Cover letters are a great way to differentiate yourself from other applicants. This is, of course, if somebody actually reads them.
It’s a known fact that hiring managers just glance through them and you can consider yourself lucky if they spend more than 60 seconds reading something that took you days to write. Blood, sweat and tears evaluated in such a short span of time? Sad but true.
In my professional life, I’ve written and read a considerable amount of them. Enough to be able to light up to 20 barbecues. Truth is, the majority were all boring (especially the ones I wrote). There’s only a handful I can remember that stood out. In better times, I was lucky enough to be on the side of the table that evaluates them. There is something interesting about being part of a selection committee. You get to see lots of letters in a very short period of time. This allows you to learn all the pitfalls, classify them, spot them within seconds and even anticipate them even before you finish the sentence.
Yet, this is not a post about the common mistakes and how to avoid them. There’s plenty of material out there already. This is a post about intent and things you need to have in mind before you start writing in order to get focused and set your mood right. The cover letter is the place to convey how your character, interests, motivations, knowledge, skills, and experiences blend together and showcase your uniqueness and fit for the job. This blog took a bit over seven years to be written.
These reflections are of course from my own experience. Please help yourself to the tips that work for you.
1) Cover letters don’t get you the job
Nope. They don’t. They just get the person reading them interested in you. That’s all. Think of them like a sample. A glittering hook that gathers someone’s attention in a sea full of noise. For a very short moment, you’re in the spotlight. They are the chance to let your personality and humanity come through. They are one of the pillars of what I call the Job Hunting Trifecta. In the end, it’s all a matter of attitude, experience and luck. Get the right balance of these three, and the job is yours. While cover letters don’t get you the job, they might just buy you a ticket to sit in the special chair. They are a sign of potential fit. A wink to your future boss to let them know that you can be what they need. That’s why they are so important.
2) Cover letters are not about you
Crazy right? It’s your life we are talking about here. Isn’t it all about what you’ve done in your previous positions? Isn’t it about where you are now and where you are heading in life with this job that you want to pursue? Truth is: none of that really matters. Cover letters are about how you can add value to your hiring manager and their organisation, company or business. It’s all about them. Period. They hire people to get things solved. Whoever manages to show them that they are the ones that can solve what they need, wins an invitation for a follow up meeting. Still, lots of experienced people on paper, showing a great fit for the job, don’t make it to the final shortlist. That’s because nobody works in isolation. We are the sum of our experiences, circumstance and the environments surrounding us. How you fit in the organisational culture, adapt to the team, or relate with your future manager matters. A lot. The cover letter is the place to hint that fit.
3) Cover letters are conversational
How is it possible to engage in a dialogue when you are asked to apply through an Online Application System or send attachments via email? You can. You only need to know how to do it. Cover letters are a great instrument to introduce and guide a first a conversation as they allow you to connect past,present and future, in your own terms. They also give you a chance to connect a need with a promise and provide proof. Even if you just do that, you’ll be ahead of 90% of the other candidates applying. Organisations have needs. Right? Otherwise they wouldn’t be looking for someone to fill a position. You represent the potential, the promise to help them solve something. It’s your job to match this with proof that objectively shows you have what it takes to get the job done. What I usually recommend? Take a pretty good look at the job description. Read it more than five times. Highlight those keywords and phrases that really speak to you. Mirror them back in cover letter. Build up your case and exchange ideas on how you can be of help.
4) Cover letters are not a fancy replica of the CV/resume
Nope. They are not. “As you can see from my attached CV… Zzzz.” Your past education and experiences should be clear and easy to read in your CV. Don’t tell everything twice, word-by-word. Remember the recruiter already has your resume. There’s no need to explore your entire work history in your cover letter. Instead, only focus on a few convincing arguments. Details. Context. Vivid pictures. Share an anecdote. Make it vibrant.
5) Cover letters are unique and not generic
Please forget the last letter you’ve used. Erase it from your memory. Start all over again with a clean slate. Begin with a fresh blank page. Don’t borrow one from your friend just because “she writes better than I do”. Stay away from people who want to drop their own words in it, or folks that provide you with entire collections of perfect formulations that make you sound like a minion. It is not necessary to write a poetic cover letter (chances are, you’re not the 21st century Shakespeare anyway), but indeed, your content should be convincing and authentic. Again: your letter doesn’t have to be perfect, but it definitely shouldn’t be sloppy. Typo–free, for sure. Use your own language. Write as you speak, while staying respectful. This will create a writing style that corresponds to your own personality and can better resonate with the right job.
6) Cover letters are like a magnifying glass
They are meant to draw attention to certain aspects of your life and details of your resume. Not to rehash the whole of it. They focus on specific highlights with just enough intensity to create a spark and get the fire burning. Refer only to some selected specifics of your training, skills or experience. Only those that are relevant for this one position. Preferably the responsibilities you are going to be hired for. All other experiences you had in your life do not belong in cover letters. They will confuse the reader (that HR Manager who is the gatekeeper to your dream job) and distract from your suitability.
7) Cover letters are like a movie trailer
There’s a reason why you end up watching bad movies which seemed great in the trailer. Yup. It was because of that pretty well made catchy trailer. Here’s an elaboration of the three act structure: Start fast. Add a bit of action. End big. Under no circumstances should reading your letter be too exhausting or tiring by offering up too many details or showing how the movie will end. The ideal cover letter arouses anticipation for the resume. It shouldn’t detail your whole life nor be overly flattering by how you would “die for the opportunity to learn from them”. Avoid the equivalent of proposing marriage on the first date. Your cover letter is just the teaser.
8) Cover letters should only knock on doors you know you can open
You finally found it. Your dream job. There’s only one little problem. You don’t quite tick all the boxes on their responsibilities and skills list. That’s discouraging. There’s nothing wrong with applying to positions out of your comfort zone or a bit out of your range. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any progress in life, right? Remember the Job Hunting Trifecta? There’s attitude, experience and luck. If you don’t really have the right experience (yet), there’s still attitude and perhaps a bit of magic to help you change the odds in your favour. But please don’t fool yourself. Employers list their job requirements when they post open positions, for a reason. (While it’s true that many times they also advertise the wrong requirements, only for you to find out in the interview or even worse, on the job itself, that their requirements and expectations are two totally different things, that is a story for another day!). For many positions, hiring managers will most likely have a fair selection of qualified candidates and aren’t interested in those who don’t even have the basic qualifications. If you are really short on skills, or don’t have anywhere near the amount of years of experience, or if the language you don’t speak is a deal breaker, or you don’t have the necessary educational requirements, or you see the organisational culture isn’t fit for you, just let it pass. Move on. Better to focus on another opportunity. That’s the best advice I can give to the people I coach. It requires a lot of awareness and sincerity to recognise a really long shot. Specially if you are unemployed, desperate and need a job as of yesterday. But when you do see these tempting “potential” ones and choose to let them pass, good things happen. You will regroup your energy and also be better prepared for the next one coming your way.
9) Cover letters keep the ‘Me, myself and I” under control
Your cover letter is not your autobiography. Of course you’ll need to drop an “I” or “my” now and then to describe your skills and how they fit with the position. After all, it’s no secret that what you write is coming from you, so good to keep these “me” phrases to a minimum. Instead, emphasise your interest in the job and in the company, what you find impressive/exciting/attractive/ about them and what you can do to solve their problem or fill their need.
10) Cover letters fit in one page
If you are writing more than one page, you are doing it wrong. Nowadays nobody has enough time for anything, it seems. Employees, hiring managers, and people in HR are also humans like you. Folks that often do not take the time to carefully read a long and packed cover letter in the hectic pace of the day. Between their loaded inboxes, phone calls, colleagues interrupting (open-plan office, anyone?) and short breaks between appointments, concentration is often a very limited resource. It is much better if the cover letter can be easily read over or, better yet, skimmed, and whet the appetite for them to want to go more in-depth into your profile. That’s what you want to aim for. Local standards also matter. You don’t want to be ‘noticed’ for being the guy or gal squeezing those margins to the max or adding irrelevant information just because that’s how you did it back home. Familiarise yourself with the local layout and use it. Riff off from there a bit to add your voice and style, but not too much. If you are a foreigner and adhere to the local standards, it shouts out two things: you know the rules of the game and are able to stand by them.
11) Cover letters show, don’t tell
Show sincerity, energy, and enthusiasm. It is important that you show the employer your excitement and desire to work for their organisation or company. It’s also very important that you show concrete and objective examples of success and how these can be transferable to the new job. When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader, rather than allowing him to deduce anything. You’re supplying information by simply stating it. “I am a great team player”, or “Managed a project that involved ten people”, or “Responsible for inventory control and ordering products“. That’s telling. Showing would paint a picture the reader could see in their mind’s eye and allow them to deduce that for themselves. “I am the type of person that would share his lunch with someone who forgot his”, “If asked spontaneously, the ten people that worked with me at Project X, would best describe me as the only woman in the team that would not leave the office until there are no new messages in the inbox”, “Optimised inventory by monitoring for product shortages and ensuring efficient service usage which resulted in an increase of 30% in sales”. That’s showing.
12) Cover letters are fun
They really are. They usually take a lot of energy and time to write. True. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Or at least, it shouldn’t. When done right and with intent, they can become an amazing transformational device, both for the person writing it, and also for those reading them. I’ve seen the eyes of my clients light up when they get a paragraph right. I’ve seen their smiles get bigger and bigger as they write a beautifully crafted sentence that explains just how they feel and what they want to convey. I’ve seen the enthusiasm of people hitting “SEND”, with an attached letter that rightfully speaks about the skills and experience of the person sending it and how that will add value to the organisation they are seeking to work for. I’ve seen teams discuss received letters with admiration shouting “We really need to invite this person to get to know her or him!”. Clarity of writing follows clarity of mind and bridging those two is a lot of fun, because when done right, it can open a lot of doors.
I’ve seen the fun of cover letters and that is why I created Mr. Cover Letter.