By Katharine Hansen, PhD
The beauty of cover letters is that they enable customization to a much greater extent than a resume does. You can use cover letters to make emotional connections with hiring managers, to show fit with the employer’s culture and to reveal glimpses of yourself that portray you as an authentic human being.
Here are 10 ideas for using cover letters in ways you may not have thought of. You can use your letter to:
Reveal your Personality.
These glimpses inspire the employer to want to get to know you better and thus call you in for an interview. They could demonstrate your sense of humor, your work ethic, your compassion or simply your humanity. They paint a meaningful picture of who you are:
Example: I would describe myself as a consistently positive person. My friends sometimes ask me how I can be so energetic. I’m proud of my efforts to pursue my dream of being a clinical dietitian. I had an interest in food and nutrition since I was a little girl and helped to develop recipes for patients who required food restriction. When I learned how clinical nutrition therapy functioned as a preventive medicine, I decided to become a registered dietitian.
Describe Long-Standing Interest in, Knowledge of and Admiration for the Organization You’re Targeting.
Handle this type of story carefully and frame it in terms of how you will benefit the employer – not how working for your long-admired employer will fulfill your career dreams.
Example: Having studied Pinnacle’s achievements with admiration, I am aware that success at Pinnacle depends on the trainer’s ability to convince seminar attendees to enroll in in-depth training programs. I’ve used my talent for holding an audience’s attention to achieve the highest sales of any collegiate salesperson during the summer just passed.
Describe How Well You Fit in With the Organization’s Culture, Values and Mission.
It’s hard to go wrong by showing you understand the employer’s culture and can demonstrate how you fit into it.
Example: I’ve spent considerable time researching companies by talking to happy employees. From that research, I know that Biosci Unlimited is a great company to work for, with a friendly environment. I am impressed with your company values; you treat customers the same way you would want to be treated, and I would be proud to part of your team.
Depict your Motivation, Enthusiasm and Passion for the Job You Seek.
When I conducted a focus group on cover letters as part of my dissertation research, words such as “passion” and “excited” jumped out at participants who evaluated letters. Employers prefer to hire candidates who aren’t just there to do a job.
Example: I was very excited to learn that ICON Clinical Research is seeking Clinical Research Assistants. With my education, experience, and enthusiasm for research, I am convinced that I would be a valuable asset to your research teams.
Explain How Your College Education Has Prepared you for the Targeted Job.
Mention of your educational background doesn’t just have to be about just your classroom education, but your extracurricular activities, leadership experience, sports-team membership, internships, work-study jobs, and the full spectrum of your college experience:
Example: My graduate training and postdoctoral research experience lend themselves to a technical understanding of research concepts and strategies, which facilitates communication with sponsors, as well as with academic investigators.
Tell Stories that Touch the Heartstrings.
Emotional stories can be extremely effective, but they must make positive connection between the job-seeker’s heart-tugging experience and his or her ability to do the job:
Example: A particular strength of mine is establishing rapport with patients, often perceiving nonverbal cues that communicate how they are feeling. I am then adept at motivating them to manage or even overcome their dysfunction. I will always remember my 88-year-old patient, Dottie, and the way she smiled with tears in her eyes after my therapy enabled her to write a letter to her first great-grandchild.
Tell How You are Uniquely Qualified for the Targeted Job.
Tell stories that demonstrate your Unique Selling Proposition, or USP, an advertising term that refers to what makes a product distinct from all others. Express what makes you more qualified for this job than anyone else. Your USP story should answer the employer’s question: “Why should I hire this person?”
Example: I offer proficiency in cell biology, techniques in molecular biology in general, and RNA methodologies in particular, encompassing various techniques of DNA and RNA isolation, linear RNA amplification for microarray hybridization, RNA microinjection, RT-PCR and quantitative RealTime PCR (TaqMan), in-situ hybridization, as well as a wide variety of lab techniques and computer skills, as outlined in my CV.
Tell Stories that Capitalize on Networking Contacts.
When you meet someone who can directly help in your job search, consider striking while the iron is hot and sending a cover letter right away that spins off your encounter with your new contact:
Example: I enjoyed your recent informative presentation at St. Leo College and was so impressed with your knowledge of trends in pharmaceutical sales. Your talk inspired me to research Hoechst Marion Roussel further. I’d love to tell you more about how my solid academic performance, work ethic, drive, organizational skills, and strong interest in the pharmaceutical industry demonstrate my ability to attain outstanding results for your company.
Explain Unusual or Potentially Negative Situations.
It’s difficult to explain in a resume such situations as relocation, extended family-leave time, sabbaticals, illness, disability, unemployment, travel, returning to employment after business ownership, and other employment gaps. The cover letter lends itself much better to these situations. Be careful not to describe situations that raise more questions than they answer. Nor do you want to call undue attention to an issue that may not be important to the employer. Certainly, do not belabor the special-situation story:
Example: When I took maternity leave from my high-powered consulting job, I expected to return in just a few months. Little did I know that giving birth to a child with autism would not only take me out of the workforce for six years to attend to my son’s special needs, but that it would inspire a whole new career passion as a special-education teacher. Now returning to the workforce with an education degree, I seek to combine the communication skills honed through my past consulting experience with the knowledge I’ve gained as the mother of a special-needs child.
Explain a Career Change.
While short-term job and career tenures are much more accepted than they used to be, many decision-makers are still suspicious of career-changers and want to know what motivates the change. Their mental question is: “Why should I consider this career-changing candidate over someone who has always been in this field?” Your story must answer that question by showing your enthusiasm and passion for your new career as well as your transferable skills:
Example: I became a chiropractor because of my desire to help people and make a difference. I strive to do the same with my writing. As a health professional with significant health/medical writing and publishing experience, I offer a wealth of skills and talents relevant to the Staff Writer position at Healthy Body magazine.