Brian Underwood: Creating winning cover letters

What do big game hunters and hungry job hunters have in common?

The answer is neither wants his cover blown, but for different reasons. The big game hunter won’t come home with a trophy if his cover is blown, but the job hunter won’t even get in the game if his cover – letter – is blown.

Getting the job one wants generally comes down to a variety of factors, including sometimes luck. On balance, though, making the most of one’s opportunities is crucial, and a drafting of compelling cover letter is a first step to making the most of that first impression.

Now, clearly, possessing relevant experience, proper credentials, and a passionate “can-do” spirit that benefits an employer are critical factors to exhibit when being considered for employment. Next time we’ll look at how to effectively package and market such things. Today, however, is all about creatively and concisely crafting a compelling narrative, with a singular call to action, to get that proverbial foot in the door.

Before getting to valuable nuances of writing a cover letter, the fundamentals always bear repeating. They include keeping the content to one page, the presence of perfect grammar, syntax, and spelling – confirmed by at least two sets of qualified eyes, and, if available, the proper spelling, title, and contact information for the hiring manager.

Adhering to the fundamentals is like baking a cake. If you don’t include the right ingredients, it leaves a bad taste, and the last thing an applicant wants to be is distasteful. Getting a name and/or title wrong will be offensive to most, and it doesn’t speak well of an applicant’s attention to detail. If he/she can’t get the basics right, how will he/she be in executing the job?

Also, when considering a hiring manager’s task of reviewing scads of letters and materials, it is important to use an economy of words – and the right words. Be pithy. Nobody has time to read the War and Peace version of one’s life.

With formatting, addressing information, and grammar and spelling observed, it’s critical to not forget an applicant’s ultimate objective – to get an interview. Through it all, a candidate must include, in the most direct, yet humble, way possible the desire to get the chance to personally communicate his/her unique nature and qualifications for the position. This should be included early in the letter, and reiterated again in the closing paragraph.

Consider a variation of the following sentence, in one’s own voice, to earnestly request an interview. For example, “I know you will undoubtedly have many qualified applicants for this position, including those internally, but if you would grant me just 15-20 minutes of your time, I believe you would not only quickly see my passion for this opportunity, but also experience several examples of the real value I would bring to the position.”

There is no substitute for solid research on the company and position being pursued. (Thank goodness for the Internet.) One of several differentiators that hiring managers will look for in cover letters and interviews is what a candidate knows about the company and the job. It shows preparedness and professionalism, and placing an illustrative paragraph to this end after requesting an interview helps substantiate one’s reason for an interview.

To this end, an applicant should commit time to researching the company and the available position, and then consider how to subtly convey how they bring value. For example, “In my 15-year career as a human resources specialist, I have performed the enunciated job functions, embraced continuing education, and remained abreast of the issues through industry and mass media channels. Accordingly, I believe my strong skill set and commitment to working diligently and cheerfully in a team environment could be a strong asset to the company.”

Now, this scenario makes several assumptions and it includes several variables, but, as a template, it seeks to humbly illustrate experience, commitment to the field, and important character traits – in two sentences. What this role-play also rather obviously features is my voice, and this raises up the vitality of an applicant finding and using his/her voice well.

Speaking in one’s own voice gives an employer a window into who he/she really is. It’s part of what makes him/her unique and worth getting to know. Another way of putting it is for an applicant to be truly authentic when writing a cover letter.

Consider this, cover bands are fun to listen to because they often bring back the glory days, but it’s the artists they’re covering who delivered original music that we like best. Don’t craft a “cover band cover letter” that borrows from other sources, be an original.

Ideas to help write an original cover letter include being willing to show one’s heart and/or even take some calculated risks. For instance, is there something in the job and/or company being sought that conjures a relevant story (that can be told in a couple of short sentences) that communicates passion for the opportunity.

Part of being authentic is not being afraid to show who one is, and being willing to share relatable anecdotes, with the notable exception of when it comes to the use of humor. While some are naturally gifted with making others laugh, the risk of humor being misinterpreted in a letter is too great. Stick to honesty and sincerity in this medium.

Speaking more technically, the development of cover letters for the 21st century screening process means having letters that are readily adaptable to online application portals and email, as well as to traditional mail.

In this way, particularly with the abundance of applications that seemingly need to be filed to get a single interview, there is great temptation to copy, paste, and the like when it comes to producing letters. I don’t think much needs to be said about the potentially embarrassing dangers of this, which again underscores the critical nature of having two sets of eyes on every letter. Accuracy trumps expedience.

There is one more thing that big game hunters and hungry job hunters have in common – keeping eyes on the prize. That about covers it.

Brian Underwood is the director of school development at Sierra Lutheran.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment