Here’s How To Master The Art Of The Cover Letter in 5 Steps
Networking Series #3—Stand Out and Get That Interview
As I was looking for my first job, I was a little confused on the do’s and the dont’s to even get interviews. Thankfully, I spent a lot of time practicing, and with a lot of trial-and-error, as well as guidance from friends and mentors, I ended up spending a fruitful year working in Australia.
0. Be clear on the goal
Don’t write your cover letter thinking it will get you a job. It should be aimed at getting that first interview. Now that this is clear, let’s get started!
1. Ditch the cover letter — Welcome, cover e-mail
Three years ago, I had to craft a résumé for the first time, accompanied with what I found extremely artificial : the infamous cover letter. I didn’t understand why I had to send email where I would already present myself, with a PDF attachment of my story. It just felt odd.
Not only that, but my naive mind would assume that a complete stranger working-professional have nothing better to do than open my email, read it, open the attachment and read another lengthy paragraph.
Guess what ? They do have better things to do.
So, I decided to focus my energy on the email itself. Now, I know some online applications ask you for a cover letter, in which case you gotta do what you gotta do. If I come across that, I write it as if it were an email.
I also know some are general advocates of writing a cover letter. I’m in no way an expert, but I just disagree in the light of my own experience. If they work for you, great!
2. Don’t be generic
Whatever format you end up choosing, make sure you’re being specific and presenting YOU.
Yes, reading a job description to inspire yourself regarding what they are looking for is a good idea.
Copying every buzz word from that description to fill-in your cover email? Not so much.
At first, I thought I was being smart to stress how strong my “analytical and problem-solving skills” were. But as I wouldn’t get any positive answer—or rather no answer at all—I questioned the content of my email.
I started following this guideline:
If what I write is so generic that it could have been written by someone else, it’s not going to cut it.
For the occasion, I went back to one of the very first emails I sent to get a research internship. I look back at it with compassionate giggly eyes to Laila from two years ago!
Dear Mr. X,
Currently a first-year student in the Ponts et Chaussées Engineering School, I am taking the opportunity to contact you, as I am highly interested in a mid Spring internship within University of California’s Civil & Environmental Engineering Department.
I feel very curious about your Connected Corridors project, as it seems to encompass many major stakes at the same time, amongst which improving mobility in a short and long term, being able to deliver more accurate data about traffic, let alone improving the safety of the corridor’s users. It is indeed the effective usefulness of the project for the population of California, and for many others in the future that is truly inspiring. I am actually interested in different fields — Renewable Energy, Environment and Transportation — and it would be a chance for me to study congestion issues, especially through such a versatile project, as it is definitely a problem I would have to face quite often if I chose to specialize in the Transportation Department of my school next year. Moreover, I am very fond of Mathematics and Computer Science — which explains my choice of Math as my major during my two-year intensive program preparing to the national competitive exam for entry to engineering schools — and the Connected Corridors research seem to use both theses matters a lot, so working with you would hopefully allow me to be useful and at the same time to learn more about the opportunities Math and CS offer when it comes to solving a concrete problem such as this one.
Thus, I would be very grateful if you would agree to give me a Spring internship from April 20th to July 17th. To this end, please see attached my resume. You can contact me by e-mail at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Ew! Re-reading this made me chuckle. So many things are wrong with this email.
- It’s long, it’s cold, it’s generic.
- I used fluffy words without any evidence: “curious”, “inspiring”, “fond of”. I’m not saying these words are wrong, but it’s all up in the air since I don’t show any proof of such interests or traits.
- I actually lied about wanting to join the department of Transportation—whoops. I was that desperate. Really bad idea though—it would clearly have come up at some point.
- It doesn’t provide any insight on who I am, what I am interested in, and why this gentleman should hire me.
In this email, I am basically saying:
“I want a job. You have no clue about who I am. Your research seems cool, and I love Math, I promise I do! Take me! Here are my dates. Cool?”
3. Say why you want to join THIS company
What do they do? What’s their vision? What is so special about this company ? If you had the choice, why would this one stand out above all others ?
Do your research. Asking yourself these questions can only be beneficial to you, as it helps you figure out what you want to do and whether you actually want to work for them.
Communicate your interest in a very practical way.
Why are you applying ? Is it the field they are working on that sparked your interest? The opportunities within the company ? The culture? The location?
Whatever it is, define that specifically in the email, to show you have done your homework and are not using a blatant copy-and-paste email.
Even if we all re-use templates of our own—that’s totally fair—you don’t want it to show.
That would only make you generic to all the other potential candidates.
4. Present what YOU would bring as an individual
Okay, now that you are convinced you want to join THIS company, you have to find out: why would they hire you? Among all the other candidates, what is it that makes you different ?
I want to stress something important here. I have the core belief it’s not all about technical skills. Sure, you need to be able to get the job done with a certain level of quality. But even in software, the best hire is not always the most skillful developer.
No, what I mean by being different is: as a whole package.
As a person, with your personal and technical skills, with your educational and cultural background, with your hobbies and side-projects: why do you fit?
Why are you the one?
That’s where you want to tell your story. You still want to keep it short, so pick the right anecdotes for the company.
A structure that has worked well for me is writing a couple of paragraph, following this framework:
- What you are interested in.
- An example of experience that backs that up.
- A conclusion on the skills you learned and would bring with you to the company.
5. Optional: Investigate how you could help them prior to contacting them
This shows pro-activeness. If you state that you love to take initiatives, it’s a hell of a proof!
Plus, there are probably few candidates who would take the time to do that, so it makes you stand out.
I did that once with a community-based app company I was looking at. I downloaded the app and started sending messages to the users to ask them if there was any thing they wish the company would enhance, add, or do differently.
I happened to send a message to one of the founders’ friends, who then introduced me to the founding team. It lead me to have an interview with the CTO!
Here’s what a pro-active feedback email would look like.
Putting everything together
After looking through my old emails, I pulled an example of an email from which I got an enthusiastic response.
It’s far from perfect, but was still much, much better, because:
- I shortly introduced myself and showed enthusiasm regarding the company.
- I presented what are my interests, with evidence to back that up. Note that each time, I conclude with the translation of these interests and experiences into skills that would add value to the company. Don’t be shy. There’s nothing wrong with stating what you are good at, as long as you can illustrate it and stay humble.
- I made it specific about me. I’m telling my story and this couldn’t be similar to another email.
- I conclude with putting in perspective my motivation to join the company and why I think I would be valuable to them.
- I have a clear call to action.
- I followed most of my guidelines on how to write the perfect cold email.
I’ve been putting more and more thoughts into how I communicate with professionals over the past two years, so I’m hoping this will be helpful to you! Let me know how you go !