First of all: Always write a cover letter. Always. Even when they don't ask for it. Even when it's optional. That's how they weed out folks (who actually goes the extra mile and puts in the effort).
Next: Make the cover letter count. Don't just repeat your resume. Make your work stand out. Give them quantifiable numbers of the work you've done and the impact it had. That's impressive. If you don't have those numbers, get them!
Third: Use the words they use in their job description, especially when applying through a website. They have machines that look for these words. If they're not there, you won't be selected.
Fourth: Make the cover letter personal. Not as in unprofessional-talking-to-your-friend personal. But customize your cover letters. Yes, it's a lot of work because it actually requires you to do some research before you can write an intelligent cover letter. BUT then good news are:
1) If you get an interview, you have to do the research anyway and you'll already be half-way done.
2) When you do your research, you can see what the company is about and figure out if you really would be happy working there or if you're really qualified to work there. (As in: Are you just wasting time sending this application because your experience really doesn't match this field at all?)
3) You will realize if you're really excited about working there.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: BE GENUINELY EXCITED!
This last point (#3) really is THE KEY. I've taken several approaches to writing cover letters and I got most answers to applications where I could be genuinely excited in my cover letter. Not just SOUND excited, actually BE excited. They can tell if you're bullshitting them. If you're trying to find a reason for why you want to work there just so you have something good to say about the company and how it connects to your professional aspirations - they will be able to tell. I've done it just to say something... and I knew it wasn't good. And I never heard from them. If you're honestly excited about this job and the company - they will be able to tell!
GET AN A FOR EXCELLENCE, NOT FOR EFFORT!
The best cover letters are like the essays you wrote and you just knew you'd get an A because you just knew you nailed it! Why? Because you actually wanted to write it, you were on a roll and you actually knew what the heck you were talking about. The essays were you somehow had to scramble to fill your required pages didn't earn you As, did they?
SO START OUT TALKING ABOUT THE COMPANY. Don't just say: "I would love to be a part of your team because you are a leader in the industry and I want to work for the best." It's not really bull, but it's whatever. Who doesn't? You need to be able to tell them that you love what they're doing, and here is exactly how I understand what it is that you're doing and I would just be so excited to be part of you team, and here is how my experience directly parallels your job requirements. And maybe here is some trivia I dug up on you and here is how it fits in why I am excited about your product. Not only did you show that you are excited about them, you showed them that you understand what they are about and what they want from you. You showed them, moreover, that you understand how you can get the job done, because you've done it before.
So you started by "smooching" them. It's a common PR tactic used when pitching to the media. If you want something from them, you first tell them how great they are. Everyone likes to hear that. But don't say something just for the sake of saying it. Say something with substance that directly applies to them, shows them you actually researched them, and really has meaning. NOW they're listening. Now they might read on about what you have to say about yourself. And NOW you might be invited to an interview.
FAIL-SAFE FOR ME: The cover letters I was excited about writing got me a response. The jobs I really cared about have made great cover letters. Naturally. And most of them invited me to an interview. The same day!! The rest were a shot in the dark. Not necessarily a waste of time, because I suppose, sometimes you even hit something in the dark, but certainly nothing to get your hopes up about.
HERE'S A SHOCKER:
Here's a job I applied for:
- 3-months contract work
- PR assistant position
- at an undisclosed agency
- didn't even pay a living wage (which is $16/hour)
- through career builder, no personal reference
The nice thing about career builder: It gives you stats on the posting after you apply.
After the posting was one day old, they had 26 applications in for this position. For this entry-level, part-time, limited engagement gig, most of those 26 applicants had 5-9 years experience. And this wasn't even a "good gig!"
How do true entry-level applicants compete?! Well, my personal answer was "not" - unless those 25-and-counting other applicants were all morons that didn't have applicable work experience. Chances are they're not. Chances are I won't hear back from them. Because if you send a resume to an undisclosed company, there's not much research you can do. And then your work experience better be outstanding, long, and right on to have an edge in the application process. So I sent my application - but this was one I wasn't going to spend much time on, it would be a waste of time. It's a shot, but a long one. Spend your time on jobs you truly care about for companies that inspire you and that you really would stand behind 100%. Those are your best bets.
Get enthusiastic - and right on top of that height of enthusiasm for this great company you just found - that's the time to write the cover letter! And watch yourself getting a response! Good luck y'all - and congratulations on graduating! Now don't be discouraged - it's all good, as long as you're smart about getting that first job!