As a student, you don’t have a lot of time in the day that isn’t already eaten up by classes, problem sets, essays, extracurriculars, sports, hackathons, research, dance performances…the list goes on. Applying for any kind of job is time consuming (not to mention nerve-racking), so when you see a job posting where the cover letter is optional, you might be tempted to skip it. Not so fast!
If you’re looking at internships, it probably means you don’t have a ton of work experience to set you apart from other candidates. Or perhaps you do have some experience, but it’s not the most relevant or as obviously related. The cover letter is exactly the place for you to make a case for yourself. This is where you can connect the dots for the recruiter and tell the story that your resume can’t on its own. (How does competitive ballroom dancing connect with being a management consultant?) And, if nothing else, it’s a chance to get across your excitement.
1. Make It All About the Company
Step one is to introduce yourself and why you’re interested in this particular internship. As a student, you’ll probably instinctively want to write about all the things you’re excited to learn on the job. Including some of that is fine, but remember that applying for an internship at a company isn’t the same as applying for college. Companies are more invested in what you have to offer them than what they have to offer you. Or, put more bluntly, they have no reason to care about you yet. You have to give them one.
A better way to show your enthusiasm is to be specific about why you’re interested in this company. What makes it special? Is their product one of a kind or solving an important problem in a unique way? Are they working toward a particular mission that resonates with you?
Avoid being impressed in a generic way. If you can say the same thing about another company then you’re not being specific enough. In other words, don’t say: “I’m impressed that Company X is a market leader in clean-tech.” Instead, say: “Company X’s unique approach to removing plastic pollution from the ocean by using currents and robotic traps is fascinating.”
It can feel a little weird to be too fawning, but it’s fine in small doses. After all, companies have internships because they are trying to create a recruiting pipeline, so letting them know you’re a fan of their work or at least very interested in the industry is a good idea. You want them to know that you’re worth training and investing in—that you’re going to stick around.
2. Mention Relevant Projects, Extracurriculars, and Classes
In a typical cover letter, the next step would be to write about all your relevant experience. But perhaps this internship you’re applying for is the relevant experience you’re hoping you can write about one day. So what do you write about today?
It’s okay to have no directly relevant work experience. The next best thing is to choose two examples of things you’ve done that are as closely related to the role as possible and then to go into detail about the parts of the work that are most relevant. You’re trying to tell a story and you want the reader to understand that the next logical step in it is the exact internship you’re applying for. You want to give the reader an “It all makes sense!” moment.
Ideally, you’re choosing things that aren’t too far off from professional experience, like an independent project where you can show off some technical skills, or leadership experience in a student organization to get across those all-important soft skills. Experiences with a competitive element to them are great, too—think hackathons and case competitions.
If you must, you can mention coursework as well. In general, though, recruiters and hiring managers are less excited about projects where a clear solution already exists. There are always exceptions, of course. Class projects that are more creative and don’t involve a clean, preset answer might also be a good option.
3. Stitch Together Your Skills
Of course, there’s always the possibility that nothing you’ve done feels relevant. That’s fine, too. Everyone has to start somewhere! If you really can’t find any related work to write about, choose three experiences you feel comfortable talking about and then pick and choose the parts that illustrate the skills you bring to the table.
For example, if you worked a part-time job in high school as a lifeguard, you can write about how you were known for being reliable, how you’d always pick up other people’s shifts when they were out, and how great you were at being vigilant when you were on duty. You can write about the courses you’ve taken to showcase your interest in a particular subject area. Maybe they were quite advanced for a sophomore. That’d be worth mentioning to show not only your subject-matter interest, but also your ambition and ability to learn quickly. And if you served as an executive board member of a cultural group, you could write about your communication skills and how detail-oriented you needed to be to pull off a big show.
You might not have any professional work experience, but anyone recruiting interns will be interested in someone who is reliable, enthusiastic, detail-oriented, and a good communicator. Throw in that you’re a fast learner who has taken a few relevant classes and you’ll have a fair shot.
4. Don’t Apologize
So that’s all the stuff you should do. Here’s something you shouldn’t. Don’t apologize for your lack of experience. Don’t write, “Even though I’m only a freshman…” or “Despite my limited experience in fundraising…” This is one of the most common mistakes students make in their cover letters.
Instead, write something like, “I’m excited to bring my coursework alive by doing hands-on work in…” or “I’m looking forward to parlaying my campus event planning experience to fundraising for…” Basically, instead of homing in on your weaknesses, you want to highlight your strengths. You get to pick what to focus on, so choose wisely.
It can be tough to write from the perspective of what you have to offer a company when you don’t feel like you have very much work experience to lean on, especially when many of the applications you’ve worked on in the past (read: college applications) have been so focused on what you might have to gain from a particular experience. One way to increase your chances of getting a great internship is to think about the application process as more of a pitch. You’re not just applying, you’re pitching yourself, so submit a nice and tidy letter (make sure you edit it and catch any typos!) and keep it positive.
5. Read This Example to Help You Craft Your Own Cover Letter
All of this sounds nice in theory, but what does it look like all put together? Here’s a sample cover letter from a student with limited relevant experience who is applying for a product management internship. (Quick tip: Remember never to start off with “To Whom It May Concern”!)
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am excited to submit my application for the product management internship at BPM Tech. As a student at Big State University majoring in electrical engineering with a keen interest in environmental studies, I believe I would be a good fit for the role. BPM’s mission to design and manufacture the world’s most energy dense batteries while protecting our planet and not taking any shortcuts is inspiring, and I would be thrilled to be able to contribute to this mission.
In a recent hackathon, I demonstrated my ability to think on my feet and lead a team through designing and prototyping stages of a project. Competing as a team of three students with different academic backgrounds and working under a tight deadline, we were ultimately able to get a working prototype together and presented our work to a panel of industry experts who awarded us second place. I was particularly proud of how close we got to winning the audience favorite award. For me, the most exciting part of working on products comes from users and their reactions.
I’ve also been an active volunteer at my local animal shelter for over five years. As a more seasoned volunteer, I’ve taken the initiative to lead trainings, organize donation drives, and serve as a dog walker. This experience has strengthened my communication skills and confirmed my belief that my motivation skyrockets when my work supports a good cause. I would be delighted to bring my focus and dedication to another organization whose mission I believe in.
Through these experiences, along with my coursework in electrical engineering, I am confident that I would be able to successfully navigate the challenges of the PM internship program at BPM. I welcome the opportunity to speak with you about my qualifications and look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your consideration.
Photo of college student wearing headphones and working in the library courtesy of PeopleImages/Getty Images.
Lily Zhang serves as a Manager of Graduate Student Professional Development at the MIT Media Lab where she works with a range of students from AI experts to interaction designers. When she’s not indulging in a new book or video game, she’s thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author