What’s the only part of the job search people hate more than networking?
We already get the heebie-jeebies talking about ourselves, and now we have to spend an entire page writing about ourselves too? Yuch.
What’s more frustrating is that cover letters don’t even get you the job; they mostly keep you from getting crossed off the list of candidates while you’re landing the job through networking. But when an application calls for a cover letter, you need one, and it has to be strong.
Most candidates make two mistakes when writing cover letters. First, they spend too much time dumping all their work experience into the letter (making it an unnavigable stream of content). And second, they then spend too little time tailoring the letter to the specific opportunity (let’s be honest -- we’ve all quickly replaced the company name on a generic letter...). Sadly, both mistakes prevent you from making a clear and compelling presentation to your prospective employer.
This is why I teach my clients the template for writing dynamite cover letters in 20 minutes.
The secret to this template is that just like any interview question, the question you’re really responding to when writing a cover letter is “Why should I hire you?”
Your prospective employer doesn’t want your life story or a narrative recap of your resume. They want the top 2-3 reasons (max!), with supporting evidence, that you’re the best fit for the role. So why not just give it to them straight?
Keep reading for the step by step 20-minute process, or zip to the bottom of this article for the full plug-and-play template.
Step 1 (5 minutes): Ask yourself why they should hire you
Before writing a single word on the page, take five minutes to do three things:
- Read the company’s About page on their website.
- Read the job description.
- Ask yourself, “Based on the company’s overall goals (the About page), and specific needs (the job description), what are the top 2-3 reasons they should hire me?”
The reasons should be customized, but they likely include: your education and experience that position you to be a high performer in this specific role; your personal approach that positions you to be a strong or elevating fit for this team; your passion for this specific type of work; your admiration of this organization’s particular product, service or mission. Unless you have a burning third reason, stick with two -- always keep your content to the shortest amount of space for the best possible content if you want to leave people feeling excited.
Step 2 (5 minutes): Write your Introduction
Make it a short and sweet summary of your letter, no need to be fancy --
- Your purpose: I am a [brief description of your professional headline or educational credentials] writing to apply for [XX] position at [company].
- Your thesis statement and points you’ll use to prove it: Given [reason 1, reason 2, and reason 3 if necessary], I believe I would be a strong addition to your team.
- Your status and intention: [After speaking with XX about your organization/As I prepare to graduate/After learning about your organization’s XX], I can think of no better opportunity to contribute my skills and passion.
Remember, this isn’t about why you want the job, it’s about what you can offer them -- that’s why they’ll want to hire you. Using the word “contribute” signals you’re a team player focused on what’s best for the organization rather than yourself.
Bonus tip: Always attempt to have an informational interview with someone at the organization before submitting your formal application; mentioning an employee in your Introduction shows your commitment and makes the hiring manager more likely to give your cover letter an actual read (and check in with the person who interviewed you).
Step 3 (3 minutes): Craft strong topic sentences for your Proof Paragraphs
You’ll write one brief paragraph for each of the top 2-3 reasons they should want to hire you.
Resist the urge to dive chronologically into your experiences -- instead, use your topic sentence to make a point that you can prove and they’ll be likely to remember. Strong topic sentences often start with identity or summary statements like:
- I have always…
- I have spent...
- I am...
- I believe...
Memorable examples include:
- I have always believed in the power of storytelling to make a tangible impact in our communities.
- I have spent the past seven years developing my expertise in special education instruction.
- Based on my twenty years of experience in pharmaceutical regulatory issues, I am uniquely positioned to help your company navigate current market pressures.
- I believe that compassionate, results-oriented management helps employees and companies achieve their highest potential.
Keep in mind, certain industries and organizations can expect more formal writing. Look back to the organization’s About page or their Glassdoor profile to gauge the appropriate tone and word choice for your letter -- even better, use your informational interview to learn what the organization is looking for.
Step 4 (5 minutes): Fill in the blanks
Now that you have 2-3 topic sentences for your Proof Paragraphs, you can easily fill in the most relevant pieces of your experience (and any stellar examples) that prove your points.
For example, Stephanie recently received her Master’s degree in Special Education, and was applying for a full-time teaching position. She gave me permission to show you her full cover letter here, but take a look at how she filled in the blanks:
- Topic sentence: I have spent the past seven years developing my expertise in special education instruction.
- Proof: Through my undergraduate and master’s coursework, I gained a broad understanding of early childhood development, advanced practices for children with disabilities, behavioral assessments and instructional methods. Through full-time internships at three different elementary schools, I deepened my skills in classroom leadership, IEP creation, and emergency situation resolution.
- Conclusion: I know what it takes to create supportive and productive learning environments for children with disabilities, and I look forward to making this happen as a full-time teacher.
As you can see, Stephanie also went the extra mile to sum up her paragraph with a conclusion statement that reiterates why she would be a great fit for the position.
Step 5 (1 minute): Wrap up with the briefest Conclusion possible
All you need is:
Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to interview for this position at your earliest convenience.
Sign off with a “Sincerely” and you’re done. You've already made your point clear in the above paragraphs, and in today’s online application process that requires you to upload all needed documentation, you don’t need to mention in your cover letter that you’ve attached your CV or references. Remember, keep the words on your page to a minimum.
Step 6 (1 minute): Proofread, please proofread!
This should go without saying, but every cover letter must be a picture-perfect example of your professionalism. This means no typos, grammatical mistakes, or formatting issues. This means saving your letter as a PDF, not a Word document, so it isn’t spoiled with red and green squiggles.
Is this really worth 20 minutes?
One of my favorite Tim Ferriss quotes is “Even if this fails, what other benefits can I derive from it?” The magic of this template is that it also prepares you for the interview.
What you have in your letter is a stellar response to the always-asked question “Why are you interested in this position?” By going through this process, you can now state clearly and succinctly the 2-3 reasons why you are the perfect fit for this role.
Even if you’re interviewing for a similar role at a different company, you’ve already done the hard work of asking yourself what positions you to succeed in this role and this industry. The content becomes your persuasive professional narrative that you’ll use over and over again.
Before closing, I should mention that I have seen seriously strong cover letters that get creative by including pictures or pledges or unique personal touches. This is particularly effective when crafting outreach emails to prospective employers you’re dying to work for, but it also requires more finesse, time, and risk. We’ll cover this in a future installment, but in the meantime, rest assured that this is the strongest “bang for your 20-minute buck” option.