by Claire Schmieder, Head Editor, INALJ New Jersey
The Cover Letter, Demystified
I must confess that, not all that long ago, I did not enjoy writing cover letters. Or, more precisely, I did not enjoy writing about myself. My lackluster self-selling skills made the cover letter writing process excruciating. I’d hem and haw, do Internet searches for “cover letter examples,” decide those examples were pretty terrible, hem and haw some more, and then cobble together a reasonable, albeit weak, facsimile of a cover letter. But, about six months ago, I threw this process out the window when I realized writing a cover letter is very similar to writing another type of paper, namely a history paper.
You see, I LOVE history and I LOVE writing history papers. I’m one of those people that thinks history is fascinating…even, dare I say, exciting. I read history for fun. I get all riled up checking endnotes and writing notes in the margins. It’s my idea of a good time. I realized that if I could write cover letters in the same way I wrote history papers, then I would probably grow to enjoy it, or, at the very least, become more skilled at it. However, if history papers scared you in college, fear not! You don’t have to be an expert in writing them to follow this formula – that’s the beauty of it.
And so, without further adieu, here is my how-to for cover letters, which I modeled after my most basic how-to for writing history papers.
STEP 1: PLANNING
If you think you can just sit down in front of the computer and bang out an outstanding cover letter, think again. Good writing takes planning. I read the assignment (or job description) and check my primary sources (namely my resume/experience, my references, and any other document I plan on submitting) to ensure that I’ve got enough evidence (or experience) to write the paper. If I don’t, then perhaps that job isn’t for me. What this means for you: your resume/experience should be in sync with the required and preferred qualifications listed in the job description. However, don’t be afraid of making creative arguments to describe how skills honed in a non-library setting have prepared you for the job. (For example, a position requires experience with budgets and you worked in a bank for years.) Your references should be folks who can elaborate on the skills you are trying to demonstrate through your cover letter and resume. If a job description states that candidates should have experience working with children, then provide a reference that can speak to that part of your skill set.
Nota bene: I usually create a brief outline of the points I plan on arguing in my letter. Nothing fancy, mind you – a brief list is fine – just something to keep me focused while writing. That way, if I suddenly draw a blank while writing, I just refer to my list and I quickly get back on track.
STEP 2: WRITING
Now that I’ve taken some time to think through how I can prove I’m the most qualified candidate, I am ready to start writing. There are three basic parts to a history paper – the introduction/thesis statement, the evidence and arguments for how it backs up the thesis statement, and the conclusion. I apply this structure to cover letters, too.
The Introduction and Thesis Statement
I always started history papers (or any other paper) with an introduction, and I apply this same rule to cover letters as well. I begin that paragraph with a strong, eye-catching (but not cute or unprofessional) opening statement. Then, I introduce myself, state my interest, and perhaps let my reader know how I came across the job posting. At the end of the paragraph, I offer up my thesis statement, which will always be some version of “you should hire me because I am the best person for the job.” (In more elegant and convincing prose, of course.)
To argue my thesis, I choose the three most significant ways in which I am the most qualified candidate. This means carefully juxtaposing the job posting with my experience (e.g. drawing upon the evidence to support my argument). For example, if the job posting requires “Experience supervising students and managing projects,” then I should be able to prove that I, through previous experience, have done both of these things.
The linked posting is for a recent opening at Princeton University. Notice that “supervising students” and “managing projects” are very, very vague statements. Should you assume that experience with undergraduates and projects within a university environment are preferred? The best answer I have for you is…maybe. The posting is sketchy on this point. Frustrating? Yes. Par for the course? Also yes. If you need to be creative, e.g. write about your experience with high-school students and/or managing projects in a previous career, DO IT, especially if you think you’d be a good fit for the job. What’s essential is explaining how your experience applies to the posting in a compelling way.
I never omit a concluding paragraph. The conclusion is the bow on a really awesome package – it neatly wraps everything up and it makes it look prettier. To that end, I briefly reiterate my qualifications, restate my interest in the position, and wrap things up in a few succinct sentences.
STEP 3: PROOFREADING
Proofreading is so important that I find someone…anyone!…to read over my letter. They may very well catch something that I missed, even after rereading my own writing seventeen times. My family, friends, and colleagues aren’t emotionally connected to my writing (not the way I am, at least). They will notice grammar errors, spelling mistakes, less-than-ideal word choice, repetition, tone, style…and they may be able help me improve my letter.
I found that once I stepped back and took a more analytical view of cover letters, they became much easier to write. Having a system means I write them in less time, they’re more convincing, and I end up sending out applications that I’m proud of rather than just OK with. For more resources on writing cover letters, please see below. Happy job hunting and happy writing!
How to Proofread – The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison