Most people hate writing cover letters. It’s understandable – you’ve already submitted a resume highlighting your key skills and attributes. Why do you need to submit a cover letter? Here’s the thing – once you master writing cover letters, you’ve gained an incredible opportunity. You can use additional information gathered in your skills listing to further sell yourself and increase your chance of being contacted by the manager.
To write a successful cover letter, you’ll use a couple of the “dragon-slaying” stories from your skills listing document that you couldn’t fit into a tight resume format.
***I have a couple of important side points before we get started:
Side Point 1: In this day and age, if you have a killer resume, you may not need to submit a cover letter. The most popular job board is Indeed.com. Submitting a cover letter directly on the job board is optional. If you have a fantastic resume, you can skip the cover letter and you’ll still get noticed – if you’re applying to jobs for which you qualify.
However, a cover letter is still vital for certain jobs. The Indeed.com advertisement may direct you to a company website where the ad in question specifically asks you for a cover letter. If the ad states, “Please submit a cover letter” – you’d better submit a cover letter. Government jobs require a cover letter in most cases. So, if you’re looking for that stable job working for the city, get ready to write a cover letter!
Side Point 2: If you encounter a job that requires a cover letter and you begin to experience serious resistance at the thought of writing it, this may be a sign that you don’t really want that job! Pay attention to your instincts. If you gag at the thought of performing this job in the first place and you don’t want to write a cover letter, then don’t apply for it! I think we’ve all been guilty of applying to jobs because we’re desperate.
Let me ask you this: If you manage to get an interview, don’t you think your lack of enthusiasm will show? I speak from experience. It took me a long time to face the fact that I will never enjoy an HR job which requires payroll processing or administering employee discipline. These days I avoid applying for those jobs. Lean into your self-knowledge and avoid acting out of desperation. Trust me, you’ll save yourself a headache. But let’s get back to the mission – roll up your sleeves and get ready to master the cover letter.
Going back to an earlier theme, the biggest problem with most job seekers is a combination of laziness and the inability to grasp that a resume and cover letter are marketing documents. You are a salesperson peddling the most important product in your life – that’s you.
First, you need to create a basic template. The best approach is to use your creativity and develop basic knowledge of standard cover letters (available everywhere – I really like The Interview Guys.) Use what you glean from various sources and put your own spin on it.
Below I will provide an example of a real-life cover letter that gained me an interview. You can take what you need from this example and run with it. I’ll provide the original text and break down why I think it works.
Last spring, I applied to a Recruiter position with Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. This was a position I really wanted. I was willing to do whatever it took to get an interview – including going completely over the top in my cover letter. This “over the top” formula has yielded positive results for me in the past. It’s a successful formula, though it may feel ridiculous. I landed my last permanent job as a recruiter because I went completely over the top in my cover letter, which led to an interview that I passed, resulting in a 4-year stint at a company, performing a role that I enjoyed.
Cover letter Basics
Some people will tell you that you must limit a cover letter to 2 or 3 paragraphs. If you’re a good writer who knows how to use active language, you can break this rule. The cover letter below landed me an interview. It’s not 2 or 3 paragraphs. It’s 6 paragraphs, one of which is a single sentence.
If you express your skills in a way that uses action-packed phrases, you can absolutely get away with up to 6 paragraphs in your cover letter. Just be sure to break it up so that no paragraph has more than 4 sentences.
“Greetings Dept. of Fish and Wildlife HR Team,
I was excited to see your opening for HR Recruiter 3; I couldn’t miss the chance to apply for a position that aligns perfectly with my skill set. I’m a creative thinker who is accustomed to adjusting to a “paradigm shift” in my HR workday, as your ad states.”
First, we have the standard greeting. I despise saying “dear….” And will often use “Greetings”. So far nobody has been offended!
“I couldn’t miss the chance to apply”: I ripped this off directly from The Interview Guys. It’s a fantastic resource and these are the guys who taught me to go “over the top” with my cover letter enthusiasm.
Next, we move on to “a position which aligns perfectly with my skill set” – it’s good to drive this point home as early as you can. If you can fit that statement or a similar one into the very first paragraph, you’ll get their attention – and that’s important in the cover letter introduction.
I was a recruiter for 4 years. Believe me – recruiters see a lot of incredibly boring and uninspiring cover letters where job applicants are clearly not willing to color outside the lines – not even enough to sell themselves at a minimal level.
If you want to stand above the crowd, start your cover letter with a bold statement to the effect of, “I am excited about this position” and “it aligns perfectly with my skillset” – then put your own original twist on it by using your unique voice.
Next, we slide into a power statement that directly addresses content from the job advertisement.
“I’m a creative thinker who is accustomed to adjusting to a ‘paradigm shift’ in my HR workday, as your ad states.”
In this sentence I am addressing a phrase directly from the employer’s job ad. Before you sit down and write a cover letter, it’s a good idea to either print out the job ad and highlight key phrases that match your experience or write down bullet points from the ad and match them up with bullets from your resume to show yourself exactly how your skills match their needs. This will help you generate content for the cover letter body.
Based on the job ad, I intuited that they value a creative thinker. This is an example of an implied skill. They didn’t directly say, “we need a creative thinker” on the job ad.
After I reviewed the job ad, I was able to intuit their need for creativity. Intuition is a highly valuable skill to use when job hunting. The more you can intuit things from the job ad that are not explicitly stated, the better you will do at both cover letters and interviews.
“who is accustomed to adjusting to a ‘paradigm shift’ in my HR workday, as your ad states”
I am showing them that I read the job ad closely. The ad called for someone who can deal with changing needs and can handle a “paradigm shift”. Showing that you read the job ad is just as important as using your intuition to speak to needs that aren’t directly stated.
Repeat a key phrase back to them showing that you read the job ad but use your own sentence with that phrase– in this case “in my HR workday”.
Depending on your role and industry, the paragraphs in the body should communicate your understanding of the employer’s needs and provide examples of how your experience matches.
“In my last role, I developed advanced recruiting skills in my mission to fill niche roles which required specialized licenses.
As an example, I was tasked with finding licensed addiction counselors who were willing to work inside of Washington State prisons. I met the challenge successfully many times and I developed social media and marketing skills along the way. I am proficient in posting announcements, screening, and tracking applicants among other HR skills.”
The body paragraphs demonstrate how my most recent role relates to the position for which I am applying. I use a strong statement to highlight a difficult task – I filled niche roles. In the next paragraph, I explain what I did – recruited people with specialized licenses for prison roles. Remember the What + How formula referenced in the skills listing article? It works for cover letters too.
The next paragraph highlights sourcing skills that I did not have room to talk about on my resume:
“I am familiar with sourcing using Facebook job groups, Indeed Resume Search, WorkSource, LinkedIn, and I have hosted job fairs. I work well with all management levels to fill their unique and often changing needs daily by utilizing active listening, excellent follow-through, and top-notch employee service.”
One of your body paragraphs should mention your soft skills, as stated above. In my industry, it’s important to get along with managers and understand their needs. Active listening and feedback are required. Excellent in-house customer service is needed. Most jobs require customer service in some form.
“Your values directly align to my own – accountability, service, professionalism, integrity, respect, and empathy. If I had to describe my work ethic in 6 words, those are the words I would choose. If I could add two more, I would add friendliness and flexibility.”
In the above paragraph, I directly reference the agency values. This was easy because the agency values do, in fact, represent my own. This is part of the reason I wanted a job with Fish & Wildlife. When you apply to a job you actually want, it’s easier to draw a comparison between your values and their own without feeling like you’re acting. I then decided to go “over the top” and add in two other genuine qualities to the mix!
If they list out company values and you can add a few more to the mix – values that you intuit that they’ll appreciate, that’s a good formula!
“I hope for the chance to interview with the Fish and Wildlife HR department. I have attached my resume and most recent performance review backing some of the claims that I make here. If you’re interested in contacting me, I can be reached at —*—*—-*.
Thanks for considering me, “
Many cover letter guides recommend a strong “call for action”. By this, they suggest that you say something along the lines of “I look forward to interviewing with you” or something obnoxiously strong indicating that you already have the interview in a bag.
That’s not my style. And I don’t think most employers appreciate that level of pushiness.
If your resume aligns with the employer’s needs, and if your cover letter walks that special balance between being confident enough to get attention but not so arrogant that you turn them off, it isn’t necessary to get pushy or demanding. I think “I hope for the chance to interview” works just fine.
If you have a glowing performance review and a good letter of reference or two, refer to them in the closing paragraph and attach them. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately!) I did not land the Fish and Wildlife job – but out of many HR applicants, I nailed an interview. And that’s important 😊.
Applying for a Job Outside Your Field
Applying for a job within your field makes the process of writing a cover letter straightforward. An explanation of why you’re applying isn’t required. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves in a place where we apply to jobs completely outside of our field.
After I lost my job last year, I went through a brief phase where I considered leaving HR to go work outside while pursuing a Park Ranger career path. I applied for a city job doing Parks Maintenance. Like most city jobs, the role required a cover letter. The cover letter below nailed an interview and I received a job offer.
This letter follows the more traditional formula of “short and sweet”. If you’re applying to a job outside your normal career, you’ll need to explain your motivation. Here I explain that I want to leave HR and work for state or national parks. (Side note: I recovered from this temporary mid-life crisis after admitting to myself that a parks maintenance job would probably not cover my rent).
Once again, I took the “over the top” approach by stating that I’ll roll up my sleeves and get to work “with precision and follow-through.” Feels ridiculous, works every time. Since this was a highly physical job, I needed to communicate my understanding of the role. I intuited that a word like “precision” would grab the attention of interviewers who spend their time working outside all day.
As stated earlier, I don’t think it’s necessary to tailor your resume to each job you apply to, but a cover letter, by its very nature, must be tailored.
You can simplify this process by creating a basic cover letter template with 3 paragraphs or so. Write a draft communicating what you would say if you applied for the ideal job. Save it, then use that template to create a new cover letter for each job that requires one.
Change out the greeting, modify the introductory paragraph, and tailor the body of the letter. Insert a few sentences in the body showing your understanding of the job. Include statements showing you read the job ad and include statements where you intuit employer needs beyond the job ad.
After doing a quality skills listing, crafting a killer resume, and learning how to write an action-packed cover letter, you’ll have everything you need to excel at job hunting.
Like any other skill set, job hunting gets easier with practice. You’ll find that as you begin to apply these skills, you’ll learn as you go. Different industries may require a slightly modified approach, but the basic framework is always the same – know your skills, articulate them well, and always keep in mind that these are marketing documents. You are selling the most important commodity – yourself and your skills!
Thanks for reading.
If you have any questions, post them in the comments and I will answer.