Image: Poster for L. Marquet Ink (1892), by Eugène Grasset
Partway through my doctoral program, the head of graduate studies at my university hired me to write a white paper on career development for grad students. I had already decided not to go on the tenure-track market so the assignment was right up my alley. Not long after I wrapped up the project and went back to dissertation writing, I heard about a full-time position handling graduate career development at my university. The application deadline was only a day away but the job seemed like a good fit, so I threw together a cover letter and a résumé.
To be blunt, my job documents were terrible. Probably the only reason I got an interview — and then got the job — was because I was already in the hiring manager's network. (My advice on networking: Do It.)
My cover letter was especially bad: addressed to no one in particular, densely written, void of personality, and seething with the anxiety of trying to demonstrate that I met every possible qualification. For something so short and so crucial, my letter was jam-packed with problems, including mundane ones like tiny margins.
I've learned a lot about applying and hiring in the five years since then. Today, in my day job, I run a different professional-and-career-development program for grad students. At night, I help Ph.D. job candidates create compelling application documents in my own consulting business. I regularly sit on hiring committees and I've written and read a lot of cover letters, good and awful. Based on that experience, here's what you should know about acing the tiny but powerful cover letter:
Ignore the myth that cover letters don't matter. They do matter — unless they don’t. In the best-case scenario, your cover letter wouldn’t matter because you'd be going straight into an interview with someone who already knows you and your work. (That happens far more often than you'd think. Networking: Do it.)
But many people apply to positions on the internet without any inside contacts, or send their job documents to someone who needs more information before deciding to interview them. In those cases, cover letters are vitally important. It's true that hiring managers spend shockingly little time reading job applications, mostly because we know exactly what we're looking for and how to find it quickly. Most of us do, however, spend time on the cover letter because we're attempting to understand if:
- You're serious about this specific job and organization.
- Your skills, experience, and the work-related things you care about line up (mostly) with what we're looking for.
- You seem like a person we'd want to spend eight hours a day with for the next few years.
The bar for making your case in a cover letter is surprisingly low. When I read it, I’m asking myself:
- Did you note the right job in your opening sentence?
- Do you have a reasonably compelling reason for why you're interested in this work?
- Do you demonstrate that you find value in doing the things that you would be doing in this job, and that you've been successful in the past at doing similar things?
If so, I'm putting your application on the “I'd like to interview this person” pile — rather than the “meh” or “wildly unqualified” piles.
Tone is as important as content. Do you know what the primary purpose of a cover letter is? It's not actually to dazzle a hiring manager with your perfectly related experience. (Your résumé will serve that purpose.) It's to convince the employer that you're a real, human person who cares about this job, understands where your skills and experience could make a difference, and wants to contribute to the shared aims of the team.
You can't do all of that convincingly if you sound like a robot or a Microsoft Word cover-letter template.
Your cover letters should sound like you, or at least the you that you are in professional contexts. Try writing a cover letter draft as though you're talking to a friend about why you dig this role, then revise it. You'll be surprised how much more relaxed and effective your letter will become.
Be ruthless in narrowing the focus. Cover letters are short, and you've got very little room to maneuver. You want to demonstrate how you fit the position but, at most, you're probably going to have space to zoom in on two, maybe three, aspects of the job. So first, figure out what those things are. Talk to people who might have insight into the priorities of the particular field (good), organization (better), or team (best). Hone in on the top three things the job posting seems to be looking for. Then make a case for why you're good at — and find value in — those things.
For example, a top priority in my field is student development, so my cover letter might say something like: “I'm a fanatic for ensuring that graduate students get the best professional development support, so when they pointed out gaps in our program, I leveraged my campus network to develop 10 new workshops on communication skills, data analysis, and business skills. The result? Waiting lists for every session and stellar post-workshop evaluations.”
Personalize it (in two ways). Your résumé doesn't use a single first-person pronoun. That document is not a prime way for a hiring manager to get a sense of you as a person — or for you to demonstrate your understanding of the position and organization. So make sure that your cover letter shares a sense of your personality.
You also need to personalize your cover letter to fit each job for which you are applying. (Extra work? Yes. Effective? Also yes.) Ways to effectively personalize:
- Find out who the hiring manager is and address your cover letter directly to that person.
- Include a “tailoring paragraph” that demonstrates your specific interest in the organization, any connections you have to it, and your knowledge of its current projects and priorities. That paragraph might read something like this: “I was excited to see that a position that exactly matches my skills and expertise opened up at the University of Canada. I'm a proud University of Canada graduate alumna, and I was reading about the work you're doing to ensure that the Faculty of Graduate Studies supports academic and nonacademic job seekers — the industry internship program for graduate researchers is a great way to get them experience outside the academy at an early stage in their education."
Edit, edit, edit. There's hardly a job left that doesn't require strong written communication skills. So demonstrate them in your cover letter. Edit it more than once. Then give it to someone else to look at before you submit it. The cover letter is your first impression — make it count.
My last piece of advice: Look at good cover letters and use them for inspiration. Knowing what a cover letter is supposed to do — and what it can do for you — will make your life on the nonfaculty job market much easier and more successful.