Writing Dynamic Cover Letters

Female hands typing on laptop keyboard

As I read a recent Writing Center blog post by Amber Cook about engaging your audience through “reading the room,” I thought about making the shift from writing academic papers to writing a one-page cover letter that engages your audience ― the hiring manager.
Start by putting yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager

Your goal as the hiring manager is to find the strongest candidate with the best skills, abilities, talent, and personality to solve specific problems. To fill an open position, you have about 50 applications to go through. With only about 15 seconds to glance at each resume and cover letter, you quickly search for key qualifications. It is a process of elimination.

From the 50 applications, you determine that 25 are qualified, but you are only going to invite six candidates for an interview. How do you narrow your pool down to six?

You are tired of seeing generic cover letters with over-used phrases such as “hard worker,” “proven ability,” “team player,”  “excellent communication skills,” and “track record of success” with no evidence of why these statements are true, so you eliminate those applications. You are also tired of reading unorganized paragraphs and seeing spelling and grammatical errors, so applications with those are out.

You are finally down to six candidates to invite for an interview. How did these six candidates craft their cover letters to get your attention?

Successful candidates followed these strategies:

  1.   Construct the cover letter as a marketing document tailored to the job description and qualifications. If the qualifications include excellent communication skills, give an example of your excellent communication skills such as, “I rewrote the safety procedures manual and included a hands-on training component for all new hires. The improvements led to a 30% reduction in accidents over a six-month period.”
  1.  Showcase unique skills, abilities, enthusiasm, and education. Don’t only say, “I am a motivated professional.” Almost everyone can say that. Instead, describe what motivates and excites you–for example, “My experience working with individuals with HIV motivated me to pursue my degree in public health so I can contribute to the prevention of HIV.”
  1.   Paint a picture; tell a concise story with examples about who you are as a professional and your accomplishments. Use strong results-oriented language.  For example, “In my current role as an administrative assistant, I led a team to streamline the process for tracking employee hours. The new process reduced the tracking time from 40 hours per month to 30 hours. Our results inspired other departments to make similar changes.”
  1.   Organize your one-page letter with an introduction, a body, and a closing.
  1.   Use the language of your profession and maintain a professional tone.

First impressions are important. A well-written cover letter will showcase your communication skills, professionalism, and accomplishments and will open doors to valuable career opportunities.

For more information on writing cover letters, check out the Career Services Center video and resources below:

Video: Marketing Your Qualifications Through Resumes and Cover Letters–Presentation slides, handout, and transcript

Optimal Resume system sample cover letters and templates

Tips on tailoring your cover letter

Writing Center resources:
WriteCast podcast episode on “How Academic Writing Helps You Beyond Academia” and Amber Cook’s post on reading the room.
A version of this post also appeared on the Writing Center Blog.

Denise Pranke, Career Services Advisor
Denise Pranke