Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Writing the Dreaded Cover Letter

Even confident job seekers find cover letters daunting.

I've written other posts about writing challenges connected to the job search: how writing anxiety can affect the job search and how writing samples add another layer of challenge to the job seeker. But of all the writing-related activities of the job search, the one task most universally hated is the cover letter.  It seems to cause anxiety for many otherwise well-qualified job seekers.  And there's a reason for that: it's not an easy document to write. You have to find a way to appeal to the employer, summarize your key strengths relevant to the position, convey your personality, express your interest, and differentiate yourself from every other candidate- and all in one page.  Oh, that's all?

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It's no wonder that many put it off.

Part of the problem seems to be that many people do not view themselves as writers.  Or at least good writers.  They didn't like writing essays in school, and now that they are confronted with a writing assignment that won't result in a grade but rather a job, their anxiety level increases dramatically.  And cover letter writing, like resume writing, is a unique form of writing.  It is essentially a marketing piece or a sales pitch-- not the type of writing even most professional writers do with ease.  It requires a lot of thought.

I've helped thousands of individuals write cover letters, and I find that they struggle with virtually all elements of it: whether it's the opening sentence, targeting it to the position, or finding a way to convey personality without appearing forced. Many people just freeze at the first sentence. Writing blocks and writing anxiety kick in.

So I'm going to spend the next two blog posts on crafting the cover letter.  This post presents 10 guidelines for writing cover letters.  The second post deals with the value of a SWOT analysis to construct your letter

So what's the point of a cover letter?  The cover letter, done right, is actually a valuable opportunity for the job seeker to convey information and start a relationship with the employer.  The cover letter is less restrictive than a resume (you can use the word "I", for instance), and it gives you the opportunity to highlight your most important features to an employer.  You can explain aspects of your background that might raise questions  (such as gaps in employment or lack of a specific degree), you can convey personality traits (resumes are notoriously dry and fact-filled), and you can entice the employer to want to meet you. 

As we shift increasingly to social media, email, and other technical approaches to the job search, some experts have questioned whether a cover letter is even needed anymore. While its use or format may be morphing, it's still an important document in the process.  There will always be some employers who say they don't need to see a cover letter-but in general you should assume that you will need to write one.  And, as hard as this may be to digest, consider finding a way to welcome this opportunity to display your talents. 

So... here are 10 basic guidelines for a cover letter.  Violate them at your own risk. 

1. Use proper business letter format.  Make sure you include the date, the name and address of the person/organization you're sending it to, etc.  Use a colon after "Dear Mr. ______:" (commas are for personal correspondence). Here is a great site for proper business correspondence style from Purdue's Online Writing Lab

2. Keep it to one page unless you have a very clear reason for going beyond that.  I work in higher education: we're used to reading lots of pages, so I personally am not bothered by a two-page cover letter.  I have even written two page cover letters when applying for jobs myself and have only ever heard one complaint. But, I remind you-- I'm in higher education.  In the business world, keep it to one page. And particularly when your cover letter is written as an email to accompany your attached resume, keep it short and simple. (But not just "Here's my attached resume.  I look forward to hearing from you." You don't get off that easy even in an email.  Sorry.)

3. Write unique content.  The cover letter is a chance to tell your story, to demonstrate some personality, display your communication skills, and highlight your strengths.  It is not the place to simply repeat everything that is in your resume. 

4. Remember how your English teacher always said to "show, don't tell"?  What she meant was: don't just say "I'm a hard worker" (that's telling); show the reader you're a hard worker, as in "Last summer, while working at a full-time job, I successfully completed 6 hours of graduate coursework in accounting, and developed a prospectus for a new business."  See, now you've shown me you're a hard worker.

5. Establish a relationship with your reader. To whom are you writing? As I like to say to students: if you're writing a report on dogs, it's helpful to know if your reader is a veterinarian or in the 3rd grade. Big difference in how you approach the subject. So, who will be reading your cover letter? Someone in the human resources office? (Likely.) Your future boss? (Also likely.) Someone with no understanding of your field? (Possibly.) For this reason, you need to be careful about using jargon or acronyms from your previous or current employer.

6. Write a targeted letter to each position. The failure to personalize it to the job and/or the employer is by far the most common complaint I hear from employers. Employers resent it when they receive what is obviously a generic cover letter where the candidate hasn't taken the time to personalize it to them (as in, "Dear Sir or Madam:").  Almost as bad is the letter which starts out personally addressed to the employer but quickly digresses into an obviously generic letter.

I once posted a position for a career counselor in my office.  I received many applications ranging from a former military officer who spent a paragraph describing his sharpshooting skills (I'm very glad he served in our military, but generally I don't need sharpshooting skills in my office), a person who spent a paragraph describing her religious beliefs and how much she enjoys teaching Sunday School classes (again, I'm glad she enjoys what she does-- but not an issue for my office either), and a high school counselor who described in great detail her client load of pregnant teenagers

Here's the mistake they all made: they didn't make the connections for me.  They wasted valuable space on their letters describing details that were irrelevant to the position. And they made no effort to connect their experience to my position or organization.  For instance:  What if the sharpshooter had written something like "In the military, I honed skills which required great patience, accuracy, and focus"; or had the Sunday school teacher written, "I developed lesson plans targeted to the age of my students, and designed to increase knowledge and encourage discussion"; or the high school counselor written "I work with students who are under pressure, and have to make challenging life decisions every day"? Those kinds of statements would show to me that they understand that they are not going to be doing what they've done before in this new job, that they have more deeply analyzed their skills and applied them to the new position-and that they actually know what this new job will entail.  It is not my responsibility as the employer to connect these dots for them-- you must do it yourself in your cover letter (and interview). 

7. Plan to create a letter with three-to-five paragraphs (two-to-four if it's an email).  The first paragraph should explain what you're applying for, how you heard about the opportunity, and why you are particularly qualified.  Try to be subtle about this-- a letter that opens with "I am the most qualified candidate you will find..." usually ends up in the trash.  The employer will judge whether you're the most qualified: you need to convey what talents or experience you have that connect to the position.  The middle paragraphs expand on your connection to the position as well as highlight any research you've done about the opportunities the position and the employer represent to you.  The last paragraph closes with the next action step that will be taken and how you can connect in the future.

8. Try to avoid trite phrases.  I always advise my students NOT to start with the traditional opening, "I am a student at __________ and I am applying for a position as ______________."  Rather, start with something that connects you right away to the position, as in "My three years experience as a bank teller, combined with my economics coursework, have taught me the importance of _____ , a trait needed in your ______ position."

9. Use an active voice, with action verbs. Avoid phrases like "was responsible for", or "reports that were written by me...".  

10. Edit. Proofread. Ruthlessly. 

For more help with your cover letter, check out my blog post on Cover Letter Writing Strategy.

Find me on Facebook.  Follow me on Twitter.  Copyright 2011 Katharine Brooks

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Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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