In the age of online job applications, you might wonder whether cover letters have gone out of fashion. They have not.
If you’re a literate student of the Humanities, you can be especially glad of this. Where better to demonstrate your literacy (or, as they say in business, “communication skills”) than as you introduce yourself to a prospective employer?
There’s a lot of recycled advice available all over the internet and in print for job applicants preparing cover letters, but not much guidance for people who really know how to write. Let me start by re-stating some of the tried-and-true advice you’ll find elsewhere (MSN Careers, for example) because you shouldn’t overlook any of it. Then I’ll add to it with writerly advice.
First, the standard advice:
1. Keep it short, but not too short. About 300 words should do it, organized into four or five paragraphs. Any more than that, and it won’t be read.
2. Proofread and copyedit, and don’t just rely on MS Word to tell you what’s wrong. If, like many of us, you’re not good at proofreading your own work, try reading it backwards. Start at the bottom and go right to left. You’ll find typos that way, though usually not punctuation errors.
I assume it goes without saying that errors in grammar and diction are inexcusable.
3. Describe how your qualifications match the job description, especially if it’s not blatantly obvious. If they’re asking for a Bachelor’s degree in Business and you don’t have one, focus on the specific job requirements you do have. “I believe I have the ‘excellent written and verbal communication skills’ this job requires, as well as extensive education in analytical work and research.” Something like that.
4. Be sure you do your homework: Study up on the company and refer to it specifically in your cover letter.
5. Be enthusiastic yet professional. Let your letter reveal that you’ve thought about the job, you’ve researched what the company does, and the more you know, the more you’d like to work there. Steer clear of tired words (like “passion”). (Isn’t it terrible that overuse has sucked the life out of “passion”?)
6. If you have any personal connection (you were referred by someone, perhaps) mention it in your letter early on. “Bob Smith suggested I contact you.”
Those are the basics: Short, focused, enthusiastic and competently written. Now, let’s take it up a level. The best cover letters:
1. Make the reader (the hiring manager or company representative) feel you, the applicant, have some understanding of the job they’re trying to fill. “Although I don’t know the specifics of your environment, I imagine the role of Communications Assistant is deadline-driven, and that clarity of the message is key to success.”
2. Start out with a sentence or two that commands attention. That would not be “Please consider my application for the position of . . . “ or “Attached you’ll find my resume, which . . . .” Instead, say something different and memorable, something that demonstrates you can write and you’ve thought about the job you’re applying for.
Here’s one of the best opening sentences I ever read in a cover letter (application for a Marketing Assistant position in a small company to promote books and education):
“Professional success is not the result of marketing strategies, efforts and campaigns but rather the product and, more importantly, the person behind the product being promoted.” (She then went on to state the name of the position she was applying for and then her specific qualifications.)
Here’s another outstanding opener (for a position in engineering project management):
“Creativity in engineering is an important part of product development and a phase of project work that is often difficult to manage. Because I believe this contribution is critically important, I’ve supplemented my formal education in project management with classes in technical design, and I hope that is the kind of preparation and experience you are looking for. Please consider my application for ….”
Neither one has a same-old-same-old opening, and both of them differentiate the writer in some way. The first one says she has a philosophy—the product matters—and the second one says he has an unusual but relevant background for work in engineering project management.
3. Talk yourself up without bragging. One way to do that is to position yourself as the fortunately recipient of the experience and qualifications you have. “I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Brown, whose research in <whatever> is nationally recognized, and I appreciate the two years I spent working with him.” That makes Dr. Brown look good and you the fortunate recipient of his knowledge and wisdom. Or “I am grateful to have been chosen to lead a team of investigators who went on to discover ….”
Of course you can’t do it if you’re not sincere (i.e., if you’re not actually grateful for these opportunities). But if you are, you’ll be presenting not only your qualifications to a hiring manager but also your demeanor—someone who shares the stage rather than someone who grabs the spotlight. That’s always a welcome addition to the workplace.
4. Last but not least, just write well. No clichés, no sentence fragments, no incomplete thoughts, no wandering sentences. Choose your words well. Make English majors look good, as only you can.
Working on a cover letter? Want some help? Send it to me (susan@LiberalArtsAdvantage.com) and I’d be happy to take a look.