Write a killer job application letter

Job letters – or the cover letters attached to your resume or CV – are your first impression with a potential employer. If it isn’t clear, specific, and well-written (read that – no spelling, punctuation, or other sentence-level mistakes), you won’t get a call. In fact, if the letter doesn’t kill the employer’s doubt, she may not even look at your resume.

Here’s how to write a job application letter that will make you competitive, as long as your credentials and experience fit the position and fit what the employer wants.

1. Customize. Research the organization and try to include some statements that you are not only aware of the job details, but also have some knowledge about the company or department. From a friend who has a background in business and is currently working on her Ph.D.: “Know about the company-it’s mission, values, etc. Demonstrate that knowledge in your letter.” For instance, if you do a Google search for the organization (hey, they’re Googling you, why not turn the tables and use this strategy to your advantage?) and discover that they recently won an award for their creative advertising campaign for robotic widgets, then mention that in your letter. But mention this tidbit in a way that connects YOU to THEM. Such as – “I was so impressed with your robotic widget award because this shows innovation and growth; just the sort of company I’m looking to join. My work in LED-driven widgets would expand the capacity of your robotic widgets and may lower the cost to the consumer.” You get the point. Some sections of your letter will be the same, but try to avoid sending a wholesale form letter. Make an effort to customize each letter as much as possible.

2. Embrace brevity. According to one of my colleagues, who is a technical writer for a corporation, “Keep it to no more than one-page, single-spaced. No one needs the Song of Myself.” Now, as I am an academic and know that other academics may be reading this, here is a reminder from one of my academic colleagues related to brevity: “If it’s academic, the 1 page rule doesn’t apply (especially if they’re not asking for a separate teaching / research statement).” This leads me to number three.

3. Know your audience. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you understand the requirements and expectations for your industry or field. If you do not, or if you are trying to enter a field that is new to you, use your network to find someone who can advise you about the specific expectations for letters in THAT industry. Otherwise, your potential reviewer won’t make it past sentence one. Know who you are writing to and what they expect to see – craft your letter accordingly, but even with longer letters, don’t give them “the Song of Myself.” Stick to the facts – credentials, experience, and only the details that are absolutely necessary and relevant to showcasing your readiness for THIS job.

4. Say why. From my tech writer friend, “You have to say why the job is interesting/the opportunity you want, and you have to explain what you’re bringing to the table. List those key strengths specifically.”

5. No mistakes. Correct spelling, punctuation, grammar (think standard American English, formal, error-free construction). Mistakes of this nature can be fatal. Yes, I know you see typos and spelling errors and misplaced commas all the time in newspapers, magazines, and on the web. Doesn’t matter. Your job letter should be PERFECT. Or damn near. You don’t have to be perfect, but this letter does or it may end up in the shredder, along with your chances.

6. Read the job ad and the requirements listed. From a friend working at a university: “My advice would be to make sure you read the position and requirements and talk about how you meet those requirements. It doesn’t have to be a direct statement, for example if the job requires an MS or PhD, in the letter you can say something like “while in graduate school..” You don’t have to write about all the requirements, but the obvious ones for that job should be addressed. It’s nice to see if someone knows what they are getting into and have the background for it.” And from a different colleague at a library: “Read the job ad and address what they are asking for in your letter. How do you fit what they want in degrees, skills, and experience? Address as many as you can or all of the criteria for a better chance at the next step. OH, and do it a one-page letter if at all possible.”

7. Highlight the best bits. From my Ph.D. -seeking friend: “Take the most important (read: impressive and relevant) points from your resume and discuss them in the cover letter. Connect your skills to the company’s needs. Tell them how you will benefit them!!” Instead of narrating your entire resume, focus on the highlights. I just had to write a bullet-point list executive summary for my tenure and promotion binders. My letter is 13 pages. My resume is five pages. And my executive summary is one single page with bullets of the most impressive bits in brief. When you think about what belongs in a job application letter, think about creating your own bullet point highlight list and focus on those facts in the letter.

8. Be a person. From a friend at a college in Atlanta: “Aside from echoing the advice about doing your research on the job and what your employer is about, I think it’s also important to highlight your own personality specifically IN RELATION TO the job. When I write cover letters, I really try to think about myself as a person – not just my skillset, but also my interests, my passions, and how they would fit into what a particular job environment seems to be offering. I think it’s important to show a prospective employer that you’re not just qualified for the job, but also someone who is excited about the prospect of being hired at a particular company/school/whatever. I suppose going along with that would be the advice to carefully consider which jobs you apply for, and only apply for ones where you feel you could really apply yourself and really put your passion into it, but I know that’s not always possible when you need to put food on the table. Practical advice in that department would be to envision how, even if this isn’t your ideal job, you could bring your energy to the table in productive ways, and tell your prospective employer about it.”

9. Say thank you. The final statement of your letter should thank the person for his/her/hir time and consideration. Politeness and courteousness should not be underestimated. Remember that this is the first impression you make with a potential employer. You want the person or hiring committee to come away from your letter feeling confident that you are not only qualified for the position, but also a decent human being with passion and enthusiasm, who understands the job, the company, and the conventions of civil discourse.

*Thank you to my friends and colleagues who responded to my crowdsource request and provided such excellent insights and advice.*


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