Applying for jobs/cover letters: Part 2

In my  last post I promised to look at some of the advice you can find online about writing cover letters and tell you what I think about that advice. Today we’ll look at an article titled “3 Cover Letter Tips That Guarantee an Interview,” written by Rebecca Thorman and published by U.S. News & World Report this past July.

Her first suggestion is “Get an introduction.” If you’ve taken my advice about establishing a network (Step 4: Create a Network), you will find lots of ways that you can meet people  who can introduce you to someone at the company where you want to work. You may meet them at a career fair, via LinkedIn, or through an alumni, family, or friendship connection. How you make that introduction isn’t as important as having one. And you don’t have to actually meet the person you’re writing to, you just need to be able to legitimately use a name in the first paragraph—ideally in the first sentence. Your cover letter is going to be much stronger—and it will have a much better chance of being read—if you can start with a sentence such as the following.

I am writing to apply for the position of  X, which I learned about from Jim White at last week’s Career Fair on my campus.

Thorman’s second suggestion is “Summarize your experience in three bullets.” What she is suggesting is that you literally insert three bullet points (although in her example they are numbered—I would NOT recommend numbering them) in your letter that represent your three greatest strengths or qualifications relevant to the job. This is one of those pieces of advice that not everyone will agree with. What I would say is that this would probably work well in technology organizations or other organizations that are progressive and fast-paced. If the industry or organization is more conservative—for example, banking or other financial institutions, some government agencies, the legal profession—I don’t think this variation from the standard paragraph form of a business letter would be appropriate. When you do information interviews (Tip 6 tells you how to do them), you can take a sample cover letter with you and ask if your interviewee thinks your format would be acceptable, or you can just ask about the bulleted list vs. paragraph format for the cover letter.

The third piece of advice in Thorman’s article is “Promote yourself unabashedly.” Many of my students have a great deal of difficulty with this, especially if they were raised by parents who drummed it into their heads to be modest and not brag about their skills. You do have to get over that and be willing to put yourself out there, but you also have to recognize that there is a very fine line between promoting yourself and coming across as arrogant. What I suggest is that you aim for confidence—demonstrate that you understand what’s required in the job and that you have the skills to do the work—but steer clear of a presentation that could be mistaken for arrogance. Ask a friend or relative to read the letter and provide you with constructive criticism before you send it to ensure that you display confidence and stop short of seeming arrogant.