By Rebecca Healy
You know you should customize your cover letter every time you apply for a new job, but where do you even start? Use this three-step process to build a compelling cover letter that separates you from the pack and gets you in the door.
Gather a few job descriptions, and copy and paste each bullet of the description into a new document. As you do this, organize the bullets into similar sections. You'll likely end up with three to five categories when you're finished. Below are some sample bullets you might find on a job description. You can see they are all related to communication, and the category is headlined accordingly. (Hint: Communication is a common category almost all employers look for!)
Excellent communication, customer relations and team management skills.
Be well-versed in gaining and retaining customer and peer confidence, with true excellence in a consultative approach to your work.
Be passionate and positive about quality of deliverables, customer relationships, building your team and peers.
Outstanding oral and written communication skills
Work closely with industry managers and other product managers
Ability to excel in a fluid, cross-functional team environment
Exceptional communication and presentation skills
After you complete this process, take the three categories with the most bullets and brainstorm stories and examples from your past experience that exemplify your strengths. What leadership roles did you hold? What did you initiate? What were the results of your efforts? Did you go above and beyond?
Make a list of your accomplishments and the results you brought to each job. This will take some time, so set aside a good 30 to 45 minutes. Really delve deep, and describe the different projects you've been involved in, how they went, how you communicated and what problems you solved. If you're having problems, go back and look at old files and emails to trigger your memory. Once you get started, it may be difficult to stop! It's OK to make this a long list. You will not use all of it, but it is useful to have several items to pick and choose from.
Once you have the list, choose the most compelling results, examples and stories, and describe them under each category. You don't want to simply describe your job, but rather illuminate the special things you brought to the position. For example, under team management, you might talk about how you were promoted at your last job and were responsible for a team of five people, or how you developed a weekly team huddle to improve employee morale or how the review process you implemented increased efficiency in your department from 70 to over 85 percent.
Next, plug your top three categories into your cover letter template. In this case, your cover letter should consist of five sections. The intro paragraph expresses your enthusiasm and sets up the rest of the letter to showcase your skills. The next three paragraphs emphasize and exemplify the top three strengths you possess that will allow you succeed in the position. (Those are the three categories you previously identified.) The final paragraph re-emphasizes your enthusiasm and lets the employer know you are eager to talk more about the results you can bring to the company. Follow this template:
Dear Ms. [Last name],
I am very interested in joining the [Company] as [Job title]. I learned about this position from [Person]. I am passionate about [Company's mission], and believe my following key strengths would be an asset to the [Company]:
[Category one] Solid foundation and proven results in marketing, PR and social media.
[Supporting examples and stories for category one]
[Category two] Outstanding performance as an enthusiastic and creative self-starter.
[Supporting examples and stories for category two]
[Category three] Excellent communication, client relations and team management skills.
[Supporting examples and stories for category three]
I am impressed and inspired with the [Company]'s mission of [Rephrase company mission] and its commitment to [Rephrase company mission]. I look forward to speaking with you about the results I can bring to the [Company].
Keep your cover letter to one page. You don't want to write a novel! Remember, the cover letter isn't meant to reveal everything and should only whet the appetite. Once you get called in for an interview, you can elaborate more on specific projects, processes and results.
The three-step process can be repeated each time you apply for a new job. It works, because you use the same language as the job description and describe your past results – not just your responsibilities – in the exact context of what the employer wants. Use this template to write an effective and custom cover letter every time.
Rebecca Healy is the founder of Kontrary, a different take on money and happiness that helps you take control of your work and life. She lives in Washington, DC.