When you’re applying for a new job, you inevitably have to write a cover letter to accompany your resume and serve as an introduction to who you are. These letters must be brief yet compelling, so you don’t require much of the reader but still come across as unique. This can be tough, but if you utilise the principles of good storytelling and concise writing you can put together a letter that won’t get lost in the pile. Here’s how.
Title photo by Wrangler (Shutterstock).
Most cover letters tend to be fairly formulaic and look something like this:
I would like to express my interest in [SOME POSITION] at [COMPANY]. Although I’ve explored many options in my job search, I’ve come to respect the quality and integrity of the work that you do. For example, I was very impressed by the latest television campaign for Kellogs. I love creating great advertisements for television, radio, and print, and believe I would be a good asset to your company. I’m a hard worker who thinks outside of the box while producing creative work in an efficient manner. I believe you’ll find that my four years of experience at [SOME OTHER COMPANY I CLEARLY WANT TO LEAVE OR WAS FIRED FROM], and my resulting portfolio, mirror these qualities. I look forward to hearing from your and exchanging ideas about what I can offer [COMPANY].
Thank you for your consideration.
If you read a letter like this, you wouldn’t cry blood or toss it in the garbage in favour of getting a root canal. It’s a perfectly acceptable letter by letter-writing standards, but it’s also pretty generic and ineffective. It doesn’t tell you anything about who the author is, any compelling reason why they’re interested in their work or the company they’re hoping will employ them, and really does nothing at all to stand out from the crowd. In this post, we’re going to look at how to avoid letters like these and write interesting, unique cover letters that target the reader.
Know Your Audience
Your audience is your prospective employer, and while you can never know exactly who will be reading your letter you can know the company. You don’t want to craft a letter in which you try to be everything you think your target company might want, but you do want to take who the company is into account. Chances are there were a few things you liked about the company before deciding to apply. For example, if you were looking for a job at the industrial design firm IDEO, you may have gotten excited when you heard about the giant aeroplane wing protruding from one of their offices. Whatever made you like the company, or got you excited about the job, likely tells you a thing or two about the corporate culture. This information is very valuable when writing your cover letter.
First of all, knowing the way a company operates will hint at the level of formality they’ll expect from a letter. If you were applying for a job at Lifehacker, for example, you’d want to write something more casual. At a bank, formality would likely be appreciated. Design firms and other creative companies generally fall somewhere in the middle. If you know the company, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s fitting. Going back to the IDEO example, you could get away with a statement like this:
Ever since I saw the giant aeroplane wing crashing through the wall of your offices I knew IDEO was a place I wanted to work.
Something like that probably wouldn’t get you very far at a bank, but this could:
The first time I made a payment with Kaching I was delighted by how easy it was. Now that I am in the market for a job, I immediately though of Commonwealth Bank because I want to help to create the tools that make banking a pleasure.
These statements compliment the company. They show that you know detail about the company, so you’re not just applying abitrarily. They show that you appreciate the work the company does and they provide insight into who you are and what you care about. When you’re writing your cover letter, knowing your audience can help you do this. You may be applying for a job because you want any job, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do a little research and find something you like and respect about your prospective employer. Doing so will give you the opportunity to connect with them in a very brief moment and help you avoid getting stacked in a pile of generic applicants.
You can’t be someone else, so don’t try. This is good advice for life, and is especially relevant when applying for a new job. If you try to present yourself as the worker you think the company wants, you’re going to end up with boring statements that don’t really say much about you. Your resume can sell your skills and experience. Your cover letter needs to sell you as a person, and give the company a reason to want you. It’s an opportunity to put your best (and most relevant) foot forward, and you should take it. I think Joel Spolsky, founder of Fog Creek Software, explains this idea best:
The number one best way to get someone to look at your resume closely: come across as a human being, not a list of jobs and programming languages. Tell me a little story. “I’ve spent the last three weeks looking for a job at a real software company, but all I can find are cheezy web design shops looking for slave labour.” Or, “We yanked our son out of high school and brought him to Virginia. I am not going to move again until he is out of high school, even if I have to go work at Radio Shack or become a Wal*Mart greeter.” (These are slightly modified quotes from two real people.)
Who you are matters. It’s true that some companies are mostly interested in hiring people who will simply get the work done, accept a low salary, and never complain. However, you’re applying for a job you’re actually going to like then chances are you matter. Put a little of yourself into the cover letter. You’re not sharing your disease history. You’re sharing your personality in a way that’s relevant to the job you want. It’s fun. It’s an excuse to be honest, and you increase your chances of getting a job, too.
Photo by Luke Baldacchino.
Show, Don’t Tell
One of the most common mistakes people make in any kind of writing is that they tell their audience what they want them to know. Just as you’ll generally find explanations to be dull in a film, your prospective employer will find them to be dull in a cover letter. There’s no sense in telling anyone that you’re a hard worker or a team player because you’ll be 1) expecting that they’ll trust such a generic statement and 2) among many other undesirable candidates who write the same thing. If you’re going to provide reasons why you’re great, provide an undeniable example instead.
The best way to do this is look back on your work history — or even something relevant that you created outside of your professional life — that made you feel proud of what you can do. Tell a story about that in a few short sentences:
For her 9th birthday, my daughter wanted brownies just like the ones they make at her favourite restaurant. I accidentally spilled a little pudding mix into the batter, only to discover a trick that made one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. I can replicate a recipe like the best of them, but it’s the mistakes I’ve made while baking that remind me of how much I love it.
You can tell anyone anything, but you have to provide an example to demonstrate why they should believe your claims.
Photo by Les Chatfield.
Demonstrate What Every Employer Wants To Know
Most employers care about the following three things above all else:
- You’re smart.
- You’ll get things done.
- You’ll fit in well with their corporate culture.
Before you sign and send your cover letter, do your best to ensure those three things are implied. Again, you don’t ever want to actually say them, but you want your reader to think them when they’ve finished reading your letter.
Never Write The Same Letter Twice
Every time you apply for a job your audience changes. The job changes. Chances are you’ve changed a bit, too. While you can certainly re-use elements from previous cover letters when they are applicable, it’s very important to remember that the exact same cover letter is going to have a different impact on different people. As you go ahead and apply for different jobs, remember that they are different. You’ll want to craft your cover letters to express that.