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Cover Yourself

While other students are stuck in lecture halls, Chris Walker, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is busy hobnobbing with stars like Will Ferrell, scouting cast members for The Learning Channel's reality series "Moving Up," and living the high life in the Big Apple. For Chris, hitting the books means taking a semester to intern at both PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show" and the BBC. The best part? He's getting college credit every step of the way.

So what's the secret to scoring not one, but two dream jobs? Looking like a pro on paper. For jobs, scholarships, co-ops, internships, research grants, or college admission essays, the first impression you'll make will be through your application packet. Here's how to look as calm, cool, and collected in black and white as you are in person.

Share What You Have to Offer
If you've got it, flaunt it. The application packet is your once-in-a-lifetime shot to show readers how your talent, expertise, and pizzazz are exactly what they're looking for. Your letter or essay should showcase the abilities and experiences that make you the ideal candidate.

"People have a tendency to not want to talk about themselves for fear of bragging, but you should really stress your high points," states David Moss, a recent graduate of James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA). His cover-letter skills landed him his first post-grad job as sales and marketing coordinator for Simply Wireless, a wireless service dealer. "You can talk yourself up on paper more than you would feel comfortable doing in real life."

The goal is to prove to readers why you would make a fantastic addition to their company or student body. For co-op, internship, or employment cover letters, introduce yourself, mention the position you seek, then succinctly state exactly how your skills match the job requirements. For college admissions essays and personal statements, think about why you would be an asset for the offered academic programs.

Sarah Baker, director of admissions for the College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, ME), recommends selling yourself to a college the same way you would to a new friend. "[The essay] should provide a sense of who you are in terms of your past experiences and future desires for life in and beyond college," she says. "Think about what you would want someone to know about what you're good at and what you want down the road."

Employers and admissions counselors alike are looking for applicants with drive, determination, passion, and motivation. Students who stress their past accomplishments, current projects, and future endeavors are always seen as more prepared and ambitious than their modest counterparts.

Know Your Reader
Your audience should determine the content and tone of your work. If you're writing to someone in a professional setting (say, your next boss or faculty chair), your writing should be equally professional. Cover letters and personal statements should be clean, crisp, and concisely written, not to mention typed, packaged, and submitted before the cutoff date. Translation: Get ready today for the deadlines ahead.

"Practice writing a few before you get in a pinch and need to send something out," suggests Dr. Janet Lenz, associate director of the Career Center at Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL). "Avoid canned, mass-produced letters and make sure it's clear that you've done your homework on the field or the organization."

Chris Walker has his own list of what not to do. "Don't give out a cell phone number with a voicemail greeting that starts with 'Yo, yo, yo,' and don't give out an e-mail address that seems a little odd, like say,," he warns. "Just be as professional and as perfect as humanly possible."

Little things like printing on high-quality paper and addressing your reader with the appropriate title might not seal your acceptance letter by themselves, but they will prevent your application from being dumped in the first round of cuts.

Get to Know the Competition
According to Baker, the number one mistake students make when writing the college essay is not proofreading. "Students are probably better writers than they come across in their essays, but because of silly mistakes, we begin to question their academic integrity," she comments. "Don't feel like you have to write the Great American Novel, but edit as if it is the Great American Novel."

The same is true in the real world, adds Dr. Lenz: "Proof [your writing] carefully and have several other people review your written materials."

Although today's computerized spelling and grammar checks will catch most glaring errors, they sometimes miss small, subtle mistakes that could determine the difference between getting accepted or not. Peer review is one of the most effective tools for writing and perfecting your printed employer bait.

Now before you send it out, ask yourself these questions: Is it informative? Does it highlight your strengths? Is it so clean you could eat off of it (although we don't recommend that)? If so, great! Now just confirm that you've included your current contact information before you e-mail or slip your mini-masterpiece into an envelope (with a typed address and carefully placed stamp, of course) and send it on its way.

To make sure all that work doesn't go to waste, call the organization seven to 10 days after sending the packet to check that it's been received and is being reviewed. Now all that's left is waiting for a response, but you're on your own for that.