By Betty Punkert, Employment Facilitator/Computer Instructor
Most of my clients don’t like writing cover letters, and I can’t blame them. After all, how many hundreds of times could YOU read, “I am writing to apply for the posted position…” before you wanted to stab your eyes out with a spoon?
Your first paragraph is critical to getting the reader’s attention, and that’s where this article is focused. Everyone says you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but folks assume that means at the interview. THIS is your first impression, this piece of paper right here.
Human Resources departments don’t hire pieces of paper, they hire people, and people have passions and reasons why they do things. Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, was quoted as saying, “we can change skill levels through training, but we can’t change attitude”.
Let me use an example from my own career. When I applied to be a volunteer at OVRC in October of 2003 (I still have my original letter), the first line said;
Sometimes to get what you want in life you have to go back to the beginning.
This is different. This piques curiosity. This suggests an origin story. The remainder of the first paragraph explains how early in my career I volunteered with an organization called Journeys Adult Education Centre helping people who were working on their GED so I felt like there were some parallels between the two kinds of volunteering.
I like the idea of origin story, because it gives us a context in which to put our application. It gives us a way in which we can integrate our experience into our future with that company, and provides a way to be personable and relevant, and yes, dare I say it, EXCITED about where this might lead. (It also means we can pretend to be Batman or Wonder Woman for a few seconds without all that awkward Spandex.)
When you examine the cover letter in the context of origin story, it suddenly sucks a whole lot less to write, because you have some room to be yourself instead of repeating your resume. Some of my clients struggle with the idea that being personable and professional can exist in the same box. (I’m not suggesting you start cover letters with “hey homie, how’z it goin”, but a little engagement can go a long way in breaking through the clutter.)
So how do you express professional passion? How do you demonstrate a positive attitude?
The first thing I do with clients is get them to push past the “easy” reasons they’re applying: you need a job, the pay is good, you have the skills or education, it’s close to home, it has benefits, it’s a well established company, the hours are good. Get out of your head and start thinking with your heart; ponder why you chose this job ad of all the possible ones. (Don’t tell me you don’t care, because if that were true you would be dealing meth on the street because that pays very well and has flexible hours and is close to home, so we ALL care where we work.)
Begin by thinking about what you know about the company. What’s their reputation like in the community? Do you know someone who works there (or used to)? Is it somewhere that has helped you or your family in the past? Is it a cause near and dear to your heart? What connection can you build here? Ideally, we want some way for us to be able to show them that we understand them and can fit in their culture.
If that doesn’t work for you, then examine your own motivations. Why did you get into this line of work? Why did you take all that training? What is your favorite part of your job? Does this kind of work relate to some part of your life that maybe is NOT in your resume? If you can’t connect with the company in any way that feels authentic, then connect with your own reasons for doing the work. If you can’t do EITHER, maybe you shouldn’t apply.
Authenticity is Key
The key part of this is authenticity. People often think that the process of building connection is “sucking up” and they are very resistant to it, sometimes flat out hostile. I cannot stress this enough, I am NOT asking you to lie. However, if you can’t demonstrate that you’re passionate about working there, why should they be passionate about paying YOU? (Ouch. There’s a thought.)
When you hit the sweet spot or say something that feels different, jot that down. Don’t worry about making great sentences just yet, you can do this out loud and make notes about anything that, as you’re answering the questions, makes you stop and go, “huh, never thought of that”. Sometimes it takes a while to get past all the RIGHT answers and get to one that’s REAL
Once you have an answer or two that is real and feels authentic to you, start constructing some sentences that express that idea in a way that is interesting (some examples):
- As a regular customer who enjoys a variety of food items at A&W, I am interested in joining you team to provide excellent dining experiences to all current and prospective patrons.
- When I offered to teach young people the art of filmmaking, I never expected to be the one who learned the most.
- To be able to help others at their most vulnerable is a privilege and a gift.
- On arriving in Canada nearly ten years ago, one of the very first lessons I learned was the importance of a well fitting and properly insulated door or window in a Canadian winter!
They know you’re writing to apply
Let’s get to something they don’t know, and tell them why you care about doing the work, and why it has to be them. That will get you farther than a hundred generic cover letters will. Remember that there is still a human on the other side of that desk, and that humans like stories. Start strong, and make sure they’re going to keep reading.
If you need some help because you feel like your cover letters aren’t selling you very well, call the Reception desk at 204-989-6503 and book an appointment with one of us. (No Spandex required, I promise.)