What’s the difference between a ho-hum cover letter and one that’ll knock your socks off? In a word, style.
Ho-hum cover letters are the equivalent of a brown suit. There’s nothing offensive, per se, about a brown suit. It gets the job done. But brown suits don’t usually turn heads or invoke style envy. No one ever says, “If I could have only one suit, it would be a brown one.” At least no one we know.
Now, the skeptical reader ready for a debate—we all know the type—might argue: well, what if the brown suit was a really nice shade of brown? And what if it had a faint blue check in it that picked up the blue in your shirt and complemented your tie just so? And what if it was tailored to a T? What about that brown suit?
And now all of a sudden you’re thinking differently about a brown suit. The brown suit we mentioned was plain, void of detail and without a context. The brown suit described by the skeptical reader seems stylish. It’s got pattern and a touch of color. It fits. But most importantly, it brings the other pieces of the wardrobe into play. It connects the dots.
This is exactly what your cover letters should do. They should exude style, in the same subtle, sensible and cohesive ways that a stylish suit does. You’ll notice that we didn’t advocate for a lime green velour suit in our exercise above, and we’re certainly not advocating for its parallel in a cover letter. The key to writing a solid cover letter is to challenge the perceived “rules” without breaking them. To work creatively within the constructed norms, not outside of them.
So, how do you do this?
- Well, you start by putting yourself in the shoes of the reader. How many cover letters do you think that person will read the day he or she reads yours? How many of those cover letters do you think will start with a line that goes something like this: “Dear Hiring Manager: I am writing to apply for the blah blah blah position at X company that I found posted on joe schmo’s job board.com?” The answer is way too many. In order to distinguish yourself from other candidates, you’ve got to grab the reader’s attention right from the start. Open your letter with a statement of genuine interest in the company and position—one that demonstrates you’ve done your research. Or, open with a statement that confidently announces who you are as a candidate. You don’t have to take big risks here and try something wild. You do, however, have to make it crystal clear that you’ve written this cover letter expressly for this position and you’ve put some real thought into it.
- Next, you need to tell the reader in fairly explicit terms that you have the skills, qualities and experience they seek. This seems like an obvious step, but so many get the execution wrong. The biggest mistake candidates make in doing this is they try to cover everything, and in the process, produce a laundry list that is at once overwhelming and unfocused. Your cover letter should complement your resume, not reproduce it. Whereas a resume restricts you to bulleted sentence fragments, a cover letter affords you the freedom to write in full sentences and paragraphs. Embrace this format and use it strategically. Choose a couple key experiences that demonstrate desired skills and weave a story around them. Add in those contextual details that bring experiences to life and make sure you connect what you did in the past with what you might do in this position if hired—especially if some of your experience isn’t directly relevant. This is incredibly important. Don’t assume the reader will connect the dots; you have to do a lot of the work yourself. To return to our fashion metaphor, it’s not enough to match the faint blue check in your suit to the stripe in your tie and hope someone notices. You’ve got to point these things out.
- Finally, keep it authentic. In the midst of all of this talk about style and writing differently, don’t lose sight of who you really are. It’ll do you no good in the end if the style and tone of your cover letter doesn’t really befit you as a candidate. That would be like showing up to an interview in a skinny suit and loafers with no socks because you saw the guy on the cover of J.Crew in a similar get-up. That’s not license to stay boring, though. Own your past experience and show the passion you have for your work, your industry, and your career.
If you learned more about fashion than you did about writing cover letters in this post, we apologize. Maybe we let the metaphor get out of hand. Either way, post a comment to let us know.