I recently looked for a new supervisor-level hire for my school, and I got over 100 résumés indicating a great deal of interest, but I was shocked to see that over 90% did not have a cover letter, and some cover letters were addressed to a wrong person.
People often complain that they never hear back from the companies they apply to, and this may be one of the reasons why.
A cover letter is like a sales proposal; it’s an opportunity for you to pitch your services and to connect your “unique value proposition” to the needs of a company. It’s also a piece of personal marketing – you never know who will read it, and where that person will work next – your paths may converge in the future and it’s worth an investment to make a good impression now. Even if your résumé is not an exact match for the job, it’s a chance to convince someone you’re worth looking at regardless.
Like any well-constructed, well thought-out sales proposal, it has to have certain elements to be effective. I have read many poor cover letters over the years – letters that were vague, generic, and full of clichés, or that failed to connect the dots in a way that is convincing or at least intriguing. Like clients feel with ineffective sales proposals, when reading a poorly written cover letter it’s hard not to think “Why should I care? How are you going to help the company get where we need to go?” Cover letters are about you, but it’s about you only in relation to the needs of the company that is hiring, and it’s up to you to build that positioning framework.
Demonstrate passion or interest in what the company is all about
Share what attracts you to the company and why you would love to join the team – show that this is not just “another job application” for you and that you relate, or care, for the mission and vision, or services or products the company is delivering.
Demonstrate specific knowledge of the company
It’s easy to do the research today on the company, leadership, employees, strategy, success or challenges, and the competition. Demonstrate that you have done some research and try to connect your background, attitude, or skill-set with where the company needs to go or the challenges it needs to address. You need to position yourself as a person who will add value to the future success of the team – this should be in the opening paragraph. With the increasing competition company X is facing, my track record in operating in a fiercely competitive environment while at Y will strengthen the team’s ability to compete successfully. “My collaborative leadership style as demonstrated through X will help you build a culture of collaboration which is one of your stated goals for the upcoming year”. Make that connection!
Make specific links between role requirements and your experience.
After the broader positioning, it is so very important to go a bit deeper and connect your background, skills, knowledge, and attitude with specific requirements of the role that would have been stated in a job posting. If there are too many, choose a couple and focus on them. If your résumé is not perfect for the job, draw from academic, personal or extra-curricular and volunteering experiences. The key here is to assert that you are a match for what’s required.
Finish with confidence.
It’s good to summarize your unique value proposition at the end – to reinforce a key point of what you bring to the table.
It is essential to finish with confident and specific “next step” statement. You should express certainty and confidence with your last sentence – “I look forward to discussing how my skill set is relevant in an interview…”
Naturally, make sure there are no grammar mistakes – one thing that I see so often is confusion between “its” and “it’s” – it’s worth having someone look at your letter and copyedit it.
Keep it brief.
Finally – a cover letter shouldn’t be longer than a page. It’s hard to write succinctly and articulate your key points in a few paragraphs, but it’s worth taking the time to do it.