I’m a writer, but for a long time I hated writing cover letters. They seemed so forced and artificial. And I’m not much on selling myself.
But then I realized that when I was really interested in a job, the letter just flowed. Writing a cover letter became my litmus test: if the letter didn’t almost write itself, I didn’t bother applying for the job because I wasn’t really excited about it.
And then I noticed that the letters that worked best weren’t all that different from the news stories I used to write.
The goal of a cover letter is to spark someone’s interest in you. You want to prompt someone to take a look at your resume and set up an interview. Reporters need to get people’s interest quickly, and they learn a loose formula to do so. It happens to be a pretty good approach to writing a cover letter, too.
Capture a Hiring Manager’s Attention
Before writing a word, of course, reporters need to get the story. Unless you plan to send one of those colorless, fill-in-the-blank letters that give cover letters a bad name, you need to do research. Gather as much information about the responsibilities of the job and the company as you can. Find the name of the manager who is doing the hiring.
Get crystal clear on the story you want to tell. Reporters have to pitch their stories to editors before they write, which means coming up with two or three sentences about why the story is important or interesting. Try it. Run through a pitch in your head. What would the manager think is important or interesting about you in relation to the job opening?
The Three-Part Cover Letter Formula
So they can grab attention and tell an interesting story–on deadline–young reporters are taught a basic story structure. It has three main sections, and it can help you organize your cover letter. In brief, you want an opening that makes someone want to read more, a clear anecdote, and a solid ending.
Capture the manager’s attention with a strong opening. You don’t have to be clever, but try to be direct. Plenty of job seekers take the safe route here, with some version of: I’m applying for Job X because of Reason Y. Safe, but boring. Start your letter instead with a punchy sentence that reveals a bit more of your personality, skills, or enthusiasm for the job. Get your reader interested in knowing more about the story that follows.
The exception: If someone referred you to the manager, you want that to come up right away. But you can still put your own twist on it. For instance, instead of writing, John Moore told me I should contact you because you are looking for a sales manager, you might say: When John Moore heard I tripled sales at Widget Company last year, he told me to contact you right away.
This is the heart of your letter, where you want to use an example that convinces the manager why you would be great for the job. Build on what journalists call the 5Ws: who, what, where, when and why. For this purpose, you may also want to add an H–how.
Thinking of your letter as a news story can help you avoid one of the most common cover letter mistakes: rehashing your resume. Instead of a yawn-inducing summary of your past, highlight some aspect of that experience in the form of an example that shows how you solved a problem. You want to show the actions you took and the results of those actions. The writer’s guideline to keep in mind: show, don’t tell. In other words, writing that you are an innovative marketer or dedicated team player isn’t very convincing (and it’s also pretty much the language the majority of job seekers use). Show you’re innovative by telling a brief story of an idea you brought to market or recount the time you led your team to double site traffic in a month.
Oh, and keep it short. One or two paragraphs is fine.
End your letter with a brief but strong statement that sums up your interest. Journalists call these kickers. Often, they include a call to action. Some people advise job seekers to say they will follow-up with a phone call or email, but that’s hardly going to convince someone to call you if they aren’t interested. Better to have written an original letter that inspires them to pick up the phone and call you.