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The Secret Formula to Cover Letter Success
Paragraph 1: Flatter the organization and show you’ve done your research
Most people are tempted to start their cover letters with a general overview of what position they’re applying for, where they saw the listing, or an explanation of why they are interested and would be perfect for the job. Sounds reasonable, right? The only problem is that hundreds — these days probably even thousands — of other applicants are beginning their cover letter the exact same way.
Right off the bat, you’re sending the wrong message — that you’re exactly like everyone else and there’s nothing that stands out about you. Wouldn’t you rather begin your cover letter by commanding the reader’s attention and providing something memorable so they’ll remember your name and application come hiring decision time?
Of course you do. That’s why your cover letter should always begin with something anecdotal — a story, a memory, an experience, or even something you’ve read recently. This anecdote should be tied into what the organization means to you and will help the hiring managers remember you more vividly, e.g. ”Oh, the so-and-so girl! I remember her!”
But beware! Don’t just talk about yourself. Keep in mind, this first paragraph should be about the nonprofit, not you. Don’t ever start your cover letter saying why the nonprofit would be good for you — sorry to say, but they don’t care about that. You need to show them the exact opposite — why you would be good for the nonprofit.
By human nature, we can’t get enough of hearing about ourselves or what wonderful things we’ve done, so always begin your cover letter by flattering the nonprofit very specifically. How specifically? Well, you want to show them you’ve really done your research, so don’t say something general, like “I really admire your workplace diversity.” Bring up specific things like statistics, numbers, recent grants or gifts, latest campaigns, awards they’ve won, or notable accomplishments.
In the example below, the writer immediately grabs the reader by sharing an anecdote. She then connects the anecdote to what she knows about the nonprofit. Any hiring manager is certainly going to be impressed with the depth of research the writer has put into the opening paragraph alone.
Dear Hiring Manager,
Born and raised in San Francisco, I’ve always known Glide Foundation as a household name. Now, having thoroughly studied urban planning and public housing as a CS student, I have come to fully understand the extent of Glide Foundation’s awe-inspiring accomplishments. A formidable player in the housing sector with award-winning services, Glide is always striving to enrich the community with their campaigns, while continuing to innovate with their programs and local solutions.
Next: Be Specific — Very Specific >>
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You know that next job of yours? Yes, that’s right, the really amazing one with the brilliant co-workers, cool boss, and fresh, free snacks in the office vending machine? That one.
You know how you’re going to land it? By quickly showing your future employer that:
a) You’re going to perform incredibly well in this job.
b) You’re insanely likable.
c) You’re really going to fit in around there.
These are the three primary factors that influence the selection process. The person who wins that great job will be the one who shows the decision makers, quickly, that he or she is all three of those things. And you have an amazing opportunity to begin planting these seeds right from the introduction, à la your cover letter.
Most people squander the opportunity. Instead of using their cover letter real estate to their massive advantage, they toss over bland, cliche-filled, or completely-redundant-to-the-resume clunkers. Or worse, they showcase all the things that they want out of the deal, without pausing for a moment to recognize that the company cares a heck of a lot more about what it’s going to get from you.
As a recruiter, it pains me to read most cover letters, because the vast (and I mean vast) majority of them stink. Knowing this should inspire you even further to create a brilliant one. Because, let me tell you, on those rare occasions an amazing cover letter crosses my desk? Mamma mia. It makes my day, and it most certainly influences my interest in its author.
So, how do you pull off a killer cover letter, one that conveys passion and talent and that makes the recruiter or hiring manager’s day? Make sure you do all of these things.
1. Tell Them Why, Specifically, You’re Interested in the Company
Decision makers never want to feel like you’re wallpapering the universe with the same pathetic cover letter. They want to feel special. And so, you need to make it clear that you’re approaching this organization for very specific reasons. And ideally, not the same very specific reasons that everyone else is giving.
Try a high-personality lead in like this: “Having grown up with the Cincinnati Zoo (literally) in my backyard, I understand firsthand how you’ve earned your reputation as one of the most family-friendly venues in the State of Ohio. For 20 years, I’ve been impressed as your customer; now I want to impress visitors in the same way your team has so graciously done for me.”
2. Outline What You Can Walk Through the Doors and Deliver
This isn’t you making a general proclamation of, “Hey, I’m great. I swear!” You need to scrutinize the job description and use whatever other information you’ve gathered about the opening, determine the key requirements and priorities for this job, and make it instantly clear to the reviewer that you can deliver the goods on these key things.
Consider crafting a section within the letter that begins with, “Here’s what, specifically, I can deliver in this role.” And then expound upon your strengths in a few of the priority requirements for that role (they’re typically listed first on the job description or mentioned more than once).
3. Tell a Story, One That’s Not on Your Resume
As humans, we love stories far more than we love data sheets. (OK, I speak for most humans). So, what’s your story? What brings you to this company? Did you used to sing along to all of its commercials as a kid? Did the product make some incredible difference in your life? Do you sometimes pull into the parking lot and daydream about what it would feel like to work there? Tell your story. Just make sure you have a great segue. Random trivia can come across as weird.
Say you’re applying for a marketing job with a baked goods company known for its exquisite tarts and pies. You may want to weave a sentence or two into your cover letter about how you took the blue ribbon in the National Cherry Festival pie eating contest when you were 10, and that you’ve been a pie fanatic ever since. (Yes, this was me, but I actually came in second place. Sigh.)
4. Address the Letter to an Actual Person Within the Company
Not one employee at your future new company is named “To Whom it May Concern,” so knock that off. You’ve got to find a real person to whom you can direct this thing.
This seems so hard or overwhelming, but it’s often easier than you may think. Just mosey over to LinkedIn and do a People search using the company’s name as your search term. Scroll through the people working at that company until you find someone who appears to be the hiring manager. If you can’t find a logical manager, try locating an internal recruiter, the head of staffing or, in smaller companies, the head of HR. Address your masterpiece to that person. Your effort will be noted and appreciated.
And a last, critical factor when it comes to delivering a great cover letter: Be you. Honest, genuine writing always goes much, much further than sticking to every dumb rule you’ve ever read in stale, outdated career guides and college textbooks.
Rules can be bent. In fact, if you truly want that amazing job with the brilliant co-workers, cool boss, and fresh, free snacks? They should be.
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