Here’s a question for you. What do you think is more challenging: writing a speech, (say, a wedding toast), or writing a cover letter? If you answered “cover letter,” I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve had friends, neighbours, and clients all say the same thing.
In fact, the other day I asked one of my students (I teach part-time at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) what she thought people from her graduating class needed the most help with. Without hesitation she replied, “Cover letters and personal statements.”
If you feel that way too, take heart! It really isn’t as perplexing as it might seem. Probably the reason many people find this kind of writing so daunting is because it’s the first thing a prospective employer (or admissions officer, in the case of personal statements) sees. It’s tough to write about ourselves. It feels almost as though this one letter somehow has to sum up our entire worth as a human being.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little bit, but there’s no denying that cover letters do represent something about who we are, what we’ve accomplished, and what we hope to become.
I struggle with letters of application too. I’m always second guessing myself and wondering how to say what I need to without straying from the point. It’s easier to see the problems in a cover letter when it’s someone else’s.
Over the years I’ve had many people ask me to “vet” their cover letters for them. And even though I understand why it’s a difficult letter to write, I’m still frequently taken aback by how much people try and pack into their letters, and how much they ramble when doing so.
Here’s a brief example of the beginning of a cover letter that is definitely not working:
Dear Owner of Joe’s Carwash and Pet Grooming Salon: The purpose of my writing to you is to explain why my goal of working for Joe’s Carwash and Pet Grooming Salon makes so much sense to me. I have the background, after all, since I’ve worked for five years in the field, even though the pets I worked with were really just my own. But I did work at a carwash, more than once. Ultimately I think you’ll find my abilities will fit right in, as you will see when you read my resume. I’ve always wanted to work in the area of washing and grooming, ever since I took a trip to Nepal, which totally changed my life…“
Speaking of exaggerated, the above example is admittedly a wee bit extreme. But honestly, it’s not as extreme as you might think. I’ve edited letters that are almost that muddled. (Although generally they are for positions that do not involve the washing of cars or the grooming of pets!)
The above example of a cover letter addresses all the wrong bases. (It also makes a very common mistake right off the bat, beginning with “the purpose of my writing to you.” We know that you are writing, what we want to know is, why.)
Three Most Common Cover Letter Mistakes Are:
1. Rambling text that tries to explain every aspect of why you want this job or placement.
2. Emotional content that attempts to explain a genuine passion, but comes across as unprofessional.
3. Unfocused approach, which makes the reader uncertain of what, exactly, you have accomplished, and why, exactly, you want this job or placement.
So what should you do when writing a cover letter? Here are a few basic principles.
What a Good Cover Letter Should Do:
1. Clearly state what you are applying for.
2. Briefly explain why you are a good candidate, using tangible, relevant examples.
3. Focus on outcomes. For example: “I worked for three years at Business “X,” and the outcome was______________.” (Fill in the blank – you increased productivity, you received an award for best employee, whatever the case may be.)
4. Indicate your familiarity with the company/employer,when possible.
5. Use short, clear sentences. (See Just Say It In Plain English).
6. Keep it to one page.
The whole purpose of cover letters and personal statements is to convince someone that you are the right person for the job or the academic program or internship.
When it comes to impressing a prospective employer, bear in mind this is what they want to know:
1.What have you achieved?
2.Why should we hire you?
As to personal statements, the kind that accompany applications for educational programs, these are the key questions an admissions officer asks:
1.Why do you want to get into our program?
2. Why would you be a good candidate?
3. What would you do with the degree?
In either case, make sure to keep it streamlined. Get rid of fluff and emotion, and make sure you back up each point you make with evidence. Most importantly, be sure to go over your cover letter with a fine-toothed comb for spelling errors and grammatical mistakes.
If you’d like to see an example of the format of a good cover letter, I recommend taking a look at the University of Toronto’s Job Search Tools.
Do you have any questions about how to write a good cover letter? Feel free to contact me; I’d be happy to see if I can help out. (Even if you are looking for a job in car washing and pet grooming!)