Let your cover letter tell your story

I used to think cover letters were a pain in the neck. Just one more blasted thing I had to do before applying for a job, something that already took ages and was nerve-wracking. Now you want me to tell you who I am, why I am the perfect person for this job, without knowing anything about who I am addressing? Ugh.

I don’t know when the lights came on for me, but at some point I realized: this is where I can shine. As a writer, as someone who uses words as beacons and weapons and armour and decoration and distraction and motivation, I can turn a cover letter from something dull into something that shines with my reflected brilliance. (I employ hyperbole, occasionally, as you will see. Usually it works.)

In the advertising world, as well as in the not-for-profit one, they refer to this as telling your story. You know the saying about no second chance to make a first impression? That first impression is your cover letter, not your resume. If the letter doesn’t grab the attention of the person sifting through the piles of printouts, looking for people they can interview without wanting to drive nails through their eyes, they’ll sift you into the no-thanks file and never think twice about it.

And since it’s just as much work to write a mediocre cover letter as it is to write an amazing one, I think your time is best spent doing the latter. I’m going to attempt to tell you how I go about it.

First, the salutation. If you know the name of the hiring manager, use it. “Dear Mr/Ms X.” If not, I always use “To whom it may concern.” It sounds archaic, but it indicates that you know workplace etiquette and is not overly familiar.

Off the top, remember to focus on what you can offer to the workplace, not on why you’d love to work there. Many people try to convince the hiring manager that they’re the right fit because they’ve “always loved photocopying and find it incredibly fulfilling” or are “a coffee connoisseur who knows his Blue Mountain from his Yirgacheffe” or what have you. This is not the right approach. A hiring manager is looking for WIIFM – what’s in it for me?

So you tell them what they’re getting if they hire you. This is the second hurdle – don’t repeat your resume. If you do a good job here, they’ll read that next. The ideal thing to do is to highlight one or two of your skills that make you a terrific candidate for this particular job. I like to start with kind of a flashy sentence, something that grabs the attention – but make sure it’s true. Don’t say “I can throw myself out of a plane and stab a goose for dinner on my way down.” (Unless it’s true, in which case, what time is dinner and where should I show up?) My favourite line to use is “I can spot a typo at fifty paces.” This may be slightly hyperbolic (I warned you) but it gets my point across: I have a fantastic eye for typographical errors. They nearly hurl themselves off the page to shout for my attention. This is a valuable skill in an editor, and I use the heck out of it.

So think about what makes you awesome, and tell them about it. Be clear, be bold, and be a little funny if you can swing it. I am a fan of a little swagger in a cover letter – just a little, though. There’s a line between confident and cocky – find it, and tread carefully.

Next, talk a little bit about your past experience in a general manner, pointing out the things you’ve done that have helped you build your current skills and comfort levels with tasks and projects. For example, I say things like “With fifteen years of experience in the field of not-for-profit communications, I’ve become an expert juggler – I can manage multiple projects and deadlines with ease, and am comfortable working both independently and as part of a team.” I might also provide a list of the kinds of publications I’ve worked on, or a summation of the sectors within which I have expertise. This gives them an overview of what they’ll find when they look at your CV.

Keywords are good here too, but not buzzwords. Don’t say “I’m great at blue-sky thinking;” rather, you might say “I’m great at looking at a problem from multiple points of view and coming up with creative – but not weird – solutions.”

Sum up your letter cleanly and with genuine friendliness. “In short, I think I’d be a great fit for the position of skydiving chef, and I look forward to talking with you about this opportunity.”

I like to use “Sincerely” as my sign-off, but “Yours truly” works too. Not “Yours VERY truly” (save it for epic love letters) and never “Signed” or “Cordially.”

It’s OK if the cover letter you write doesn’t fill an entire page. Most of the time, these are sent via email now anyway. Which brings me to my final point: always follow instructions to the letter when submitting a job application, including cover letter. If they want it in a particular format, or as a separate attachment, DO IT THAT WAY. Don’t give them a reason to discard your awesome creation without reading it, because they will. It’s a test to see if you can read and follow instructions carefully. Pass that test, and your toe is already through the door. The rest is up to your story.

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