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No-Fail Cover Letter Strategy

Cover letters often make or break job candidates for me. Now, not every hiring manager feels that way, in fact I know many who don’t even read cover letters. In my opinion, however, it’s where candidates really set themselves apart and where I really get a sense of who they are and if I want to work with them on a daily basis.

Cover letters are also the most frustrating part of the application process for most of my career coaching clients. And honestly, 98% of the hundreds of cover letters I’ve reviewed over the years are essentially the same. They say vague and generic things  like “I’m a hard worker” and “This is my passion!” (if you’ve followed me for long, you know how I feel about that last one).

It’s why I created my Workshop Wednesday series a few years ago. Unfortunately, I no longer have the time to devote to a weekly series, but I do want to teach you a new cover letter strategy I developed during a workshop I was brought into Western Kentucky University this spring to lead for the Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation program.

Start with the job posting

Yes, this means you should have a different cover letter for every job. I know, that takes a lot of time. How much is your next job worth to you? If you really want the job, take the time.

Chances are good the job posting has a bulleted list of job responsibilities or requirements (or both). Go through that list and circle everything you’ve done before.

Next, go through the items you circled and ask yourself with three things you’ve mastered. Which three things do you have slam dunk examples for from previous jobs?

Those three things are going to be the basis of this cover letter.

Give specific examples

You’ll, of course, start your cover letter with an introductory paragraph, which only needs to be a couple of sentences explaining who you are and what you’re apply for. If you have a personal connection at the company or organization, or if you were referred by someone, this is where you’ll want to point that out as well.

Next, you’re going to take the three things you chose (depending on how much room you have you might have to go with just two of them – remember to keep your cover letter to one page) and use them as the basis for your cover letter.

A majority of the cover letters I review use what I’ll call the “meat” of the letter to walk the reader through their last few jobs. Folks, your resume does that. Use this space to do something your resume doesn’t do, which is give in-depth, very specific examples of work you’ve done that directly relates to the position at hand. Give each of the three things you chose one short paragraph, and then close the letter with a sentence or two expressing your interest in speaking further about your qualifications.

You can almost never be too specific. The goal is for me to picture you doing those tasks, which means I can picture you doing the job I’m hiring to fill.

The most common pitfall is to think you have to summarize everything you’ve ever done to show you can do everything on the list in the job posting. In my opinion, that’s the wrong tactic. Instead, give very specific examples of a few things you’v nailed in previous positions to make you really stand out from the crowd.

Need an example?

Some of you learn best through examples. Let’s say this is one of the bullets in the job posting for job requirements:

  • Experience running social media accounts for at least one sport at the D1 level

Here’s what I might write in response if I was someone with this experience:

Part of my responsibilities as assistant communications director at University X included managing multiple social media accounts for men’s golf, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. When I took over the accounts, I met with our marketing department and the coaching staff to identify goals for the account and the best way to coordinate our efforts. One goal was to attract new followers, which led me to the idea for “lifestyle” posts about each of our student athletes that ultimately resulted in a 225% average increase across all accounts. 

Here’s what I think this paragraph conveys:

  • I not only have experience running social media accounts for a sport at the D1 level, I was also specific about exactly which social media platforms I was using.
  • I took ownership of the accounts. Saying “When I took over the accounts” is a very subtle (but effective) way to convey this.
  • I made it clear that I work well with others and don’t isolate myself to my department by saying I met with the marketing and coaching staffs.
  • I also made it clear that I developed a strategy and wasn’t just throwing up posts willy nilly.
  • I then used one of our goals that we achieved as a specific example, attaching a percentage to it in order to quantify my results. Any time you can include a number of measurement like that, you absolutely should. Even if you were part of a team, claim your achievement as part of the team. Numbers really leap off the page in a cover letter, because they’re so rarely used.

Show, don’t tell. Anyone can say they “improved the social media accounts for men’s golf.” That’s pretty typical of what I get in cover letters. Do you see the difference between saying that and giving the more descriptive paragraph above?

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One Response to "No-Fail Cover Letter Strategy"

  • Johanna
    Tuesday, July 7, 2015 - 7:31 pm Reply

    What has been the best first sentence of a cover letter you have ever seen?
    I’m stuck with standard phrases such as, “please accept my resume”. How do you suggest me grabbing the employers attention?

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