As I sit here in my hotel room in the 9th arrondissement of Paris (la di da), suffering from a night of overnight on a plane sleeplessness (oh poor me), I can’t get the dozens of bad cover letters I read last week out of my mind. Funny the things that get stuck in there. As I read them over the course of a week or so, I got more and more annoyed. Why do people think that others want to read these horrible, horrible letters??
Here’s one example:
“While I understand you are in no easy spot in determining the best fit for your organization, I can assure you that I am the candidate you are seeking to fill the position… Please reconsider me for the position. I wouldn't let you, or any one else counting on me, down. That I can absolutely guarantee…. Blessings.”
How many rules were broken in just these four lines?
This writer went on talking about himself endlessly. Which is what 90 percent of applicants do. They chart the course of their careers for the reader. But that's the work of a good resume!
This leads to the single most important rule about cover letter writing. Don’t tell me about you. Tell me what you can do for me, my organization, and the people who already work there. When you approach it that way, I will still learn about you, but, more importantly, I get the chance to understand how hiring you would be beneficial.
How do you do that?
Read the mission and vision statement of the organization, and cut and paste them into a document. Scour the website for other clues as to whether you are a fit. Think about whether you are a good fit, and, if so, jot down notes on how you might fit in and why this organization’s mission would get you up in the morning. What excites you about it?
Second, make a list of the essential and preferred qualifications for the job as they appear on the posting and then start writing sentences under each qualification that describe what you bring to each. What concrete work have you done that makes you the best candidate? How many years of experience do you have in each area? How did you measure success? Can you share an anecdote or numbers that prove it?
At this point, you will have a choppy but substantive start. Then the fun begins. Spend some time crafting the letter into a coherent, beautiful whole. And don’t start every sentence with “I.” Please.
Of course, you’re probably thinking by now that I’m nuts. How much time is this going to take? Believe it or not, hiring managers can tell how much time and thought you put into your letters and resumes. If you give the impression that it wasn’t much, then the hiring manager’s interest level will probably match it. Unless you are some sort of super star. But how many of those are there really?
In sum, don’t tell me the story of you. Tell me the story of what you can bring to the organization and the people to whom I dedicate the majority of my waking hours. If you do that, you might get the chance to do that, too.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.