Applying for Summer Jobs: Writing a Cover Letter

By Sarah Toner 19 Feb 2016

Photo by Natasha Bartolotta

It’s peak season for finding summer bird jobs. Many deadlines are coming up quickly, and most summer jobs ask for a cover letter, a resume, and references. With that in mind, here are a few tips for writing a cover letter that best conveys your enthusiasm and experience.

  • Read the job posting carefully, and identify the skills involved. A cover letter is your first introduction to your potential employers, and it provides a space to convey information that might not be represented well in your resume. This is particularly important for hard-to-quantify skills like bird identification experience or outdoor experience. If you’ve led walks, participated in bird surveys, or joined formal outdoor expeditions before, your resume might show that, but the majority of your experience would probably come from hobbies like going out in migration, chasing rarities, or camping for fun. In my cover letters, I usually mention my 10 years of birding experience and also describe my competency in identifying birds in the region in question. For example, some employers want to know if a candidate is familiar with the birds that they might encounter on the job. If I can identify all regularly-occurring birds in a given state by sight and/or sound, and if that sort of information seems relevant, I frequently include it in a cover letter. It also might not hurt to mention your eBird experience, depending on the position—someone who has submitted hundreds or thousands of eBird checklists certainly has a demonstrated dedication to birding.
  • Describe your experiences in more detail. Just as you can describe more of your skills in a cover letter, you can also go into more detail about those skills. For example, when I applied for a position in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (“the UP”), I described my previous experience backpacking in the UP, in particular my tolerance for the hordes of mosquitoes that frequent the UP in the summer. As it turned out, this was a necessary skill for a job that required me to stand still in a marsh for ten minutes with several hundred mosquitoes buzzing around my head. In this case, stories from personal experiences strengthened my cover letter. 
  • Personalize it and show your enthusiasm. While you can personalize your resume for the job, a cover letter gives you even more of an opportunity to show why you’re a good fit for the job. Demonstrate that you’ve learned more about the project, setting, or employers than just the information in the job posting–you could describe how interested you are in the study system (particularly if you have previous experience with it), in the researcher’s approach to science (reading previous publications is a good way to learn more about the researcher and the research), or in the overall organization as a whole. Don’t flatter too much, but show that you know, respect, and are interested in both the researcher and the project. Make sure to illustrate your passion for birds, and touch on what part of birding really speaks to you and how that fits into the position. An applicant that is truly passionate may win out over someone who looks better on paper, but doesn’t show the same drive and interest.
  • Write it in letter format. This is easy to do–just address it to “Dear Mr./Ms. ___,” begin with something like “I’m writing today to apply for…,” and sign your name and contact information at the bottom.

General cover letter advice (and advice for many other job-related correspondence) can be found here:

Below is a sample cover letter. While the position is fictional, I used my own experience and skills to illustrate how different experiences can be incorporated into the cover letter.

Current Date

Dear Mr. Jones,

     I write to apply for the position of Ivory-billed Woodpecker seasonal field technician with the National Bird Institute. I am currently a freshman at Cornell University, majoring in Biological Sciences.

I have been an active birder for almost ten years. During this time, I have learned how to identify all regularly occurring eastern birds by sight and most by sound. My birding experience has also familiarized me with many of the methods used in ornithological research. I have participated in several bird surveys that used point counts, including national and city Breeding Bird Surveys, targeted species surveys (for marshbirds and Black-backed Woodpeckers), and fixed-radius surveys. In addition, I have previously volunteered at a bird banding station for two seasons, helping extract birds, and I have also taken a course in bird banding at Cornell University that gave me experience with extraction, different trap styles, taking measurements, ageing and sexing, and banding birds.

     As well as my background in ornithological research, I also have extensive outdoor experience. I have planned and gone on several backpacking trips ranging from three days to two and a half weeks, experiences which have given me a high tolerance for rugged conditions and biting insects, particularly the black flies and mosquitoes of northern bogs. The backpacking trips taught me about planning for every aspect of backcountry exploration and adapting when things didn’t go according to plan. In addition, I have some canoe experience from river trips and day trips on lakes in northern Michigan, and I have spent some time traveling in the southeast US, where I became familiar with navigating swampy terrain.

     The research at the National Bird Institute studies the breeding biology of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This coincides with my particular area of interest, conservation biology. It is my hope that by better understanding rare and little-known species, we can implement sound management plans to help protect their populations.

     Attached please find my resume and references. I am excited at the prospect of working with the National Bird Institute this summer. Thank you very much for considering my application. I look forward to hearing from you.


Sarah Toner


Phone number and/or email

Sarah Toner