Covering all the bases
Tips on tightening that cover letter
This is the sequel to hunting piece on how to tighten and refine cover letters that we so shamelessly copy-paste and claim to ‘resonate’ with the mission of every single company hiring. I know, been there.
Let’s push aside some basic questions. Do people even read cover letters? Yes, yes they do. Or just believe this and do your job. Why? For it will give you clarity — of the job, the company, and how much you actually want this position. How much time should I typically spend on a cover letter? Depending on how productive you feel, spend an hour each over 2–3 days to write it. Might be a better idea to read your writing with fresh eyes rather than spending an entire afternoon without blinking. How many words are the minimum? A page or less. If you need too many words to explain why someone should hire you, write again. Be succinct. I’ll explain exactly how in a bit.
Where should I begin my cover letter? There are many ways to structure a cover letter. A simple google search will prove this. Learning from truly remarkable people, Reddit forums, and ‘no-response’ HR, this is what I use:
- State the logistics — show off. State clearly which school you went to, what you studied, when you graduated, what job you’re applying for, how many functioning kidneys you have, who your father is. You know, the usual. [2–4 short sentences]
- Work experience — chances are you’ve done an internship, volunteer work, or been lucky enough to have experienced a salaried job before. Write about it. Don’t waste too many words on mentioning the title, or how you took a picture with Esther Duflo. Before you add a sentence, ask yourself if this information isn’t already in your resume. Spend time on describing the tasks you performed. Be specific. Give us a ‘for instance’. If you wrote a paper on the impact of financial aid to developing countries where you used MATLAB, R, Tableau, Python, and STATA to do analysis, don’t forget to mention the outcome of the analysis! Use short sentences in the active voice. Don’t pull a fast one by claiming to excel at excel. Take pride in your past experience. If all you did was add numbers to a datasheet, say it as it is. Nobody really does glamorous work anyway. Except maybe Oprah or Esther.
- What makes you stand out? Most of the time, we meet some requirements that are obviously mentioned in the job description. According to recent findings, men feel more comfortable applying to jobs despite the “missing requirements” than women. So to all the women, apply anyway. Now that you’ve set the context of your past experience, use the verbiage from the job posting. If they’re looking for a ‘highly collaborative person’, remind them that you worked with 5–4 data scientists, economists, and statisticians to write that report on financial aid. By applying these ‘qualities’ as verbs, you’re providing the evidence they’re looking for. Keep the verbiage consistent but obviously you’re not going to copy-paste the entire job description as is.
- Bring it home — Wrap up everything here. Remember that thing about ‘resonating with the mission’, write it. Mention how you feel about the position, place, or how you’re excited to be a part of their company. Hopefully, if you’ve made it to the end you actually do resonate with their values and culture. [Don’t thank them for reading your letter, just send them a briefcase of hard cash. No, I’m joking.]
- Enshrine your agency — While we are trying to impress the hiring manager at this stage, remember that you bring value to any company. It’s never a bad time to remind ourselves that we have agency too — of the job, of the salary, of the process of conduct. That job might be important to you, but you should feel important to the company.
As I said, this is one of the many ways to write a cover letter. Think about what writing principles make sense to you and what feels most authentic. There aren’t really any rules, merely suggestions.
(Drop a note if you need a total stranger, a.k.a me, to give you more concrete tips on your writing. Drop a note if you want to give me some tips on writing)