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Careers Café

The better letter


My last post was on getting from blank screen to a draft of a cover letter, ideally without testing your computer’s aerodynamics. This post offers a few quick editing options to keep in your back pocket.

First, have a look at the content. Have you picked the two or three most important things about your fit for the role to talk about? These may not be the two or three things that you think are the most important about you in general, but they should be the two or three things that you know will make you good at the work you’re applying for. They’re the things an employer needs to know about you in order to understand that it wouldn’t be such a big risk to hire you – or maybe even that it would be a risk not to interview you.

Look at the evidence that you’ve used to support those points. Is it the most relevant and most recent that you could draw on? Lead with the good stuff. And give the good stuff room. Describe the scope of it, so that the accomplishment is clear. If you created a new safety protocol for your lab, don’t just say you “contributed to lab safety” – say you introduced a new safety protocol! This might make you feel like you’re bragging, but accuracy and bragging rarely inhabit the same space. This tends to be a real stumbling block, so edit for scope at least twice. Yep – go back to those newly fleshed out descriptions of your experiences, and think of your most amazing relevant accomplishment. Why is it amazing? Put yourself through the painful process of writing a sentence starting with, “This is amazing because…” Then cross out those first four words.

Check to make sure that you aren’t burying the meaning or leaving it up to the employer to draw conclusions that they may or may not reach if the point is implied. Read each paragraph and ask yourself what the main point is that you want an employer to understand about you. Go ahead and add a sentence at the end of each body paragraph that starts, “I want you to understand that…” Then cross out those first six words.

You’re done the tough part. Try a few ways of making the letter more readable (though you’ve already done a big part of that by making the purpose of your content clear). If you have three or more consecutive sentences that start with “I,” break them up. If you’ve tortured syntax to avoid starting any sentences with “I,” go ahead and replace the most awkward sentences with something more straightforward (even if it starts with “I”). If your letter seems dry and impersonal to you, look for long, Latinate words and replace them with shorter Anglo-Saxon ones.

Finally, look for the obvious, forehead slapping, application spiking mistakes. Have you named the organization correctly everywhere you mention it – including in the final paragraph? Have you typed your addressee’s name and your own name (it happens) and contact information correctly? Did you use spellcheck and look for typos spellcheck won’t catch (like “lead” instead of “led” for the past tense)? If ever there was a task to “outsource” to a friend, this is it. Editing your cover letter on your own is a great skill to have, but there’s definitely something to be said for writing and editing great cover letter content on your own, and then trading a nice lunch for copyediting.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Michael Wirtzfeld / September 24, 2015 at 16:56

    This article gives exceptionally clear and pointed advice on how to showcase yourself. A much different offering from most of the material currently around.

    • Liz / September 26, 2015 at 19:17

      Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your comment.

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