“What do you think about this cover letter?” I asked my friend, who was sitting across the table.
It may have been an odd question to ask over dinner, but he had recently gone through an unsuccessful four-month-long slog of job applications. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes he had.
I slid him my phone and patiently waited as he began to scroll.
After several minutes, he stopped, looking back at me with a mixed expression.
“Do you think…this will even work?” he said.
I couldn’t help but smile.
My goal was to be subversive: to challenge everything we had been taught about writing a cover letter. I didn’t turn my resume into paragraphs. I didn’t talk about my job experiences. And most importantly, I didn’t introduce myself until the very end.
Instead, it was more a personal essay outlining my curiosity and life experiences that could apply to the human side of the job. Sure, it didn’t follow the traditional or recommended format pushed by professional resume writers. But it worked.
Two months after that dinner I was accepting a new job.
The truth behind your cover letter
I received one incredibly applicable piece of advice about cover letter writing in college. I attended a seminar held by HR professionals from leading Chicago marketing agency’s where students could pick their brains to submit better applications.
Another student had the foresight to ask what makes a hiring manager immediately throw away a cover letter. The answer was somewhat surprising. A representative from a highly coveted advertising agency explained how they receive thousands of applicants within the first few weeks of a job opening. And they will immediately throw away a cover letter with someone’s name in the first line.
Why is this significant you might be wondering?
Because it is an indictment that you are using a cookie cutter cover letter. Hiring mangers don’t really care who you are before knowing if you will be a possible fit. Unless you are well-known, your name means absolutely nothing to the person conducting interview.
Plus, if formatted correctly, your name should already be at the top of the document and as a sign-off at the bottom. Adding your name again in the first line is overly repetitive.
As Daniel Victor wrote in the New York Times, you have to remember that you are not the only person applying for any job. You need to leave an impression that will make a hiring manager stop skimming through pages and pages of cover letters to find out a little more about who you are.
You need to give them a taste of what’s to come. In the article, Victor says, “The cover letter is your chance — most likely your only one — to stand out from many other candidates who have similar résumés.”
The reality is that your “chance” is harder than you think. Hiring managers and job recruiters spend about seven seconds reviewing each resume. Think about that for a moment. Your entire professional career is being summed up in seconds.
Whether it is a human or an applicant tracking system doing the first read-through, you should always aim to write a cover letter that doesn’t feel templated, isn’t a regurgitation of your resume, and accurately communicates your personality.
The simple solution
Luckily, the HR panel also provided a workaround: tell more of your story.
Here’s what this looks like:
- Pick one story about yourself that you know really well. It should focus less on flowery language and more on offering purpose behind why you are applying for a specific job.
- Write an introduction that offers a glimpse of what’s to come while leaving a little mystique. Hiring managers see the same thing over and over and over again. Be creative and use everything at your disposal. It could be a quote, something humorous, or a bold statement. Personally, I found great success starting out with a custom mantra I made for myself, and then use the rest of the cover letter to describe how I came to create that mantra.
- Demonstrate your proficiency for storytelling by following the classic plot outline with a beginning, middle, and end. After opening up with my mantra, I walk through a challenge I faced in my career (an authentic one not a made up one) and reveal exactly what I did to overcome it. The story still remains on theme with my mantra.
- Conclude with a lasting thought that will amplify your humanity and your qualities. I concluded my mantra cover letter by repeating the introduction to re-emphasize my initial point.
Each cover letter was customized which is incredibly frustrating and tedious. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee an offer–I have spent hours perfecting a cover letter only to be ignored and dismissed by the employer. It happens.
No one said job applications were going to be easy. But if you are successful in the end, all those hours will be worthwhile. I can say from experience, I am very proud of some of the cover letters I created.
Remember, companies want to know what you can do for them. You need to show interest, but the focus should be on how you can fill a position they believe is necessary.
Convince the hiring manager that you’re the only one who can help them.