• Measuring SLOs: Strategic Cover Letters

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
    July 23, 2014

    by Kevin Gaw

    Many job applicants feel stymied when it comes to writing a cover letter that targets the specific job to which they are applying and the specific skill sets being sought. They often don’t know what to include or how to present their qualifications.

    The strategically developed cover letter deliberately draws from the job description and the student’s KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities), providing a “rubric” for the cover letter writer. This format has the typical initial and concluding sections of the letter—it is the middle section that makes it strategic.

    The strategically developed cover letter is a tailored, purposeful, and well-researched introduction of one’s candidacy. That said, each letter is unique and when read by an employer, the content is experienced as directly applicable to the position for which they are recruiting.

    What is measured is the completion of the strategically developed cover letter that appropriately matches the KSA elements of a job description and the student’s KSAs. Appropriate completion indicates learning. Therefore, this is a case-by-case measurement of the SLO (e.g., “Students can write a strategically developed cover letter”), not a scaled score of how well the letter was written.

    Actions That Prompt Student Learning

    Students frequently come to career centers asking for assistance with their cover letters. Students can be guided through the learning process by helping them “deconstruct” a job description by systematically identifying the KSAs required and preferred, and then developing a list of personal KSAs that match what is being sought, based on the student’s experiences. This process of deliberate identification and matching highlights elements to be included in the strategically developed cover letter.

    It is essential to guide the student rather than to do the work for the students. That is, show them initial examples within the actual job description and then ask facilitating questions about their own experiences that bring forward the matches. In addition to individual KSAs, identify thematic clusters of KSAs, if possible (i.e., office skills, research, and customer service). Then have them complete the analysis of the job description and their own KSAs, with you coaching them.

    A simple method you can use to document this process for later reference is to write directly in the margins of the job announcement or to highlight the critical elements (see example below), letting the student see the connections being made.

    The strategically developed cover letter is then drafted using these matches. Frequently, the matches are not overtly stated or itemized in the strategically developed letter, but are instead descriptively referenced via examples of the applicant’s KSAs.

    Method of Measurement

    Because this is a student-by-student SLO, the primary measurement is by frequencies. That is, the practitioner will document the number of students who have learned how to write strategically developed cover letters by actually completing such letters.

    Because there is no rubric for this SLO, each job description becomes “the rubric” in that the notes written directly on the description show the “answers” to the student and what to include as appropriate content. Students will learn what to include in the strategically developed cover letter and they will demonstrate their learning by including the appropriate content in the cover letter, which is judged by the practitioner. Therefore, both the letter and the notes on the job description are needed to assess the effort.

    Sample Teaching Tool for the Strategically Developed Cover Letter (items in bold are the critical elements the cover letter should address):

    Information Technology Intern

    Are you looking for an opportunity to use cutting-edge technology, whether it’s integrating Web 2.0 functionality or SAP? If so, it’s right at your fingertips at ACME Products. Our IT programs aren’t a simulation—you’ll learn about innovations and new possibilities throughout every facet of our organization, from development and deployment to application support.


    • Sophomore or junior pursing a degree in CS, CIS, or Business Information Systems
    • Strong computer skills
    • Critical thinking and creative problem-solving abilities
    • Excellent communication skills
    • Ability to organize work and balance priorities

    Below are the critical elements that the cover letter needs to address, using personal examples as evidence on the right—from class and personal projects, other internships, other work experiences, and more. The student’s KSAs are core elements of evidence. Students should list as many examples as possible and then select most relevant for the letter.

    What the job description said is needed What I'll bring to the table (my evidence, my experience, my KSAs that connect)
    Can use cutting-edge technology
    • Developed an Apple app for CS class project, developed and deployed an Android app with CS club-"campus tour for new CS majors."
    • Maintain blog and Twitter account commenting on trending tech issues for college students.
    Can integrate Web 2.0 and SAP
    • Revamped professor's website using XHTML (Summer 2010).
    • Took intro SAP seminar this summer that included an on-site visit at Jive Software and a two-week mini-internship for business analytics and deployment.
    • Maintain blog and Twitter account commenting on trending tech issues for college students, social media chair for CS club.
    Evidence that experience is real, not simulated
    • CS club app now adopted by department for orientation.
    • Website projects are for paying "customers."
    • CS club social media chair.
    • Blogs and tweets.
    Evidence that you can innovate and see possibilities
    • Class project won "best potential" for emerging mobile phone technology apps in CS department competition.
    • Blog commentaries on trending tech issues and innovations.
    • Participated in IT department's campus-wide systems upgrade, helping install and educate faculty and staff - student employee.
    • Participated in mini-internship using SAP for modeling deployment.
    • App development for CS projects.
    Have one of these degrees: CS, CIS, or BIS
    Evidence of strong computer skills
    • Earning CS degree December 2014, with a minor in communications.
    Evidence of critical thinking and creative problem-solving
    • Had to design useful app, which required market analysis and planning, including meeting with campus officials regarding legal issues, copyright issues, tech access, and data integrity.
    • As CS club's social media chair, have to moderate online exchanges and provide feedback when needed.
    • Blog requires research, broad reading, and information integration.
    Evidence of communication skills
    • Wrote student grant and received $1,000 in funding for app-development project.
    • Blog presence.
    • Had to write formal proposal for app competition application.
    Evidence that you can organize work and prioritize tasks
    • Maintained full-time class schedule while working part-time at campus IT department for three years and maintaining 3.2 GPA.
    • Been active in CS club activities and group projects.
    • Have used summers for additional experience-building opportunities.

    The examples in the above right column should not be a list in the cover letter, but carefully woven into the prose of the letter (which is evidence of written communication skills).

    While this process is obvious to the experienced career services professional, to the novice applicant, it is a struggle to make the connections. This structured approach helps students identify what is critical for the job (based on the job description) and how they can relate their own applicable experience. It is tailored, purposeful, and researched.

    How much is enough?

    As a career services practitioner, my goal is to have each and every client with whom I work be able to write a strategically developed cover letter. Rather than attempting to measure the “success” of the strategically developed cover letter, make sure students who are learning this method learn it well. To know if they have “learned it well,” their letters are assessed by “grading” them in-session and helping students revise them so that the letters contain more effective content based on the KSAs of the job description.

    Kevin Gaw is senior director at university career services, Georgia State University.