Saturday, December 10, 2005

Cover letter formula

Having a formula may seem to fly in the face of all the advice you get to write an individually tailored letter, but I think having a formula actually makes it easier to customize.

Here's mine:

1st paragraph: Just one or two sentences. First sentence clearly indicates the position I'm applying for. You never know who is going to do the first sort through the resumes, and you want to make sure that whoever it is knows which pile to put your application in. HR also likes it if you mention where you saw the job posting, but as I usually see a job posted in a dozen different places, picking just one source can be tricky. Sometimes I'll put in a second sentence that says something about the mission of the institution, but be careful with this one. The cover letter is about you, not them, so limit yourself to one sentence, and make it short. Sometimes I pull a key phrase out of a planning document or a mission statement I've found on the web. This lets them know you've done some reading about their institution.

2nd paragraph: I dive right into my skills and qualifications. These are based directly on the job posting. Don't be afraid to use the exact language of the job posting, especially if it's a civil service or government job. Wherever I mention a skill, I provide an example of where I learned/developed/demonstrated it. As a result, I tend to group my skills by place of employment. Depending on the job and my qualifications, I might devote two paragraphs to my skills.

3rd paragraph: When appropriate, I sometimes include a paragraph with additional skills that aren't mentioned in the desired qualifications, but that might set me apart from other applicants. For example, I'll mention that I speak other languages or that I have experience with grant writing.

4th paragraph: This is where I mention my all-around skills that are useful in any job, again providing evidence of where I obtained each skill. I talk about my professional values and involvement in professional associations.

I tend to take up a whole page. I've written the 4th paragraph so that it can go almost as-is into any letter. That way, I don't start off by staring at a blank page and the whole process seems less daunting. I spend most of my time editing the 2nd paragraph. This is where you get to employ those weeding skills. You may have to delete some things that you're really proud of. But remember, if it's extraneous to the job you're applying for, it's just going to distract them from the stuff that you really want to emphasize.

Once you've got the basic framework, it's much easier to go back and expand on the parts that are especially relevant for a particular job, and the bits that don't belong become obvious.

The trick, of course, is in how you talk about your skills. My cover letter used to be a bit of a laundry list: I can do this and this and that. Then I revised it to apply for a management job, and it completely transformed. I now use wording from that version even when applying for non-managerial positions. The difference: my cover letter now focuses on accomplishments. I tend to mention special projects and activities where I directly contributed to a measurable improvement. (I even mention numbers and percentages.) The place to talk about the basic duties and responsibilities is the resume, not the cover letter.

So, here's a fun exercise. Try writing a cover letter for a job that's a real stretch. Find a job posting for a library director or department head, or anything that is one step beyond your comfort level. How would you sell your skills? What would you emphasize? Which parts of your most recent cover letter would the hiring committee not care about?


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