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Careers Café

The cover letter: getting started


When you get right down to it, the cover letter is not much different from any other piece of persuasive writing. In other words, it’s really tough to edit when it’s still a blank screen, and it’s almost as tough to get a draft started. Here are some suggestions for going from writer’s block to effective cover letter.

  1. List everything you can think of that you’d look for if you were hiring a candidate for the role. What skills, areas of knowledge, relationships, attitudes and qualifications would you ideally like them to have? Star any listed items that appear to have a direct connection to what the organization as a whole aims to accomplish. Star any items listed that you have to some degree, even if you think your version isn’t good enough.
  1. If you don’t have any of the items on the list, make a list of what you already have to offer for this particular role. If you can come up with a list that seems compelling, skip ahead to the next paragraph. If not, it may be time to step back from producing a draft, and to go for informational interviewing instead – what do people in the field say is needed, and what options do they see for someone like you to get your feet wet?
  1. But let’s assume you have a list. Starting with starred items, briefly note experiences you have that could serve as evidence that you possess those qualities. Add another star to any item for which your experience is recent and obviously relevant.
  1. Look at your items with the most stars. Which two to three items speak to you the most? Are they the same ones you think would speak to an employer? Are they the same ones you have recent or obviously relevant experience in?
  1. Go ahead and write a paragraph about each quality, knowing that you’ll pare it down once you’ve had a chance to reflect.
  1. Add a brief introduction and conclusion. Use the reader’s time wisely in the introduction: if your key strengths for a job are the fact that you’ve coordinated large and small research projects with Canadian and international teams, and that your research has resulted in patents, go ahead and say that, rather than saying “My skills and experience make me an ideal candidate for the job.” The same applies for the conclusion. Keep it brief and appreciative, and if you intend to follow up after applying, say when you will.

You might be pleased with the draft as is. Please, please set it aside for a while, reread it, and get someone else to read it, too. On the other hand, you might experience what many do when reading a first draft: a deep and nearly irresistible urge to throw your computer off a mountaintop. My next post will be on editing your cover letter.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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