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The frustration I'm facing is that every sample cover letter I look at seems to go "I was a rockstar at Company X where I accomplished amazing things and I achieved Y results at Company Z"... on and on and on, as if you have to somehow be exceptionally gifted and accomplished in order to write an effective cover letter, and I'm just... not that, yet.

I have certain skills & abilities I guess I could highlight, but right now I'm just a recent grad straight out of college whose looking for a job that could fit. I have a Master's in Math fwiw. But the idea that I have to have some spectacular skills and accomplishments especially tailored to the job I'm applying to is kind of just discouraging rather than helpful. I'm just looking for some guidance on how to structure what I do have (some basic programming skills & a slightly overkill degree) into a compelling argument for my potential rather than magnifying all the things I don't have (experience & accomplishments). Writer's block is my perennial bane. Any tips/advice?

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    The question seems to be too broad. You might want to narrow it down, at least by specifying the kinds of jobs / companies targeted
    – virolino
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 6:41
  • @virolino Let's say I'm trying to find a position in Data Analysis/Data Science, since that seems to be one of the most promising opportunities available to math majors. Does that help narrow the scope a bit? Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 6:47
  • Did you (try to) contact any company? Did you apply for any job? What did they say? What did they complain about? I have the feeling that you are over-thinking it.
    – virolino
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 6:49

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Try to think of what you have relative to what the position requires or what you imagine other people applying for it to have. You don't need to be world best at anything, you just need to be better at things useful for the job than other candidates applying for it.

Say for example you apply for a programmer position. Maybe some other candidates will outdo you in programming skill or experience but you have a math degree, most other candidates probably don't. What are you good at that looks useful for the position? How does your math degree enable you to do things that non mathematicians would find harder to do?

As a general principle for math degrees. Nobody in industry hires a mathematician for the specific higher math they know. Mathematicians are hired because they can learn and understand anything you give them. So you get them when you don't know exactly what skills will be needed but you need someone who can figure out what skill are needed and then just learn them.

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The key to writing a good cover letter is to make you look as though you are exceptionally gifted and accomplished. Like your CV, it is a marketing document designed to convey the best impression of you.

How to go about this? Your description of yourself as "a recent grad straight out of college" is generic. The first thing to do is to realize that your profile is not actually that generic. By the time you finish college, the combination of skills and experiences you posses is unique - even if you have no work history whatsoever. Your cover letter need to convey why this unique combination of skills and experiences makes you a "a good fit" for the job at hand.

A cover letter must therefore contain:

  1. Some details about relevant projects (including hobbies/volunteering/etc.) that you have done,
  2. Some reason as to why you applied for this particular job, and
  3. Some reason as to why the above makes you particularly suitable for the job at hand.

The best way to improve your cover letter is to ask recruiters for feedback - though they are not always willing to give it. That said, cover letters are often not read, or only after a round of CV checks. A "risky", i.e. unorthodox, cover letter can be a reason to be rejected, and is rarely a reason to pass through to the next round. A "safe" cover letter that merely rehashes what is already in your CV, is therefore usually the better choice. As a result, it is more important to spend time tailoring your CV than your cover letter.

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Ok but let's suppose for the sake of the question that they do expect a cover letter...

You're overthinking this. Keep your cover letter short and to the point. You're not applying for a writing job.

Just make sure that your resume is addressed to the hiring manager, not the HR department. When I worked for HR, the resume that were forwarded to us from an employee automatically had more priority than other resumes. We didn't want to get blamed for losing or screening out a resume that someone in the company had already seen.

And if you're told to apply through a portal, your cover letter is the area where you say who told you to apply through that portal. For us, mentioning the name of a hiring manager in your cover letter had the same effect as receiving it from that person. Again, we didn't want to receive a call from that person asking if we had lost your resume.

much of the advice seems to say that cover letters are important and should not be discounted...

Maybe you should follow their advice, not ask ours.

This isn't to say that cover letters aren't useful. For instance, if you need to highlight a special circumstance that can not easily be gleaned from your resume. Or if you want to highlight the fact that your experience meets all the major job requirements. By all means, write that cover letter. But my point is. Don't overthink it.

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Well, this might not answer your question directly, but still might be useful.

I do not use a cover letter. I have one, generic, just in case, but I never needed it.

So instead of squishing your brains out trying to make a realistic cover letter, ask yourself first:

  1. do you really need the cover letter, in the first place?
  2. who is going to read it?
  3. what do they expect from the cover letter?

If you do NOT know the answer to question 3, then it is no big problem to just go to them and ask what they expect there. Sometimes, companies have the information readily available on their sites, and you can use their guideline (and examples, if they are provided).

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  • Ok but let's suppose for the sake of the question that they do expect a cover letter... much of the advice seems to say that cover letters are important and should not be discounted... Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 6:34
  • For the sake of the answer, for each company you target, you need to answer the three questions. While one company will not care at all about the cover letter, another one might even have guidelines about font faces. What should be "solid" is actually the CV, in most cases. If the CV is weak, the cover letter will not save you anyway.
    – virolino
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 6:37
  • Also, if you need a more specific answer, please add more details to the question. On this site, we do not do brainstorming on the content of anything.
    – virolino
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 6:37
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    Why are you trying to advise someone on how to write a cover letter if, by your own assertion, you never needed one?! Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 8:19
  • If I never needed something, it does not mean that I am clueless about that something. Example: I never needed the plague either, but I know what plague is. Additionally, I did not advise "how to write a cover letter", but rather how to find the information for that. Just like for CVs (and many other things), different companies have different requirements.
    – virolino
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 9:08

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