Sitting down to write a cover letter can be one of the most stressful activities in your job hunt. In part, this is because there is so much conflicting advice about these simple one-page writing assignments, including the old canard that no one reads them anyway. My own experience, and a quick survey of my colleagues, has proven that cover letters are read and considered an important part of the application process, and that part of the confusion is that the role of the cover letter changes based on your employment level and industry.
My friend Laura Kopp, an MBA student at University of California-Davis, said that we need to change our frame of mind when we sit down to write a cover letter. “Use the cover letter to apply what you have done in the past to what issues you see the organization facing in the present and the future. You’re not begging for an interview, you are starting a conversation you look forward to continuing when you meet with the hiring manager.”
Below are a few guidelines that I discovered in conversation with my other smart friends:
1) CONSIDER YOUR LEVEL:
If I am hiring for an entry-level position, I am not expecting an impressive resume—that’s part of the point. So although I want to see what you’ve done and how you’ve demonstrated leadership on campus or in your non-career positions, I’m more interested in your potential. And I’m going to find that in your cover letter. So don’t just tell me what you’ve done, but also what you want to do.
However, when I am looking for a new position, as someone with more than 10 years of career experience, I need to pitch myself differently. Although my resume details my successes in each position, I need to synthesize this and demonstrate that I have a philosophy of fundraising, and that is what has lead to my accomplishments in the field. Basically, I need to prove that I have the skills to do the job and the potential to exceed the employer’s expectations.
2) PUT STRESS IN PERSPECTIVE:
Think about the job to which you are applying and how the cover letter might be used to determine your fit. For instance, if you are in a field that requires strong written communication skills, your cover letter will come under more scrutiny. Potential employers will want to see that you can describe your experience clearly, diplomatically, and compellingly. If the position is more administrative, they will likely spend more time combing through for grammatical or copy errors. (Yes, it happened to me: I once applied to a proofreading job with my unproofread cover letter. It was humiliating. Don’t do that.) However, if your position won’t require writing more complex than project management emails, understand that it likely won’t be read very closely at all.
In all of these cases, you will still need to write a cover letter, but if it will be a less important consideration, spend your time on elements that will really make a difference. This could be a sample work product, your interview, or a detailed resume. Don’t let your stress over the cover letter undermine your ability to show yourself as a strong candidate.
3) FOCUS ON THE HIRING MANAGER:
In fundraising, we talk about being “donor focused.” In other words, we know that we can successfully raise money when we think about what information the donor wants from us (rather than what we want to tell them). You need to apply this thinking to your job applications as well. After all, it’s not about you—it’s about them. You need to make the case why hiring you is going to save them work in the long run.
The best thing you can do here is to customize your cover letter. I’m not saying you can’t recycle good writing, but understand that different organizations are looking for different types of skills, personalities, and passions. You need to focus on what they want—and after all, they tell you what they want in the job description—in order to move on to the next phase of the process.
4) BE YOURSELF:
I know, it’s a cliché, but it’s the only way that you’re going to get a job that will really allow you to succeed. You should not tell the employer everything about you in your cover letter, but you should not shy away from showing off your personality. Although it will only be a hint, every hiring manager is going to think about how you would potentially fit in the workplace. Don’t bother putting on a professional mask in your cover letter (or in interviews!)—it will only make it harder for both of you in the future.
When we understand why a hiring manager needs a cover letter and how it may influence their decisions, it makes it a lot easier to sit down and write it. So don’t be confused or discouraged, see it as just another opportunity to demonstrate how awesome you are.