Several incidents in the past few weeks have dramatically changed how I view cover letters.
First, a good friend of mine recently applied for a job where I work. He had been out of the environmental field for 15 years. He did not submit a cover letter, which would have explained that he took this time away from his career to care for his children, who were quite ill at the time. He could have communicated that, now that they are grown, he is able to return to his passion and career of choice. But, instead, the Selecting Official (SO) mentally filled in the blanks with negative information. To be fair, the SO didn’t out-and-out reject him, but it tainted the process and made for a challenging, uphill battle for my friend. My thought was, “this could all have been avoided with a great cover letter!”
The second thing that changed my mind was an email I received about the importance of cover letters when competing with lots of applicants for the limited jobs we’re seeing in our slow economy. While I had thought about my cover letter more as a summary of my skills and talent, I had not thought about the challenge faced by career changers or those returning to the environmental field after a long gap. So, here are some helpful hints for creating a stand out cover letter:
- Show Enthusiasm
- Share Your Philosophy
- Explain Gaps
- Explain Why You Are the Best Candidate in the Crowd!
Show Enthusiasm. I know that we always hear that our enthusiasm should come across in our cover letters, but there’s more to this than just using “happy words.” If you are changing careers or face stiff competition, you need to demonstrate very specific enthusiasm that not only shows your specific interest in the company or position, but also differentiates you from all of the other candidates – in other words, express yourself! Being generally enthusiastic won’t make you stand out the way a very specific statement will!
Share Your Philosophy. A cover letter is a great place to share your philosophy. Employers want positive attitudes, but be sure to direct your positivity and share it in a way that speaks to your character. For example, if you feel strongly about lifelong learning, leadership development, or some other area of interest, share it.
Explain Gaps. As I mentioned earlier, I recently had a friend apply for a position after he had been working outside of his chosen career field for quite a long time. He took that career diversion to care for an ill family member. The selecting official was not able to get past the idea that something was wrong with him – in the absence of information, people make up their own “stories” to explain the unexplained. If you have a gap in experience, or are changing careers, it might be best to briefly explain it in your cover letter. Had my friend done this, he would have provided his own “story,” it would have kept the selecting official from “filling in the blanks.”
Explain Why You Are the Best Candidate in the Crowd! Companies are receiving several hundred applications for each job vacancy. Competition is intense! Use your cover letter to demonstrate why you are a “better fit” than others. Do your homework on the company or agency for which you wish to work. Use that information and the keywords from the vacancy announcement to briefly state why your background meets their needs. If you are a student without relevant experience, highlight your academic achievements and any experience you have that might translate well to the desired experiences listed in the announcement. Don’t be afraid to be bold and speak highly of yourself and your accomplishments – who else will, if you won’t? And, remember that your competition will be bragging, so being too humble may hurt your chances! Don’t over sell yourself, but don’t undersell yourself, either.
Let me know if these insights are helpful and good luck on your job hunt!
Dr. Carol A. Pollio
Director, Capstone EcoServices