Tell a Story With Your Cover Letter
By Joe Issid
Monster Contributing Writer
One of the most mundane aspects of being a recruiter involves poring over dozens of cover letters every week. Somehow, cover letters have evolved into bland summaries of professional highlights mixed in with clichéd claims of expert time-management and organizational prowess. Truth is we have all been guilty of writing yawn-inducing summaries simply because that was the standard template. In fact, I grew so weary of suffering through such tomes that I took the decision to stop mandating cover letters for all of my company's job applicants. I opted to focus more on the candidate's resume and online persona mixed in with some preliminary communications. But, after some time, I realized that something was missing; as an owner of a media company, it seemed a little unfair to bypass the exercise of allowing candidates to present themselves honestly and candidly in writing. But how could I extract the most out of this exercise while making it beneficial for both applicant and recruiter?
To thine own self be true
Honestly, I think it is time that we all stop touting our proverbial “problem-solving” and “high-level communication” skills. Offering such platitudes in a cover letter takes up valuable space and offers a potential employer very little interesting information about yourself. Allow the recruiter to determine for themselves your ability to effectively communicate or your high-energy approach to your career. You should seek to remove as much objectivity from your cover letter and simply stick to relevant details about your professional background. If you have a significant amount of experience as a technical support analyst, for example, it is safe to assume that you have refined troubleshooting skills. There is no need to embellish this detail in your cover letter.
OK, I am not suggesting that you include pictures of your cat or He-Man collection; however, divulging some relevant details about your personal background can add some texture to your cover letter. For example, I have a BA in English Literature yet I spent the first ten years of my career working as a software developer. Without a well-written explanation of this seemingly unusual career path, most recruiters would have had a hard time understanding my resume. My cover letter included the reasoning behind my decision to pursue an education in the Arts yet a career in high-tech. These reasons were as much personal as they were professional. Without a well-reasoned explanation, I am certain my career would have turned out quite differently.
We are all different
If you wrote a college admissions letters, it might be useful to dig that up. At the time, you were (hopefully) encouraged to leverage your unique background and personal interests into a compelling narrative about your future. A professional cover letter does not have to be too far removed from that ideal. If caring for your elderly grandmother played a direct role in your career in healthcare, it would be of great benefit and interest to a recruiter to know that. As much as we may not believe it sometimes, we are all different and we all have unique stories. And there is absolutely no shame in exposing that.
Don't be an infomercial
If your cover letter is littered with superlatives and unsubstantiated claims about how awesome you are, most recruiters will perceive this as a warning sign. It is crucial to tone down the rhetoric and focus on subjective details that present you in a positive, professional light. Additionally, refrain from presenting yourself as an absolute authority on a given matter. Calling yourself a "maven" or "guru" only makes a recruiter feel that you are more fluff than substance.
Have a clear narrative
All good story-tellers focus on keeping a captive audience by constantly moving the narrative forward. And writing a resume should be no different. If you are unsure of where to start, a time-tested approach is to simply tell a chronological history of your education and career thus far. While your resume should contain the factual summary of your experiences, your cover letter should be more anecdotal and informal. Like any writer, you should keep asking yourself: is this detail important to the overall story? For example, should you mention the fact that you completed a marathon last year? Of course! Any achievement that required perseverance, dedication and hard work is always relevant to a prospective employer. Just be sure that it ties in with the flow of the overall story.
In reality, many recruiters will rapidly gloss over a cover letter as it can be just too time-consuming to review them all. As such, it is best to keep your introductions on the shorter side and be sure to only include elements that are relevant to the employer. If you aren't a confident writer, feel free to solicit the help of someone you know. However, I would advise against using a writing service as they simply will not be able to provide a personal, intimate summary of you and your qualifications.