Dr. Joseph Barber, Senior Associate Director
While there are certainly specific styles of resumes that reflect different career fields and industries, the cover letter offers a much less structured document, and so often leads to much more confusion. You will no doubt get different advice from everyone you ask about cover letters, and so what I am covering here will certainly to add to this pile. However, having read a frighteningly enormous number of cover letters in my role as a career advisor, my advice comes from experience. This experience can be divided into positive experiences (where the letter was interesting to read), and neutral-to-negative experiences, where the letter was readable, but not very engaging. When you are thinking of your cover letters, the description of “readable” should be the absolute minimum outcome you aim to achieve. Ideally, your letter is interesting, engaging, unique, positive, energetic, and optimistic! That is a lot to achieve in one page!
The first question to ask yourself is what is the purpose of the cover letter? If you have already created a customized resume for the job you are applying to (and this is essential), then you have already highlighted the relevant skills you have (relevant to the job you are applying to). You don’t just want to provide exactly the same information again in your cover letter. Reading the same information twice doesn’t make it any more impactful, but can definitely make it less interesting. Used strategically, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to highlight some of the best parts of your resume in a slightly different way, and with the main focus on explaining why – why you’re the right person for the job; why your experiences are relevant; why you want to use your skills and knowledge in this new role at this new organization. The answers to these questions are not punchy bullet points. Instead they need to be slightly more narrative in their form, and when you start using more narrative formats you can start using story-telling approaches. The benefit of telling stories is that you don’t just have to state empirically what happened (which is what the bullet point in the resume does), you can talk about the broader impacts of the experience, including what you learnt from it, how it made you feel, why you sought it out, what was so surprising about it, why is was challenging, and so on. These will all be unique perspectives to you (which makes them interesting to your reader who won’t have read them in 100 other cover letters), and can help make your letter more energetic by bringing in action-based emotional states. People remember stories more than they remember high-level, generic statements that you have important skills.
Let’s cover the basic structure of a 1-page cover letter that I tend to recommend. We can break it down into three separate sections just to make it easier to think about.
Make a very clear statement of intent. This means avoiding statements such as:
“I am writing to possibly explore the opportunity to be interested in applying for the position of….”
Instead, the most direct approach could be this:
“I am applying for the position of X that was advertised on your website
You can add to this, but be direct. The rest of the first paragraph is taken up with a takeaway conclusion about yourself. Yes, you can start your letter with a conclusion. This means that the reader immediately knows you have something that they want, and makes them more likely to read the rest of the letter to find out more. If you are going to start off with a conclusion, though, make sure that it is relevant to your reader by summarizing what they are likely to care about the most. Take a look at this introduction sentence and see if you can identify what some of the key takeaways are, and thus what some of the job requirements might have been:
“With 8 years of experience managing multi-step data collection projects in academic and industry settings, and an ability to establish and maintain relationships with clients, stakeholders, and international collaborators, I am excited to bring my creativity and structured approach to this Data Analyst role.”
Once you have made a conclusion statement in the introduction (I know, it sounds a little weird!), the main part of the letter is going to be expanding on these themes. You don’t have to go through all of your experiences from the resume, but rather you want to highlight the best parts. This means that everything in your cover letter should be echoed by something in your resume, but not everything in your resume needs to be mentioned in your cover letter. And if you are wondering why you can’t just customize your cover letter and send a standard resume as part of your application, just remember that not everyone will read a cover letter. You want them to, but you cannot make them!
The main body of your letter will contain good illustrations of your relevant skills in action, all wrapped up in a narrative form that includes just a sprinkling of drama. Here is an example of a story without drama:
“As a project leader in the PBG Healthcare Consulting Group, I oversaw a team of 3 students and completed an extensive market analysis of the medical device field to determine the a suitable pricing model for a wearable device developed by the client.”
None of this is bad information; it is just not that engaging. It would be much better as a bullet point in a resume. And if it were already a bullet in the resume, it should not just be repeated in the cover letter. Here is an alternative version with a little more drama.
“When I was serving as a project leader in the student consulting group at Penn, my team had engaged with a client seeking market access information for a new wearable device. We faced two immediate challenges with this work: the device was unique, and there were few products to compare, and this was the first consulting experience for half of our 4-member team. In thinking about the project, I saw their lack of experience as a possible advantage, and took the opportunity to encourage the two new team members to think creatively about comparable products in the medical space and beyond. In two brainstorming sessions, we successfully generated sufficient data for our market analysis. I found it really satisfying to see how well the new members complemented and then learnt from our more practiced approach”
Every piece of work you have done, every project you have been involved with, has presented its own unique challenges. If you can state what these were, and talk about how you have used your skills and abilities to overcome these challenges (relevant skills and abilities for the job you are applying to), then you have the basis for good examples. Concepts that you can touch on in a cover letter that are hard to highlight in a resume include:
- Enjoying or being excited about something
- Learning from an experience that went well or badly
- Combining experiences from two separate roles you have had (that might be separated by years on a resume) to show how you solved a problem
- Explaining why you did something, not just that you did it
Once you have given some examples to illustrate the themes highlighted in the first paragraph, you can move to the final paragraph. Here you might want to answer the questions: why do you want this job? Why do you want to work here? The answer to these questions should flow nicely from the examples you have been giving.
“In all of these projects, I have found myself most engaged when I have been able to bridge disciplines, and draw upon my relationship building skills to establish productive collaborations. I would enjoy the opportunity to liaise between the marketing and science teams in this Project Coordinator role, and this would make exceptional use of my lab research skills and creative mindset. I have spoken with three Penn alumni who work at X, and each has highlighted the mentoring program for junior staff as wonderfully helpful for their own professional development. I have been fortunate to have strong mentors in my current lab, which has certainly helped me progress in my research, and I am very excited about learning from the experience of senior staff in this new role through this mentoring program.”
The more you know about an organization, and the role itself, the easier it will be to come up with an authentic answer to the “why this job?” and “why this company?” questions.
There is no perfect cover letter, and different approaches can be just as effective (after all, different people will read each letter, and they have their own ideas about good and bad letters!). Hopefully, you can take some of these considerations to heart for your next letter, and uncover just a hint of drama as you describe your exceptional skills, knowledge, and experiences!