DIY: Transcend the Standard Cover Letter


Most prospective employers provide significant information about their organizational culture and values in position announcements themselves.  Yet the most common mistake of applicants is to match a cover letter and résumé only to an employer’s required qualifications. Because most applicants who apply are qualified for a position, those who match their unique experience to an organization’s preferences stand out in the crowd.  Instead of reusing standard materials for multiple positions, study each perspective employer’s mission and organizational culture for insight into how to customize your materials.

Best Practices

Study your prospective employer’s mission before you begin your cover letter. Jot down key phrases from the organization’s mission statement and allow time for drafting your letter as you consider how the employer’s values and preferences align with your own unique strengths and experiences. Even if you cannot find a mission statement, chances are that the position announcement can give you a clear idea. Record your answers to these questions: 1. In a few words, what is the prospective employer’s mission? 2. Which key phrases seem to recur? 3. What is your best guess about why this phrasing recurs? 4. If you were describing this organization as you would a person, what would qualities come to mind? 5. What about the organization resonates with you?

Focus your letter not on what the employer can do for you, but rather what you can do for the employer. You are probably not applying for a position just because you want to enrich your life. Like everyone else who is applying, you really need a job, and you have extremely pressing concerns about acquiring one. Nevertheless, draft your own pressing needs out of the letter and infuse it instead with your anticipation of the employer’s needs.  Your cover letter need not read like a pitch. But it should prioritize the experience or even the philosophy that demonstrates why you and this organization are a good match. If some facet of your experience seems most suitable, lead with it and expand upon it. Keep in mind that the employer has your résumé, so this is an opportunity to demonstrate that you would like this job and not just any job your résumé qualifies you for.

Consider your tone and use of language throughout. Avoid using adjectives to describe yourself. Everyone is an “excellent communicator” and everyone is a “quick study.” The key is to showcase your best qualities in your application materials, and clearly showing your audience your skill set reduces the need to tell them.

Impulses to Resist

Don’t restate your résumé in paragraph form. Most applicants will, and resisting this urge will set you apart.  Use the letter to showcase valuable skills and experience instead of simply listing them.  The cover letter is your opportunity to focus in detail on projects or assignments most relevant to your new position.

Don’t send the same standard cover letter to each prospective employer. While we all want to cast our net as widely as we can, the positions we would really treasure are worth the time and effort to match ourselves to an organization, to showcase a professional personality compatible with that of the organization, and to set ourselves apart from those who meet only required qualifications.

I genuinely wish you the best in your search. –Kim Martin

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