Writing your first cover letter: what information can you include?

Jun 21, 2023

5 mins

Writing your first cover letter: what information can you include?
Debbie Garrick

Writer, translator and ex-recruiter

Writing a cover letter might seem like a whole lot of pointless hard work, especially when you’re writing your first cover letter. You might even wonder if you really need to include one, does anyone still read cover letters anyway? Heidi Giusto, a career consultant and Resume Writer, says yes. As long as the instructions don’t tell you not to write one (always follow the instructions in a job application), then it’s worth spending some time crafting a killer cover letter. It may not be the first thing a potential employer looks at but when it comes to narrowing down the field of applications for potential interview, it could just be what sets you apart.

When you have little or no work experience and you’re applying for your first job, it can be hard to think of things to say in your cover letter. But the chances are you have more transferable skills than you think. Here are Giusto’s top tips for writing a cover letter for your first job.

What are you trying to achieve?

When you start planning your first cover letter, you need to consider what you’re trying to do with it. Giusto reminds us that, “Your resume and cover letter are strategic marketing documents, you never share anything just for the sake of it. Think about what the cover letter should be doing, it should not simply restate the resume.” Your first cover letter is about forging a different type of relationship with the reader, giving them a way to get to know you from different angles. It’s your chance to address things that aren’t in your resume, tell them why you’re looking for a new role, show how excited you are to work for the company or industry, and demonstrate your alignment with their mission and values.

Giusto suggests you think about it like dating: the cover letter is just one of the tools you’re using. “When you’re dating someone, you don’t want them to feel you’re dating them simply because they’re available or good enough, you want to show excitement. It’s not, ‘I’m applying because you have a job opening and I need money,’ it’s, ‘I’m excited about you, about your company, about the really cool things you’re doing.’ That’s what you can include in a cover letter in addition to making it clear that you’re qualified and you’re the solution to their problem.”

Now let’s break that down into practical steps to make writing your first cover letter a cinch.

Include the essentials

  • The job title and the company you are applying to.
  • Evidence of why you’re a good fit for their needs. Giusto explains that “A cover letter that states, ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that,’ and a whole ton of other ‘I’ doesn’t necessarily connect the dots for the reader that they’re good fit for the employer’s needs, or the solution to their problem.”
  • Explanation of why THIS role at THIS company.

Find inspiration

You still might be none the wiser about what exactly to include in your cover letters. Giusto says, “You can leverage almost anything you have as a transferable skill if it’s something that the employer is going to value.” Here are her top suggestions for cover letter content for candidates with little or no experience.

  • Projects and coursework: Your resume won’t go into detail about any projects you’ve undertaken as part of your course, Giusto explains that most recent grads should aim for a one-page resume. The cover letter is your chance to talk about a relevant project in detail, providing the hiring manager with more insight into how you might work for them.

  • Hobbies and volunteering: The caveat with this one is only if it is relevant. Giusto says, “I joke that you never need to tell someone about what you’ve binge-watched on Netflix, but what if your hobby is selling things you’ve designed and 3D printed, or you run marathons?” The idea is to show relevant information. “What if the job requires you to manage a budget? It’s not something you’ve ever done in a work capacity but you’ve been treasurer of a club—you should include that in your first cover letter.”

  • Leadership skills: Giusto always encourages college grads to think about any time they have shown leadership skills, it could be as the captain of your ultimate frisbee league, or in a group project. It won’t necessarily be something they are asking for in a first job but it’s certainly something a lot of businesses value.

  • Interpersonal skills: Are you a strong communicator? When have you communicated with diverse people in a variety of capacities? Giusto advises, “Don’t say your top skills are using the phone, or ‘I’m a people person.’ You need to connect that for the reader with a specific instance, otherwise, it’s just a baseless claim.”

Write it well

  • Address your cover letter to a specific person if you can. Use LinkedIn or your connections, or even pick up the phone and call the company’s reception to ask. That said, Giusto adds, “Don’t delay your application because you can’t figure this out. It’s ok to use a generic term like ‘Dear Hiring Manager’ or ‘Dear Hiring Team’ as there may well be more than one person that reads your letter.”
  • Make it engaging. AI is now everywhere; you want to make it clear that a real human wrote this cover letter. Show the recruiter that you know about their company and some of their business priorities. It will demonstrate that you’ve put some thought into your application.
  • Use AI with caution. The skeleton might look good, but you run the risk of it looking and feeling like a template and completely missing out on the engagement part. Giusto also adds that you may be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t use this as an opportunity to learn how to present yourself. If the application proceeds you’re setting yourself up for a potentially difficult interview.
  • Incorporate keywords to the best of your ability and what you can figure out from the job ad. But avoid what Giusto refers to as ‘keyword vomit’. Keywords might help with tracking programs but appealing to the reader is more important as things progress.
  • Avoid errors. Giusto explains, “I see silly mistakes all the time, proofreading errors where you’ve made changes and extra spaces aren’t deleted, templates that aren’t properly customized, the wrong company name, and so on.”
  • Don’t self-sabotage. Don’t highlight what you don’t have in this one-page document, highlight what you do have. Don’t invite bias by revealing something about yourself that could prompt someone to weed you out consciously or unconsciously, and don’t reveal anything that comes under a protected category in the US legal system.
  • Don’t embellish. It will come back to bite you in the butt. You might be able to argue you were being strategic but it could mean a job offer is withdrawn or you end up in a role you simply can’t perform well.

A final piece of advice

Landing your first job can be tough and the whole application process can be demoralizing, but Giusto says, “Don’t let rejections bring you down. For every no you get, statistically speaking you are one step closer to getting the yes.” Keep putting in the work and tailor your cover letter for success every single time.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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