By Brenda Bernstein
The content of most cover letters that come across my desk, both at the University of Wisconsin Law School and in my business, are bland and unexciting. They sound like everyone else’s letters. I call them gray. And gray doesn’t stand out. It just blends into the background.
A Little Gray is Okay
A bit of basic information is necessary in the first paragraph. You need to communicate what job you’re applying for and where you found out about it. But if you can “wow” your reader in the first paragraph, you are well on your way! Impress them with the most important and relevant qualities you have to offer, and make it clear you know you will fill an important need of the company.
Time for a Paint Job
The middle paragraph or two is where you have a chance to show your true colors.
The “gray” cover letters I tend to see look something like this:
“I have spent the last ten years gaining experience in X. At job A, I did B, where I gained experience in C. At job D, I did E, and gained experience doing F. At job G, I did H, and learned J. I therefore feel that I would be an asset to your company.”
I hope you agree with me that it’s time for a makeover!
Painting Your Passion
Stop blending into the background! The cover letter is your opportunity to paint yourself in bright, eye-catching colors — as someone who would bring personality and flair to a position, or true problem solving or negotiating skills, or, at the very least, some passion.
How do you do that? Tell a story that shows them who you are.
If I were writing a cover letter, for instance, I might talk about how I won the trust of a contract manager who had been ready to pull a contract from my organization. One of my clients wrote about how he successfully negotiated a conflict at work and obtained payment from a customer who was refusing to pay. Another wrote about his quest for the perfect problem to solve.
These stories will catch an employer’s eye and paint a picture of a real person, with experience and attributes that reach beyond a list of resume bullets.
Take My Advice!
I’d like to share with you the following letter, which I received from a student at the University of Wisconsin:
Thanks for our talk earlier today. I appreciated your straightforward honesty. I felt like a naive kid who was suddenly given a cover letter awakening.
Now, I took your advice withOUT a grain of salt. I took it straight and changed most everything. I am ashamed to call the last documents I sent you “cover letters.” I wouldn’t have wanted to interview me. Sad. In these new cover letters, every sentence gives information that cannot be quite gathered from my resume. I really tried to pour some personality and passion into these and keep the reader’s attention. I can actually be proud of these letters.
This student says it well. Give them new information, NOT a regurgitation of your resume. Pour in some personality (purple?), passion (red?) Throw in some anecdotes (green?) And you too will be able to say you are proud of your cover letters.You’ll be a lot more likely to get that interview, where you really get to show them who you are.