During two recent searches, I paid attention to which cover letters drew me in, made me want to read them.  I noticed that the more personal a cover letter, the more likely I was to read it.  And it did the job of a cover letter really well.

What is the job of a cover letter?  It’s to show an employer three things:

  1. You know what you’re applying for.  I recommend mentioning the position name at the beginning and end of the cover letter, and possibly in the body of it.  Also mention the name of the organization at least that many times.  Use language from the job description and from their website – especially about their purpose or mission.  Anyone who sent a generic cover letter was put in the “maybe” pile even if they had great skills.  I interviewed a couple of those people, but they didn’t make it to my client – because they didn’t really care about the specific job – they just wanted any job.
  2. There is an explicit match between your abilities and the employer’s problem.  A job description is a statement of the employer’s problem, and your resume is the solution.  However, the employer can’t be expected to know this.  You need to state the obvious. Literally say things like “I see in the job description that you need someone who can xxx.  I’ve done that exact thing here and here.  I’ll bring that experience to this job and produce the same kind of results.” The overt and subliminal messages are the same: I’m great for you because I took the time to know who you are, and so I know how my experience/expertise can help you with your bottom line – whether it’s financial, mission, process, or product.
  3. You really want to work there. Everyone likes to be wanted and because it’s a person who will read your cover letter, they will be affected by your enthusiasm for the company, its work, and its impact.  This is where you get to show some personality, knowledge of the larger impact you can have by working for them, and your appreciation for all they’ve done and their importance in the world.  It’s also where you can get personal, telling a story about how you personally were affected in some way by the issue they address (e.g. working for a pharma company that sells diabetes treatments, because you lost a relative to diabetes).  I recommend a paragraph near the end of the letter that starts “I want to work for xxx because…”  It’s an irresistible start to a paragraph – someone will want to read it.  And you make your case for the importance of the company, the job, and your passion for the purpose.

This applies to non-profits and for-profits alike.  All cover letters are read by a person. So write it as if you are convincing someone that you are the best person to meet their specific needs.  Because you are!  If you can convince yourself, you probably can convince them.  Be authentic, find something you really love about the company or job (and it can’t be the pay rate), and write about it.

When people do these things in cover letters, they often get interviews, even if they don’t know anyone at the employer.

I interviewed people who wrote this kind of compelling cover letter, even if they didn’t have the exact experience we were looking for.  And one of those people got the job offer and started this week.  It was a cold approach, she knew no one, yet she made the case for herself – beginning with the cover letter and going through all the interviews.

So if you are thinking “why didn’t I get an interview? I’m PERFECT for that job!” try writing a more compelling cover letter and see what happens.