How to write a winning cover letter
The cover letter is misunderstood. Like the intimidating shadow of a friendly giant, it is not what it appears to be. Once you see it for what it is, you start to view it as a powerful tool that’s on your side.
“This is a powerful tool; it’s not something we should just gloss over,” says J.T. O’Donnell, career coach and CEO of WorkItDaily. “In my personal opinion… the cover letter is more important and more valuable and has more power than your resume does.”
Here are some tips to help make the process easier and more enjoyable.
State your intention, and keep it simple
The best hook is being direct. Sometimes, though, directness gets lost in our attempt to sound special or unique. Begin with something like, “Dear [Hiring Manager], I am writing to express interest in the Service Designer role at Telstra.” Once you have your reader’s attention, you can get more personal.
Be interested, not interesting
It’s the same advice you’d hear for any kind of interpersonal exchange: Show your interest in the other, and they’ll be interested in you.
“The content of the cover letter should focus on the employer,” O’Donnell says. “Let’s face it, that’s what they really want to talk about—themselves and their needs. Or, more importantly, how you identify with their vision and purpose.”
A “disruptive cover letter,” as she calls it, is attention-grabbing because it shows an employer how deeply you understand them.
“To be part of their tribe, you have to share one or more experiences you’ve had that taught you that what they do for work is smart, valuable, and worth building a business around. Hiring managers want to know you have what’s called ‘intrinsic motivation’ to do their work. This is when you’re driven by your own values and beliefs to do a good job.”
Don’t brag, but do sell yourself
It’s a fine line but an important one.
“We work with thousands of recruiters, and they tell us they read the good [cover letters] and immediately get rid of the bad ones,” says O’Donnell. “If they see that it reads just like every other cover letter they get and it’s all about you and how great you think you are, they’re not going to bother to read it.”
On the other hand, you do want to present yourself in the best light possible. For some people, especially those who struggle to write about themselves, this can be difficult. Linda Spender, associate director and coordinator of career advising at Harvard Extension School, says there’s a trick you can use in that case:
“What would your favorite boss, your best friend, or your mentor say about you? How would they sing your praises? Then write the letter from their point of view.”
Include stats from previous jobs
If you helped increase sales at your previous job, include the numbers here. Hard data will help you stand out. If you don’t have any stats, O’Donnell recommends incorporating feedback or reviews from previous employers and colleagues:
“Used sparingly, great feedback from former co-workers, managers, or clients can go a long way toward illustrating your passion or skills. Here’s an example of how you might weave it in: ‘When I oversaw our last office move, my color-coded spreadsheets covering every minute detail of the logistics were legendary; my manager said I was so organised, she’d trust me to plan an expedition to Mars.’”
Add a personal touch
It’s easy to use the same language everyone else is using. There’s nothing wrong with writing “I’d like to express interest in [X] role” and “I look forward to hearing from you,” but you’ll have a slight edge over others if you can throw in something more human, more you, as well.
“When you show a personal connection, when you reveal something about yourself, that evokes an emotion in the reader,” O’Donnell says, “that is a powerful cover letter.”
A few ways of connecting with a potential employer might be 1) telling them how you came to learn that what the company does is special (how you emotionally connected with their brand), or 2) sharing what it was like to use their product/service for the first time.
“The more, personal the better. It makes all the difference in the world. And if you think about it, it’s really not that hard to do.”
That said, keep it real—don’t include a personal story if you don’t have one.
Watch the enthusiasm
“We can’t tell you how many cover letters we’ve seen from people who are ‘absolutely thrilled for the opportunity’ or ‘very excitedly applying!’” says Spencer. “Yes, you want to show personality, creativity, and excitement. But downplay the adverbs a bit, and just write like a normal person.”
To reiterate: that doesn’t mean sounding lifeless. The tone should make you appear genuine and approachable, not overly formal, and like someone the employer would enjoy having on the team.
Do not attach a separate document
Write your cover letter directly in the body of your email. This is the trick I’ve always used, and I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way. You should assume HR managers and employers have little time to read through applications, so including your cover letter as the body of your email rather than attaching it as a Word document or PDF is generally a smart move.
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Author: Saga Briggs. Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena