Despite the oft-referenced “research” suggesting cover letters have an even slimmer chance than résumés of being read, you’d be hard-pressed to find a job application for any professional opening that doesn’t require one. Sometimes, the hiring company will ask for a “personal statement” instead, but that makes no difference to you, the candidate. Like your résumé, your cover letter is an opportunity to sell yourself, and that alone is enough reason to give it your best shot.
In the age of ultra-individuality, it can be hard to balance authenticity with “formula,” which all cover letters must follow to some degree—otherwise, nobody would know what to include in them. The idea, though, is to make the most of the letter by reining in the “me talk” (stuff like “I’m hardworking and detail-oriented”) and, instead, cultivating interest in the reader with a few carefully selected facts and figures about your background. How do you do that? By getting specific.
Even if you only have limited experience in a particular skill or responsibility, you should aim to provide specific examples of how you’re up to the job at hand. One strong example, told as a short story, is a lot more compelling than a series of vague assurances about your qualifications or abilities.
Take, for instance, this somewhat noncommittal statement:
“Throughout the last eighteen months, I’ve been involved in several projects aimed at optimizing efficiency at the admin–ops levels. Altogether, the changes implemented have resulted in hundreds of hours saved and even an overhaul of certain operating procedures.”
Now, let’s try that again, but in story format and including specific details:
“Having spent eighteen months in the regional office of ABC Company, I’ve come to understand how crucial timesaving and efficiency are to day-to-day administration. That’s why, earlier this year, I designed and implemented a new categorization procedure for ABC Company’s contractor database. This overhaul made it possible to reduce the average time spent on end-of-month reporting by over 40 percent.”
Which of these two statements has more impact? The first talks about “several” different projects and “hundreds of hours” saved, but it doesn’t give us the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. The second, on the other hand, picks one strong example and gives the reader a concise but complete summary of events. Most importantly, it highlights a quantifiable achievement: This candidate didn’t just save her team “a lot of time,” she saved them 40 percent of it.
Lesson: Be specific, and tell a story. It works.
One of the most frustrating challenges about applying for a new job is you’re often asked to explain in what ways you’ve previously executed the same responsibilities, or used the same skills, as you would in your new position. However, the fact that you’re looking for new work implies you’d like to acquire responsibilities and skills you don’t necessarily have right now.
In a recent article, I talked about how to tailor your résumé to any job offer, including how to relate previous experience to the job requirements. The same principles will work for your cover letter, too. Read the job ad closely, then find ways to link something from your background or professional experience to a trait, skill, or responsibility listed in the ad.
And if you really can’t think of anything? Look for opportunities to close your skills gap. For example, if the jobs you’re applying to require proofreading experience, but you’ve never done any proofreading in a professional capacity, keep your mind open and creative solutions to the problem will come to you.
For instance, you could check your current employer’s website for spelling or grammar mistakes. If you spot one, you might politely bring it to the attention of the relevant responsible party, then volunteer to proofread other portions of the website and hand in a full review. Just like that, you’ve gained some relevant experience you can talk about in your cover letter.
You know how you often hear recruiters only spend a few seconds scanning your résumé? True or not, it gives us all an incentive to err on the side of caution and keep our résumés nice and short. The same applies to cover letters. Remember, the aim of both your cover letter and your résumé is to pique the reader’s interest enough to get them to call you, which is when the real work begins.
Try to keep your cover letter to two, maybe three paragraphs. Here’s an easy formula: Use the first paragraph to talk about why you want the job, the second to tell your skills story, and the third to explain the best time to reach you, and how. Put the letter away for a few minutes, do something else, then come back to it with a rested eye and edit it again. Do this until you can’t drop another word, then proofread it one last time to check for flow. If you can get through it in one to two minutes and it reads as well as it looks, your work here is done.
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Originally published at www.betenwrite.com