Shelby L. Graves, MPH, CHES
So You Don’t Want to Write a Cover Letter?
"I have found the most success when taking the time to craft tailored cover letters."
I get it, no one enjoys writing a cover letter. At least, I don’t personally know anyone who gets totally jazzed about writing them. I do enjoy helping others to revise their cover letters, but I wouldn’t choose this as a Sunday Funday activity for the whole family.
So, what’s all the hype about cover letters? And why are they so critical to your job hunting process? That’s what this blog post is all about. Read ahead to learn more about why you should be writing a cover letter for every. single. application.
Image © vladwel
What’s the Fuss About Cover Letters?
Cover letters are your initial opportunity to make a great first impression with potential employers. They provide potential employers with an introduction to who you are and how you can benefit their agency.
Whenever I review stacks – and I do mean stacks – of applications, I set everyone who provided a cover letter aside. I do this because I’m giving their application priority. All the other applications? If I get to them, I get to them. And if I don’t? Well, I have a stack of applicants who wrote cover letters to choose from. I have a feeling that if an applicant is willing to put in the additional effort to score an interview, they’re going to put in additional effort on the job.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. When I’ve spoken to recruiters, managers, and additional colleagues, they've told me the exact same thing. Yes, there are for-profit recruiters who have said that not writing a cover letter isn’t a deal-breaker. However, they are the minority. If you’re in the field of academia, social service, or public service - you better be writing a cover letter with each application.
What Should I Include in My Cover Letters?
It can feel overwhelming to sit down to write a cover letter from scratch. That’s why having an outline or template prepared can get you started out on the right foot.
So what should you include in this outline or template?
Header. You want the header to contain your name and contact information. If it matches the style of your resume, that’s a plus.
Salutation. You want to greet the reader and include their agency’s details, as you would in any other formal letter.
Introduction. Your introduction should include a brief and catchy overview of who you are. Keep it to the point.
Body. The body should tell the story of your fit for the agency. Include key skills and experiences that are relevant to the position description. This is your opportunity to showcase your strengths, as they relate to the job.
Closing statement. An appropriate closing is concise and wraps up your cover letter in a nice little bow. It should also let the reader know you are looking forward to discussing the position with them. You want to end on a confidant note.
Signature. Use an appropriate font for your signature or sign using Adobe.
How Can I Improve My Cover Letters?
So you’re writing cover letters, but don’t feel like you’re making any traction… It’s probably time to mix it up. Use the tips below to craft a better cover letter.
1. Really tailor your cover letter to the agency.
Tailoring your cover letter requires doing your research. This means several things:
First, you want to make sure you understand the job. Do you know what’s being asked of an applicant? Do you fulfill the requirements? Can you address any gaps in your resume or experience? Show them you understand this job and that you can perform it well. Not just well - but exceptionally well.
Next, you want to look into the mission and the values of the agency and speak to those within your letter. This does not mean simply restating the mission statement, this means showing how your “why” and your values align with the agency by sharing your own story and your experience.
If possible, find the hiring manager’s or program manager’s name. Use this to address your letter when you can. If you cannot find it, you can use the position name or team name of the company. For example, “Senior Policy Analyst Hiring Manager” or “Project Name* Team.” Never use “To Whom it May Concern.”
2. Keep it on the shorter side.
This is a pretty simple concept – you don’t want to overload them with blocks of text and TMI. You want to showcase your strengths and tell them exactly why you’re the perfect fit for the position. Do this as concisely as you can. Translation: It shouldn’t be longer than a page – and even a full page is pushing it.
3. Hit those keywords and key phrases.
This goes back to #1 (tailoring). You want to hit the keywords and phrases from the job description to show that you’ve done your research and to improve your match. You shouldn’t just copy and paste them into your letter. Instead, you should try your best to work them in as naturally as possible.
4. Go beyond your resume.
Here’s the thing – they know what jobs you’ve held because they have your resume in hand (or on screen). You need to go beyond listing your previous titles and describing your roles. You should spell out for them exactly how your experiences and accomplishments relate to this specific position. You are demonstrating your value, not regurgitating your resume.
5. Throw out the clichés and the boring phrases.
It’s time to get creative with your intro line and your closing statement. You want to move beyond the clichés and the snooze-worthy phrases used in 9/10 cover letters. See the details below.
They can see your name. They can see what job you’re applying for. No need to use that as your opener. Want some examples of boring openers?
My name is Shelby Graves and I am applying for X Position.
I am submitting an application for X position with Y agency.
The same goes for cliché phrases that they’ve seen and heard 1,000 times before. The number one phrase that comes to mind is “I’m passionate.” Want some more examples?
My passion for public health makes me a great fit for this position.
I am passionate about public health.
I have always been passionate about X.
You’re better than this. Think of your cover letter as a narrative – it’s your story. The story of how you fit with this agency and this position. A good story hooks readers from the beginning. And hopefully has one heck of an ending. Take a look at this list of examples from the Muse.
Final Thoughts on Cover Letters
Are cover letters time consuming? Yes.
Does every agency have the exact same preference for cover letters? No.
But do cover letters improve the quality of your application? Yes.
Whether or not you write a cover letter is completely up to you. I have found the most success when taking the time to craft tailored cover letters. I’ve also given priority to applicants who take the time to write a cover letter. I highly recommend writing a cover letter with every application to improve your shot at getting an interview. (Quality over quantity).
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