Awhile back I was discussing the hiring process I went through at Rice with my former boss. She told me that one of the main reasons I moved on to the interview stage was because of my cover letter. Before I wrote that cover letter, I remember spending significant time reading tips about how to write an effective letter and I wrote multiple drafts using those tips, but nothing felt right. Then I stumbled on an article with the best tip, I followed it with exactness, and, apparently, it landed me an interview.
Before I share it, it’s important to understand the purpose of a cover letter vs. a resume. Why do we even have to write these tortuous letters at all? Resumes are about what you can do – your skills. Cover letters are about who you are – your character.
The goal of a cover letter is to give the application reviewer a glimpse into who you are as a human.
Employees are often viewed as either objects, or cogs in a wheel that produce “things,” or subjects, human beings with desires, motivations, and beliefs. Using this analogy, the resume objectifies you, describing what you can do, and the cover letter humanizes you, turning you into a subject and revealing what drives you.
The great tip that I read when writing my cover letter was this: be authentic. In other words, write about who you are. Don’t just re-hash what you did from your resume, but describe why you did what you did, do what you do, or hope to do what you plan to do.
What motivates you? What values does that fulfill for you? How does that affect you? I’ve been part of several committees and programs that review applications and have read hundreds of cover letters. Time and again the ones that rise to the top aren’t formulaic. They don’t follow a specific plug-and-play pattern. Rather, they typically start off by talking about how they found the job announcement, why it is interesting or exciting, where it fits in their career path, and what they hope to contribute and learn.
Before you start your cover letter, answer these three questions:
Cover letters aren’t meant to be long, especially no longer than a page, and the goal is not to cram everything you can into one page. Be authentic, be concise, and show self-awareness. Cover letters are not the place to talk about things you don’t do well or that you hope to develop – save that for the interview.
You’ll know you’ve succeeded when you read over it and feel like it is a solid representation of who you are.
Hi! I'm Dustin.
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