As students have been plugging away at internship packets and job applications, one of the hardest things they’ve had to face is how best to write a cover letter. Of the many requests I get each year, “How do I write a cover letter?” is among the top three when it comes to trying to get hired.
Andrew Seaman of LinkedIn (who was also nice enough to pony up some thoughts for the reporting book) recently published a piece for a more general audience that asked the question, “Should you include a cover letter?” He makes some great points, including the one that people seeking a job need to tattoo to a body part they look at a lot: If someone asks for something in a job ad, GIVE IT TO THEM.
(I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the hiring end of a situation in which we asked for something simple three references, and instead I get somewhere between 0-2 or 4-383 references. And these are people with doctorates who want to teach the next generation of critical thinkers and investigative journalists… Good grief.)
I’ve often told students I never met anyone who got a job solely on the merit of their cover letter, but I have met plenty of folks who have been tossed aside because of a lousy one. Even in today’s day and age of digital media, while a cover letter might seem as quaint as a horse and buggy ride to you, it might be a big deal the people you hope will hire you.
To that end, let’s walk through what I consider to be a pretty decent approach that has done at least some good to the students who swear by this process:
OPEN WITH A CONNECTION:
In advertising we talk about engaging an audience to get their attention. In opinion writing, we talk about the need to stimulate interest to hold on to a browsing reader. In all forms of media, we talk about the importance of connecting with the audience. That’s what we want to do right off the blocks with the opening paragraph: Grab the reader by the eyeballs and make a connection.
There are three good ways to connect with people in a situation like this:
- Direct connection
- Indirect connection
- Tangential connection
A direct connection is the best of the bunch and is part of why we all consider networking to be valuable. If you went to a journalism conference and met a recruiter for the Johnson Journal, she might say, “Hey, we have an internship this summer that you might want to consider.” That connection can be helpful in pulling you to the top of the stack, if she remembers you. That’s why you want to start with something like, “It was great to meet you this fall at the ABC Media conference, where we talked about potential internship opportunities. Given what you told me there, I was excited to see you had this internship available and I couldn’t wait to apply.”
An indirect connection tends to be the most common ones we have and usually the ones we tend not to exploit well enough. I’m guessing that any professor in your field gets a goodly number of emails or messages from former students who are now looking to hire an intern or a starting-level employee. The former student trusts the professor and if the professor trusts you, that’s a great “in” you need to tap: “Professor Smith said you were looking for a hard worker to fill your internship position this summer, and he recommended that I send you my résumé.”
A tangential connection is the weakest, but it’s at least showing some level of effort. If you lack any specific “in” with a potential employer, consider telling the employer where you found their advertisement and why you felt compelled to apply for the opening. You could also look for a way to tie your interests to their needs. In doing this you could mention how you covered specific things such as crime or sports and that is what drew you to the company’s open position for a crime reporter or a sports reporter. Look for a way to reach out and explain to the person reviewing résumés, “Hey, I’m interested in you for a good reason!”
PAIR YOUR “HAVES” WITH THEIR “WANTS”
In college, I found myself getting screwed a lot on essay tests because I would “fail to answer the entire question” in my answer. What I realized after getting that scrawled across more than a few blue book tests was that I’d get really into the weeds on one or two parts of the test and manage to skip some mundane element that cost me points.
To prevent this from happening again, I would bring a highlighter into the test and literally go through and highlight every verb and subsequent clause on the test question. When I would answer each one, I’d check it off in pen. It seemed somewhat reductive and maybe even childlike, but then again, so were some of my gen ed courses.
The technique ended up serving me well in developing cover letters over the years because I realized that everyone was writing the same cover letter, in which they just repeated their resume in essay format for every job opening out there. I had accidentally used this method to stumble on the idea that Tim Stephens would explain to me years later: “I don’t care what you have done. I care what you can do for me.”
To make the letters work better for me, I would print out a copy of the job description and start highlighting those verbs again, looking at what these people “wanted” and picking out the ones that I wanted to cover in my letter:
- Work under deadline pressure
- Write clean copy
- Demonstrate proficiency in social media
Then I’d start working on paragraphs that didn’t repeat my resume, but connected my experiences to their requirements in the form of neat little pairs:
“You noted in your position description that you need someone who works well under deadline pressure. As a news reporter at the Campus Crier, I often found myself working on tight deadlines including one case where I got a tip about the university’s president resigning. In less than two hours, I managed to get the story confirmed and written. Even better, I scooped the local paper.”
Not every need will attach itself to one of your great adventures in media, but you should look for those opportunities to show people what you did and how it can be of benefit to them.
At this point, I usually have a student ask, “Wait, you mean I need to write a different cover letter for each job I want? That’s a lot of work!”
True, but consider the following things:
TWEAKING, NOT REBUILDING: You are likely going to be applying for more than one job at a time, but I’m guessing that you’ll be applying in generally the same area, so there will be some kinds of overlap among the job requirements. It’s not like one thing you’ll be looking for will require experience covering criminal justice and the other will require six months as a certified fry cook. It’s more tweaking than rewriting from scratch.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY: Exactly how many job applications are you sending out at one point in time that would make this an arduous task? If you’re literally just throwing a resume at everything that pops up on LinkedIn one day, you might really want to reconsider your application strategy. Also, I’m not sure that your patented “I’m a hard worker line” is going to resonate in a letter that you were literally too lazy to change in order to make it unique to a particular job.
THAT SPECIAL FEELING: You should actually WANT the job you’re going to apply for, which means you’ll want to take the time to make these people feel like you WANT the job. Treating each one of these things like it’s at least a little special will go a long way and show that you actually aren’t just machine-gunning applications out there like Rambo trying to take out an entire platoon.
Think about it this way: Did you ever get or give a “prom-posal?” I had never heard of these things before I had a kid who was in high school and got one. The idea is to make some sort of public showing of your interest in a significant other in hopes of getting that person to go with you to a school dance or other event. (I know. I make it sound so hot…)
If you’re old like me and don’t know what this is, here’s a compilation of ones that apparently worked:
(I prefer these when things went wrong, but hey, I covered the crime beat most of my life. I’m a huge fan of entropy…)
In the ones that worked, it was pitched to one person, with a clear connection to that person, in a very personal way. (The baseball player and the “strike out” theme was nice, as was the dog thing, I must say…)
Now imagine instead if it was just some random dude in school running up to every girl he saw in the hall with a sign that just said, “PROM? yes or no!” Exactly how far do you think that “prom-posal” was going to get? At best, he’s going alone to prom. At worst, he’s now on a registry of some kind.
The point is, you want the letter to work. Doing it faster just to get it done, showing no sense that you value the places to which you are applying and not caring about the results will likely land you in the reject pile.
THE MONEY PARAGRAPH:
After you outline your skills and traits but before you thank the person for considering your application sits the most important couple of sentences in your letter: the money paragraph. At this point, you should have made a good impression and have the person on the other end of the letter thinking that you might be a good fit. It is right here that you want to seal the deal and give the employer something to remember.
Each of us has that “one thing” that we think we’re better at that most of the rest of the people in our field. We pride ourselves on our ability to work through problems, to constantly look for positives in every situation or to smooth over personnel concerns. Whatever that “one thing” is for you, hit it here with some emphasis. The goal is to say to an employer that if she is looking through your application and Candidate X’s application and everything is completely equal to this point, here’s the big reason why you should get the job over that other person:
“Above all else, I constantly look for new ways to reach the audience. I was one of the first reporters on our staff to integrate digital tools like TikTok and Instagram into my work. I knew this was how most people in our audience got the news and now everyone else at our publication uses these tools as well. I will always look for the next best way to connect with the readers and viewers and I think this approach could really boost readership for your organization.”
Finish the letter with a standard closing paragraph, thanking them for their consideration, providing contact information once again (hey, if they’re interested, let’s not waste any time) and signing off.
A nice personal touch is to build a signature into the file. Take a piece of paper and practice your signature until you’re happy with it. Then, get a big blue Sharpie and sign it on a clean sheet of paper. Scan it in (or shoot it if you have the skills) and save it as an image file. You can always embed that into the end of the file in the place of a hand-written signature for digital applications, without losing that nice touch a personal signature provides.
Check it over one more time for spelling and grammar errors. (Always check the name of the person to whom you are sending it, because nothing says, “I’m your best candidate” like misspelling a name right off the bat.) Then, send it off and hope for the best.