How to write a cover letter

Guide questions for each paragraph to help you write that kickass cover letter

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla

This was first published yesterday through my newsletter. Edited for style and updating of timeline. To get first dibs on my writing and other updates, subscribe here

I got a flurry of email requests to review cover letters and CVs over the weekend. Apparently the deadline for submission of applications for the World Bank Analyst Program is coming up, as in today, 05 April. I try my best to respond to all requests but alas, I’m only human and unable to do so. So I muddled through my slush pile and plucked out this (draft) quick guide on how to write a cover letter. Or at least it’s the guide I’ve been using all these years which has lent me varying levels of success (and countless rejections, too). Like most advice and things you read online, take them with a grain of salt:

You should treat the cover or application or cover letter as precious real estate. Keep it to a page, if possible, and do yourself and the hiring manager a favor. I believe the application letter should try to illustrate three things: your language proficiency, thought process and how you structure concepts, and knowledge and skills.

Below I formulate guide questions, where your response can form each paragraph that can make up the cover letter. Feel free to add a paragraph or two if the letter warrants the introduction of other topics.

Introduction

Guide question 1: Why are you interested in and what makes you qualified for the position? 

Paragraph 1 is the opening paragraph where you introduce yourself, and try to grab the attention of the reader. It could be someone from the HR, the hiring manager, or even the head of the organization itself. What you want to convey is that you’re the right person they’re looking for to perform the job. Cramming that information in the shortest paragraph in a job application letter sounds like a tough job (no pun intended), yet at a closer look it isn’t. Here you just state the position to which we’re applying and how you learned of the job posting, although the latter is really optional. The second sentence encapsulates your areas of expertise and skill set which you deem are valuable for the job and to the organization, plain and simple. Here you set the tone of the letter, and introduce our reader to what you have up our sleeve in the succeeding paragraphs. In these three to four lines of text your aim is to prime and hook the HR guy, showcase your abilities, that you’re the the best candidate for the job.

Knowledge and Skills

Guide question 2: What knowledge and skills do you possess, and how do you show that I am the perfect candidate to the job?

Paragraph 2: Establish your expertise in support to the first paragraph. Here you drill down on work experience and skills you have gained through the years, while linking them to the job requirements all the time. It is easy to dump all the jargons and get lost in the writing. But you have limited real estate. In this case, limit it ideally to a page. So every word counts and has to be relevant to the job. This is important to not to loseyour  focus in what you’re writing. Here you should also show that you speak their language-bureaucratese. It may sound like a jumble of technocratic jargon to those outside the field of international development, but this is really how they speak. In the world of search, without the right keywords, you won’t be found. This is not to say that you could and should lie in your cover letter by including terms and phrases you don’t really know about. Once we had a talk wth a senior HR staff, and he said one of the few grounds of termination is false declaration and falsification of documents. So keep that in mind. Simply review the job description and pick out technical and action words, and show how you have performed them in your previous work.

Your selling point

Guide question 3: What other special skills have you acquired that will pique the interest of your employer and set you apart from other applicants?

Paragraph 3: Boast about your other valuable skills that could set you apart from other candidates. It could be skills you have been learning from a side project. If you are applying for a research post which requires data crunching and bending, have you made a couple of coding tweaks on Stata to smoothen your data or improve your workflow (no, not to influence the result)? Did you render any volunteer consulting service for a non-profit school to improve their operations? Or maybe you’ve started a blog, and give tips to freelancers on how to find clients. This would be a good time to highlight those, but make sure the skills you will feature are relevant to the job.

Summarize

Guide question 4: To summarize, how can you perform the tasks at hand, and be of value the team/department, and overall objectives of the organization?

Paragraph 4: Time to wrap things up. End your story with your educational background. I am putting this toward the end because a diploma from a pedigree school can only get you too far. While some hiring managers may still put a premium on the school one went to, I believe it’s only valid two or three years down the road, and its value diminishes thereafter. Moreover, most likely the best of the applicants will have more or less similar education, so this shouldn’t figure into and be a clincher in most hiring decisions, unless it’s a research-heavy job, where certain universities may have a tradition of quality researchers. I would hire someone from an OK university who has been doing interesting work and with a multi-faceted personality, than someone banking on the prestige of a top university. If you’re both, then you’re the golden unicorn your soon-to-be employer has been looking for. As I write this, I just realized maybe I should stop mentioning my education background altogether, and stick to my own advice and use the free space to summarize how my knowledge, skills, and previous work experience will be of value to the organization.


Got more tips on how to write a cover letter? Do let me know. Good luck to all applicants and keep me posted how your application goes.

Resume and cover letter reviewer upload form now online

I’ve got a few requests lately to review resumes and cover letters. The usual process has been to ask if I can review your resume/cover letter, then me asking for your email address in the comments section, then me sending you an email asking you to send me your documents, and then you sending my back an email with them as an attachment or two (whew! I know). It takes time and lots of typing.

I’m excited to deploy a quick hack I found online. With this form you can upload your documents without the back and forth emailing. This also avoids exposing your email address to potential spammers.

If you want me to review your resume, cover letter, or both,  click here and upload a Word version. Don’t forget to include your email address as text in the document so I can send you back your updated resume (I assume though it’s included in one of the documents).