying to hook your audience, to remain in their minds, and ultimately to inspire them to take action. To do that, pick up a few lessons from good advertising:
Shine early. The fact that you're required to introduce yourself and the position you're applying for in the first paragraph of your cover letter is no reason to bore your reader! Did the Old Spice man start his commercial by saying, “My name is Isaiah Mustafa and I want to sell you deodorant”? No—just imagine how lame television would be if every commercial started with a bland statement of intent!
I expect reading job applications can often be like watching a block of commercials that all begin the same way. Just think how quickly you’ll be able to grab your reader’s attention if, after reading the same lackluster introduction (e.g. “My name is Rachel Stark, and I am writing to apply for an editorial internship in your company”) a hundred times over, she encounters yours and finds the first sentence refreshingly different.
Offer a solution to a problem. So how should you start your cover letter? I formed one of my favorite strategies after attending a job search seminar given by the Director of Human Resources at Scholastic. He suggested finding out what problem a company faces, and explaining in your cover letter how you can help them solve it. I love this as a way to start a cover letter because it immediately highlights both your extraordinary skills and your knowledge of the company. Here’s an example:
As an editor dedicated to breaking new ground in the digital era, you must be looking for an Editorial Intern who is creative enough to make good editorial calls, but also tech-savvy enough to help you explore the opportunities of digital media. As an experienced reader, an avid social networker, and an amateur programmer, I can offer you exactly that.But that approach is really only one among many that will work well! You can make a huge impact just by using dynamic, active language and varying your sentence structure. Interestingly, in this article published by Esquire, the author points out that the least conventional cover letter he submitted during his job search earned him the most responses. Think hard about how to best advertise yourself, and about what your audience is likely to respond to. Be humble, but convey your strengths with certainty—if you are confident right off the bat about what you have to offer, your reader will be as well.
Connect to your audience. This goes hand-in-hand with the tip above: in your cover letter, you want to convey an understanding of your reader’s needs and interests. Show that you are passionate and excited not just about the position, but also about the company. If you know the name of the person to whom you would be reporting and can read his or her blog posts, interviews, or Publishers Weekly profile to get a sense of his or her interests and viewpoints, even better!
At the very least, you should convey an understanding of what the role entails, of the company’s corporate environment, and of the industry as a whole. There’s a big difference between a big publishing company with a thumb in every pie like Random House and a small company with a defined mission like Lee & Low (we'll talk about some of them next week); these companies want to know that you are excited not just about interning, but specifically about interning with them. Let them know that you share a common mission, that you admire them, or even that you know how to make them smile, and you’ve gone a long way towards showing what a good fit you are for the company.
Tell a story. Don’t worry about cramming every one of your relevant skills and experiences into a single page; that’s what your resume is for! Instead, use the cover letter as a platform to tell a great story about your skills in action. If you’ve had an internship or relevant work experience before, try to tell a good story from your most recent experience. If not, never fear! Your leadership in clubs, societies, and part-time jobs is just as valid. Describe a problem or a need that you identified, explain the solution you came up with, and give a concise picture of the role you played in executing your strategy. Finally, explain the overall impact your solution had. For example:
In my third month at my current position, I volunteered to help lead a new, company-wide marketing initiative. I brainstormed ways to identify possible customers, streamlined the communication about leads, and promoted our books through reviews and advertising. The initiative’s success enabled the company to exceed its revenue goals despite the recession, and my experience will allow me to recreate that success in your company’s marketing department.If your strongest story exhibits the skills you’ll be using as an intern but doesn’t directly relate to one of the internship's typical duties, feel free to spell out what you learned from the experience, and what it allows you to contribute to an internship position. Remember that in publishing we are all storytellers, and we connect most immediately with those who can tell a compelling story.
Those are just a few ideas to get you started. These are by no means hard and fast rules, and I encourage you to experiment and see what works for you. But if you put these ideas into action and get results, let us know! Or, if you disagree or have some other strategies to share, leave us a note! Finally, If you’ve taken a stab at networking in the last week, I hope you’ll let us know how it went in comments as well.