Good Cover Letters?
December 11, 2011 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Advice On Writing My First Cover Letter?

I am a freshly minted social science PhD looking for a job at non-profits, consulting firms, government, businesses etc... (i.e. not academic jobs). I am on the East Coast if that helps.

I have never written a cover letter before, the whole concept is foreign to me. I've seen a number of examples, but I am having a hard time writing my own: short vs. long? Detailed vs. broad?

I understand that I should have a customized cover letter for every application, but how much of it should be customized and how much should be boilerplate?

Basically, I don't know what I am doing and I am looking for some advice, tips, etc...
posted by Spurious to Work & Money (12 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest a cover letter that is no longer than one page. Your resume will cover the details.

The point of the cover letter is to get them to read the resume. The content should compel the reader to want to know more about you.

Don't make the text too dense, bullet point where possible, make sure that the highlights are relevant to the position you're applying for (this is where you're customizing the letter). Don't use phrases like "your organization" "your company"...generic phrases like this tell me it's a boiler plate letter and the sender didn't even take the time to insert the name of my agency.

Try not to bullshit too much, avoid hyperbole, it usually isn't believable.

Above all, spell check, grammer check, fact check.. one spelling error will cause me to think twice about reading further.
posted by tomswift at 6:27 AM on December 11, 2011

Keep it brief. Don't be stilted, but don't be glib. Write it, wait two hours, and go back to it.
posted by morninj at 6:28 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ask yourself what the recipient might want.
- they get a lot of applications
- they are busy people with little time to spare

>>>> short and specific is good!!!!!!

Also think about advertising - your cover letter is your one opportunity to introduce your product (that would be you or rather your labour) to a target. Do they ever go for length, do they ever bore you with tangents? No, too costly & people don't have that much attention span. So it wants to be short and specific to that target, it wants to highlight why you want to work with the target and why you would be a great fit for them. One sentence each.

For the rest they can refer to your resume. Which should also be on the shortish side bearing in mind that you have no significant work experience to put on there...
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:32 AM on December 11, 2011

I answer this as someone that left academia (briefly) for a government research job.

This REALLY depends on how you're portraying yourself and where you're apply. IMHO, conveying that you as a PhD have something to add to an organizing is quite unlike any 'regular' cover letter.

I would strongly suggest hiring someone to work through this cover letter with you. (I personally recommend The Professor Is In for this sort of thing.) (I think that the money that I have spent having her work with my CV/letters has been well worth it.)

And go into the forums on VersatilePhD. This is a website for people JUST LIKE YOU. There will be much more helpful resources there for both your job search and reworking your CV and writing cover letters in there.

I envision that you'll be applying to places that are think tanks that are full of PhDs (like RAND) that want to see that you have the methodological and writing chops to do their kind of work. That will be one kind of letter.

There might also be other organizations that want you because of your expertise with a particular construct, so that'd be an entirely different letter.

You might also be trying to find work at places that your PhD will not be an asset. Conveying that you can do non-academic work will be important in those letters.

Thus, for your particular situation, very little of this letter will be boilerplate. And short/long, detailed/broad -- again, depends on the letter. I'd say 1-2 pages (but there is probably a 'rule' on this for this sort of situation) and I'd also venture a guess that broad is better.
posted by k8t at 6:33 AM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Take your existing resume. Copy and paste each section (determined by subject matter, e.g. Education, Skills, Relevant Coursework, etc.) into a new document. Save the sections with titles like "Resume Element-Education" and "Resume Element-Skills." Do that for the entire document. Then save everything in a single resume folder.

Now turn to your cover letter. Type in all the stats (date, addresses and such, your signature), then double-space the body.

In the space for the body, try to keep it to about 10 sentences. This is the place to write cogent, concise, winning prose about what you can do for the employer. Don't tell them what you've already said on your resume; tell them what's inappropriate to put on the resume. Tell them what you must write in full sentence form, not partial sentence form like a resume.

You may, however, make a brief bulleted list to highlight specifics. You may also, if it feels appropriate, present your information in a chart, divided into columns, and quoting directly from their ad on the left and how you suit that requirement on the right. Even if you don't think a chart is appropriate, this is good preparation. It hones your writing, and helps you see in a word-by-word way if you're genuinely a good match. And if you're not, what you've still got to sell--or learn. Above all, don't tell them why they'll love you! Instead, make it crystal clear what you can do for them then prove it in your resume and the details of your letter. Last, only reference items on your resume if you absolutely must. If you have anything of importance to say related to your career or saleable experience, put that directly in the resume.

These days most folks regularly switch around highlighted skills, the order of jobs, according to what any given employer is emphasizing as most important, Similarly, I add and subtract pieces of my education, depending on what's pertinent. Some jobs I add or subtract, too, again, depending on relevance. You will want to do the same. This is why you want to copy out parts of your resume in pieces: Because as you apply for jobs you are going to be copying these pieces back out again and into your "new" resume--and if you can't quite remember what you wrote about X; it's easiest to see and recover if it's on its own document.

Resumes, unfortunately, are where everyone puts in the time these days. For large or busy offices, cover letters are rarely read, and probably even more rarely scanned into a database. For the purposes of the database and some HR offices, make absolutely certain you have directly incorporated their precise language into your resume. Sadly, this has become critical, so the job-seeker's only recourse is to turn "Hide the Employer Lingo" into a game.

There is a certain pleasure that can be got out of resume writing. The trick is to think of it as a Photoshopped version of yourself, and present yourself as beautifully, impeccably, and seductively as you would in a Headshot.

Good luck!
posted by Violet Blue at 6:46 AM on December 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

First of all, ditch stiff, ridiculous language. Fake formal-sounding sentences make cover letters unbearable to read.

Secondly, just write a letter. Imagine that you are telling somebody why you are suited to a job. Imagine that! The letter is there to draw attention to your resume. Point out your experience and tell them why that qualifies you for the job. Mention your interests.

You might have some boiler plate, but boilerplate tends to read like boilerplate. I prefer writing a new cover letter for each job that I apply for. It makes the writing seem fresher, because, well, it is.

Cover letters really aren't hard. Just ask yourself why you're right for the job, and what you'd need to show to prove that. Then do that, using words.
posted by entropone at 7:04 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

If I was reading your cover letter, you could give yourself the best chance by

- showing briefly that you have whatever skills and experience they have mentioned as necessary for the position in question
- describing what extra you bring to the table that would make you a great fit for this job or this company: for example, experience in their industry, or skills that you think are relevant which they did not mention.
- demonstrating enthusiasm for the position/company/industry.
- doing all of the above briefly and not taking up more than one page.

So, if I see an ad for an admin assistant with three year's experience, to work for a very small homeless charity where the position has been vacant for some time, I might write paragraphs that state the following:

- I have been working in admin positions for over three years.
- Last year I joined the Afternoon Tea Club, reconstructed three years of missing accounts and identified problems with their cash flow. I was able to work with the officers of the Club to help them organise fundraising activities, restructure contracts to ensure positive cash flow going forward, and put in place simple systems to make sure the club kept on top of its finances in the future.
- Since an experience with homelessness in my family I have been passionate about putting my skills to use in helping the homeless.

Here I've covered their immediate requirements, I've guessed that as a small charity with a missing admin officer their situation may be messy, I've shown that I have the ability to help with that, and I've shown that I'm particularly excited about their area of business.

Once I'd written those paragraphs, I'd just reorganise the information in them to make sure it reads coherently.
posted by emilyw at 7:05 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the first paragraph you're telling them what position you are interested in.

In the second paragraph you are telling them why and how you are a good fit for their organization/this position.

In the third paragraph you are telling them what action comes next eg you will be available to meet with them at any time, and/or you will contact them next week to discuss your suitablity blah blah. Sincerely, You.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:27 AM on December 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

There is some good advice here, but I totally disagree about bulleted lists. This is a cover letter, not a mini-resume.

You want: the usual letter stuff -- Your contact information upper right hand corner, date and the address of who you are sending it to on the left below that.

I generally arrange cover letters into 3-4 paragraphs (sometimes more, but I am rarely applying for an entry-level job anymore, so I sometimes have a lot of details to address. 1 page is usually the top for an entry level position. Remember -- most jobs call for a demonstrated ability to write -- misspellings, clumsy sentences, and bullets do not do that.


First paragraph -- I am writing to apply for position X at office/lab/institute y (include job number if there is one). I have Z credential (if that is a requirement).

Second paragraph -- Give some examples of how you clearly meet the requirements and desired qualities. I have set language I use, then I cut and paste the requirements into the bottom of the letter and remove stuff form that list as a) I find it in my "generic wording" or b) add it to the body. I sometimes break this paragraph into two -- the first dealing with general duties and the second with specific aspects of the position -- but it kind of depends. As people point out above, don't get too wordy -- try and describe your qualifications as succinctly as you can.

Third paragraph -- My education and work experience (or whatever qualities you want to highlight) make me an excellent fit for position X. I look forward to further discussing what I can bring to institution Y.

Yours, etc.

The trickiest part, in my experience is a) keeping it to one page and b) managing the balance of confidence and arrogance (which is highly subjective based on your field -- in business, "I am the greatest; you would be crazy to not hire me" is apparently a decent stance. In libraries, that will get you discarded).
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:56 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've always found the tight, three-paragraph letter to be the best; in most cases, people will be hustling through these things.

That aside, short of going for something where there is a desperate shortage of qualified people, they'll have plenty of candidates who are at least adequate so you gotta, gotta, gotta relate how you stand out.
posted by ambient2 at 2:48 PM on December 11, 2011

As a PhD applying for a non-academic job, your resume may look different from other resumes they see. Even if they're hiring and specify that they want a PhD, the HR department isn't necessarily used to reading PhD resumes. Part of choosing a person fresh out of grad school for a non-academic environment is ensuring that you're getting someone who isn't mentally stuck in the ivory tower, someone who isn't resentful about academia, someone who isn't bitterly applying for this nonprofit thing just because there aren't enough professorship slots. Part of what your cover letter should do is convey who you are. Your background and qualifications are part of the resume, and you'll refer to them in the cover letter, but the real point is not that you *have* skill X, it's that you enjoy using skill X and really like the idea of applying skill X to the area of that company's work.

Make yourself a scratch sheet of paper on which you come clean: what kind of job do you really most want in the world and why? what are all the types of tasks that you most like to do and why do you like to do them? Do you worry that academia has under-prepared you for some aspects of professional life? What edge do you feel that your doctoral degree gives you? Name something that you do better than other grad students. Name something that you do better than the typical non-academic that may apply for these jobs.
Now you've got a cheat sheet. When you apply for a job, look over this list, and pick out the skills that they want that line up with things you feel you excel at and tasks you most enjoy doing, and include those comments in the letter.
posted by aimedwander at 7:32 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

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