Sunday, February 12, 2012

Don't just send in a resume: How to write a letter of application

Over the years, I've given a lot of people advice about how to write a letter of application for a job. Many of them have taken my advice - and they usually get the job.

What's the advice? It's all about what the letter is supposed to do.

What's the letter of application?
People often think of the letter of application (or "cover letter") as, at most, a way to specify what job they want and how much they want it. The heavy lifting, they figure, is done by the resume. In fact, many people don't even write a letter of app, they just send in the resume.

In most cases, this is a terrible idea.

It's a terrible idea because the letter of application really performs a very specific, important function. Think about it this way:

Your skills and abilitiesTheir needs

You have skills and abilities. They have needs.

These are represented in certain genres:

Your skills and abilitiesTheir needs
ResumeJob description/ad

Notice that a vast gulf separates the two. The resume serves as a sort of fact sheet about your skills and abilities, education, experiences, and so forth - all the things that you might bring to bear on a job. The job description represents the employer's needs. At this point, you may look at a job description and say, "hey, my skills and abilities fit their needs." But they may not be able to draw the same conclusions, and even if they do, they may not see the match as clearly as they will with other resumes.

That's especially true when your skills and abilities must be inferred from one context to another. Here's an obvious example. Suppose that they need someone who has experience leading a team in solving work problems. You're about to graduate from college, so your jobs have not been leadership jobs - you've served as an intern, as a junior analyst, etc., but you haven't led. You have, however, led in other contexts: you've held officer positions in your sorority, in your synagogue's outreach program, etc. And some of those leadership experiences look a lot like the one described in the job ad - more than might be casually obvious.

So you need something to fill the gap. I bet you can guess what it is.

Your skills and abilitiesHow your skills and abilities meet their needsTheir needs
Resume<- Letter of application ->Job description/ad

The letter of application, done well, interprets the resume for them in terms of the needs they outlined in the job description. In a sentence, its message is: "You need X, and I can provide it."

How do I identify and rank the needs?
First, you'll identify the needs listed in the job ad. For this, print out the ad and use a highlighter to highlight specifics in the ad (these may be listed as skills, duties, or requirements). Often you'll generate a long list.

Next, make sure that you can make a plausible case for filling these. If you can't - for instance, if they ask for four years' work experience and you don't have it - don't waste their time and yours. If you can, proceed.

Next, rank these needs. Some will be pro forma (ex: "four-year college degree required"). Others will be very specific to the job, and these will probably be ranked more highly. If you can leverage them by linking multiple needs together, you're ahead of the game.

How do I write the letter of application?
First, outline your letter of application. I recommend using the same approach that I use when writing letters of recommendation: the much-reviled five-paragraph essay.

Why? For this task, the five-paragraph essay is perfect. You need to write a letter that:

  • identifies a focused set of needs and your ability to fulfill them;
  • succinctly signals its structure for the harried HR folks who are having to read hundreds of these letters; and
  • ends with a clear next step for them.
So I recommend the classic five-paragraph essay structure. It'll look like this:
  1. First paragraph: Introduction. I want this job, and I'm qualified because of A, B, and C. These match your needs.
  2. Second paragraph: I have the qualification A. Here's some examples from my resume (and maybe elaborations or other stories).
  3. Third paragraph: I have the qualification B. Here's some examples from my resume  (and maybe elaborations or other stories).
  4. Fourth paragraph: I have the qualification C. Here's some examples from my resume (and maybe elaborations or other stories).
  5. Fifth paragraph. So I have qualifications A, B, C. Call me.
This approach is by-the-numbers, but it's also very clear and on-message. Notice that if you have four points instead of three (A, B, C, and D), you'll simply add another middle paragraph to generate a six-paragraph letter. 

Next, you'll flesh in the sections. What you'll generate may look something like this letter. It's straightforward and functional. It's simple, but it packs in a lot of information and relates it directly to the applicant's resume, interpreting it in terms of the specific job. And its strong framing at beginning and end help the reader to understand exactly what's covered. 

Will this letter of application get you the job? I can't say. But I can say that if you follow these steps, you'll at least generate a solid link between their needs and your skills. Good luck!


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Tks very much for your post.

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Unknown said...
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Louise J. Smith said...
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