- A. Purpose
- B. Types
- C. Format
- D. Content
- E. Common Cover Letter Mistakes
- Video and Slides from the CDO program “Cover Letters That Do The Job” and handouts: Job Postings & Tips and Sample PIPS Cover Letters.
Your cover letter is as important as your resume because it is often read first and plays a vital role in your quest for an interview. A cover letter is not a transmittal letter, and you may be surprised at how time-consuming it is to craft a good one. A cover letter has a purpose, which is to let an employer know why they should bother reading your resume and why they should meet you. It also serves as an example of your written work product; thus it should be clear, brief, and written in a business letter style, without any typographical errors.
1. Cover letters for unsolicited applications come in three main types:
- Personal Letter. These are the most effective cover letters and are sent to people you have met or with whom you have a mutual acquaintance. These letters should all start with the sentence: “_______ recommended that I contact you.” As this type of letter is most likely to get a response, if you have any possibility of establishing this sort of connection to a prospective employer in advance of sending your letter, you should try your best to do so.
- Targeted Letters. Next best thing. Targeted letters are based on research of the employer, and are individually tailored. Your letter should incorporate the information learned through your research to show the employer that you have skills they will be able to put to use.
- Mass Mailers. Least desirable. These are generic except for the name and address of the employer, and have a very low success rate of getting interviews.
2. When you respond to a job listing, you will usually be requested to submit a cover letter as part of your application. In this case, use the job description and requested qualifications as a guide. While not simply imitating the language of the listing, your letter should demonstrate that you have what the employer is looking for.
3. A few employers at OCI request that students bring a cover letter to the initial interview. This is essentially to require students to think about why they want to work for this employer, but it makes for a letter which deviates from the usual “please consider me for an interview” approach. See below for suggestions on OCI cover letters.
Cover letters should follow standard business letter format, as to spacing, salutation, etc. If you are not sure of the fine points, consult a business correspondence reference source. Avoid abbreviations, contractions and shortcuts (such as a slash instead of “or”), although if there is an accepted short form of the name of the organization you are writing to (e.g., ACLU or Howard Rice) it is acceptable to use it in the text of your letter. Your telephone number and email address should appear somewhere in the letter, either at the top with your address, or in the closing paragraph, when you ask them to contact you. Note that your resume is “enclosed,” not “attached” (which means clipped or stapled).
If you are not sure to whom you should send your letter, it is always acceptable to write to the executive director of a nonprofit, or the hiring partner or head of recruiting at a firm; they can forward your application to the appropriate person within the organization. If at all possible, write to an individual by name, not to “Director” or “Recruiting Coordinator.” Firm and organization web sites are very useful in finding this information (and for confirming correct spellings and the like); it may be more difficult to find the name of an individual addressee for government job opportunities. If you do not have the name of an individual, the salutation should be “Dear Sir or Madam” (not “To Whom It May Concern”). Of course if you are responding to a job posting, address your letter exactly as instructed.
As for the appropriate salutation, traditionally, it is “Dear [Mr./Ms.] [Last Name]. However, we understand that this prevailing business norm may not be inclusive of individuals who do not use either of those titles (for example, because they identify as gender nonconforming). One alternative, “Dear [First Name] [Last Name]”, avoids presuming how the recipient may identify, but it is not without some risk.
If you use this approach, a recipient less attuned to thinking about gender inclusivity (and accustomed to seeing only “Dear [Mr./Ms] [Last Name]”) may wrongly conclude that you were unfamiliar with professional etiquette or that you used a mail merge template and did not bother to customize it. While awareness around these issues is increasing, we believe that, unfortunately, it is still not a small number of recruiting representatives and attorneys who might draw the wrong conclusion.
One way to navigate this tricky situation might be to see if the recipient has an online presence (e.g., on the firm website or LinkedIn) that might give you a strong clue as to how they would like to be addressed. Otherwise, you will need to make your own judgment as to whether recipients are more likely to recognize your inclusivity or to view the greeting as awkward or erroneous.
In our office, we are also working to help employers become familiar with gender-inclusive approaches like “Dear [First Name] [Last Name],” but like any process of education, this will take time. In the meantime, our primary goal is to make sure that all Berkeley Law students are fully informed as you navigate legal job markets. We are always available to discuss individually what approach would be the best fit for you.
First Paragraph. Begin your letter with a statement of who you are and why you are writing. Introduce yourself as a law student (including the year you are in) or a graduate of Berkeley Law and specify what it is you are seeking: a summer job, an associate position, a clerkship, part-time work during the school year, etc.
The goal of this paragraph is to give the reader a reason to want to finish reading the letter. If you don’t have a personal connection to cite, try to establish a nexus between yourself and the employer, such as knowledge of their practice, an established commitment to or interest in their work, a connection to their city, or something else which conveys that you are not just writing to them as part of a mass mailing for any job in any location. (If that in fact is what you are doing, try not to be too obvious about it. An employer wants to think that you sought him or her out purposely rather than randomly.)
Body Paragraph(s). This is the section in which you “sell” your experience and qualifications to the employer. Your goal here is to answer the question, “Why should the employer meet you?”
Call attention to something which substantiates your interest in this particular employer. It could be coursework in their specialty, the recommendation of a professor in their area of practice, undergraduate residency in their city, or any other indication of your interest. Try also to show how your experiences will translate into skills which will be useful to this particular employer. Highlight relevant qualifications which are not on your resume, such as coursework, research, or a prior connection to the organization or the issues they work on. If you have general legal skills such as negotiation, litigation, client counseling, interviewing, mock trials, etc., you may want to include them. As much as possible, try to convey understanding of, and enthusiasm for, the aims of the organization.
Employers do not expect first-year students to have highly-developed legal skills to offer. Therefore, for first-year students writing to private firms, this section can be a single, short paragraph, unless you have a strong background in a relevant area. However, even inexperienced first-year students writing to public interest/sector organizations should make an effort to describe skills and interests that are relevant to the employer.
It is appropriate and not uncommon for a public interest cover letter to be somewhat more detailed or personal than a private sector cover letter. Of course, it is still very important to be concise, but it is acceptable for the letter to be a full page if your experience dictates. In a public interest cover letter, it is important both to highlight your demonstrated commitment to the mission/work/client base of the organization through your own relevant work or life experience, and to illustrate your relevant skills. Take another look at your resume for items that show your interest, commitment and skills. Even if you do not have experience in the specific area in which an organization works, it is still important to emphasize your demonstrated commitment to the public interest, and to draw connections between that general commitment and the specific work of the organization. As it is important not to merely regurgitate your resume, consider including a story that illustrates you are interested or qualified in the position.
If your application raises questions that are readily answered, such as availability after the Bar exam, judicial clerkship plans, etc., the letter can address those; other issues may be better deferred to the interview stage. Consult a CDO attorney-counselor if you’re not sure whether to include something in your cover letter.
Final Paragraph. In your last paragraph, thank them for their consideration, and say you hope to hear from them soon. For out-of-town employers, indicate when you plan to be in their geographic area and state your availability for an interview. Be sure to include your phone number and email in this paragraph unless you use a letterhead style that includes them at the top of the page. If you state that you will call the employer to follow up on your application, be sure you do so.
If you are bringing a cover letter to an on-campus interview (which you should do only if the employer requests you to), the content will be a bit different. You don’t need to introduce yourself, as you will be there in person, and you won’t request an interview at the closing. But you can thank the employer for interviewing you and say that you welcome the opportunity to learn more about the employer and to discuss the possibility of working for them. The important thing is to show why you are interested in this particular employer, and how you think your background makes you a good match for them.
E. Common Cover Letter Mistakes
The mistakes most commonly found in student cover letters are:
- Restating your resume. “I graduated from the University of Oregon in 2005, with a B.A., cum laude, in Political Science, then worked as a substitute teacher in an urban high school before starting law school in the fall of 2008.” Don’t waste space with facts that are readily gleaned from your resume! Instead, you could say (briefly) how your work experience led you to pursue a legal career in an area practiced by the employer.
- Focusing on what you stand to gain from the job. “I am particularly interested in your firm’s excellent training program for summer associates, and in gaining exposure to a variety of different practice areas.” Remember, employers only grant interviews to candidates who offer something of potential use to the employer. Try to say how your skills and enthusiasm will help the employer serve its clients, or otherwise further its aims.
- Being too informal or familiar. “I’m thrilled by the possibility of working with you this summer, and would love to meet with you in person/by phone to chat about what the options might be.” Enthusiasm is good, but it must be presented professionally.
Other cover letter mistakes include: being defensive or apologetic; appearing arrogant or entitled, and being too long and wordy. Unsupported statements of your qualities (“I am highly motivated and a quick study”) do not help your case. Generic reasons for your interest in the employer (e.g., its “excellent reputation”) tend to demonstrate your lack of specific knowledge. Of course typos and inaccuracies, such as misspelled names, or (please!) stating an interest in a practice area that the firm doesn’t have, are automatic application-killers.
Our cover letter template provides suggestions only; please do not feel excessively constrained by its approach. Your letter should, of course, be original work that reflects your unique background and the job you are aiming at.