Uncovering the secrets of the cover letter

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.

First paragraph/opening

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.”

Middle paragraphs

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
  • Passion

Final paragraph

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!

Career mythbusting, and interesting facts about vegetables and Vulcans

Dr. Joseph Barber

As we conclude this academic year, let me take this opportunity to clarify some common areas of career confusion relating to the job search. But first, some interesting facts to start us off. Did you know that May is the only month that spells a vegetable backwards? I was going to say that May is also the only month that spells another actual word backwards, but then we would be forgetting about April. “What is a Lirpa?” you might ask yourself. Go ahead, look it up, and you will be ready to impress the next Trekkie you meet at a party. OK, and now onto some areas of career confusion and other assorted myths.

  • Professional recruiters only spend an average of 8 seconds reading your resume

I am sure some data have been collected on this, but I am also positive that these data are unlikely to be representative of all industries, and all jobs, and all people. It is the kind of statement that attracts people’s attention, though, and there is some element of truth to this. The reality is that different people will read your application materials at different points along the process, and each person will be looking for something specific from your document. But it is true, that all of these people have busy jobs, lots to do, and so just can’t spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out if your experiences as described might be a good fit for a position. Moreover, the first person who reads your application might not be a person at all. More and more companies are using application tracking systems and software to compare keywords from resumes against keywords from the job descriptions. In a mere fraction of a second, these systems can give a score that addresses how many keywords, skills, and concepts from the job ad are covered in your materials. If there is too low a match rate, then a real person is probably never going to read your materials at all. Your job in your resume is to demonstrate to a very specific population of people at one organization interested in filling one particular role that you have something of value to bring to that specific role. So yes, you need a tailored and customized resume for each job application so that in the short time that someone does spend reading the document, that it really addresses their needs. This leads us to myth #2.

  • But I thought only cover letters need to be customized for each separate job

Cover letters also need to be customized. If you only customize your cover letter, and no-one reads it, then have you actually customized anything at all? That’s a philosophical question for you. Not everyone will read a cover letter. Some application tracking systems won’t scan cover letters in their analysis. Now, don’t get me wrong, you want people to read your cover letter. You want them to read both the letter and the resume. Each document provides something rather different. The resume focuses on relevant skills for the job, and presents them as short, punchy, bullets that illustrate the relevant, takeaway skills in action, provide enough context to make the skills make sense, and ideally point to outcomes that show how effective the skills are. The cover letter takes the most relevant of these and tells more narrative stories that have some aspect of humanity integrated within. So, in a resume you might state:

Created a new experimental protocol in partnership with a bioengineer from a separate lab that resulted in a run time that halved the experimental timeline, and produced sufficient data for a publication now in press.

In a cover letter, you might tell the story behind this bullet point experience, structuring your story using the STAR format (situation, task/challenge, action, result):

In my last experiment, I was trying to get data from my cell-lines using the standard lab protocols, but realized that there wouldn’t be enough time to complete it before my funding ran out. I tried all sorts of approached before I reached out to a bioengineer from another lab at Penn who I had heard give a talk about a new filtration technique she was developing for her research. I was able to collaborate with her to modify her approach to my cell-lines, and actually double the experimental yield. It was really exciting to try an untried, innovative approach, and I really enjoyed the collaboration I established. My advisor has now started using our modified protocol on his own research, and we now have a paper in press. I am looking forward to bringing my creative problem solving to this new role, as I know this quick thinking is essential in a lean start-up environment.

Words such as “enjoy” or “excited by” are hard to use in a resume, but are more easily integrated into the cover letter. A one-page cover letter that has a couple of interesting and unique stories that contain just the right amount of drama and emotion will always be engaging to the reader.

  • You will never get a job by applying online – you have to network to get a job

Well…, networking will absolutely maximize your potential to get a job – and the job you want – but plenty of people I have worked with have received interviews and offers after applying directly to a job posted online. Companies wouldn’t waste their time posting jobs on LinkedIn, Indeed.com, their own websites, or a host of other websites if these were just for show. In fact, in most companies, you do have to apply online to be officially tracked within their applicant tracking system. For most companies, there is a candidate hiring process that they need to follow, and specific steps you and they need to take. Networking helps you along this process, but it doesn’t replace it in most cases. Applying online with a generic resume might not get you through the applicant tracking robots, and a cover letter that doesn’t engage the reader might not get you the interview, but that doesn’t mean that this is the fault of the online application system.

  • If the employer has answered all of the questions you had prepared ahead of time during the interview, it is OK to say that you don’t have any more questions when asked at the end

If time allows, you should always ask questions – always. In every interview that I have been part of (as an interviewer), the people who don’t ask any questions at the end, or who only ask one, or who ask a weak question, are always seen as least favourable candidates at the end of the process. Saying that you don’t have any questions basically tells the interviewer that you are disinterested. If you are applying for a new job, you can’t possible know everything there is to know about it, and so take every opportunity to ask smart, engaging questions about the specific role that you are interviewing for. Here are a few examples:

  1. Over the first 3-6 months, what will be the main priorities for the person in this role?
  2. How does this role fit into the team structure in this office – if I were in this role, would I be working with the same team over time, or on different teams for each project?
  3. What types of professional training opportunities are available for the person in this role?
  4. What are some of the most exciting challenges that the person in this role might face in this work?
  • You should only go to Career Services if you have a specific question, and only if you are an undergraduate

No, you can come at any time, and we will help you identify some of the questions you should be asking if you are having a hard time figuring out what they are. Career Services is also divided into teams, and you will find career advisors who work specifically with undergraduates, and some who only work with graduate students and postdocs. So, if you didn’t take the opportunity to stop by during Lirpa, we look forward to seeing you later in Yam! We are open all summer long!

Handshaking – a guide to making the right impression

Dr. Joseph Barber

Take a moment to think about your handshake. When was the last time you shook someone’s hand? Why did you do it? Were you standing or sitting? Did the other person have a strong handshake? What impression did they make on you? Now, being very honest, rate your average handshake on a scale of 1-5 on the following criteria:

  • Firmness (with 5 being very firm)
  • Moistness (with 5 being very dry)
  • Confidence (with 5 being very confident)

How did you score? Some of you probably know you have a firm handshake because you have given this a lot of thought, but for those of you who haven’t thought about it, or who generally get creeped out by the prospect of touching another person dirty, sweaty hands, you might find it much harder to rank yourself across these categories. Now, in terms of moistness, this will generally be dependent on the situation and the environment. A handshake in the middle of summer just before a really important job interview is likely to be the perfect storm of moistness. Nervousness and moistness go hand-in-hand (you see what I did there!). In terms of confidence, this is really a combination of several variables: the confident thrusting forth of your hand to greet someone, the length and firmness of the shake, your body language while giving it, and the way you look into the eyes of your handshaking partner and introduce yourself with a strong tone of voice. Yes, the good, old-fashioned handshake can say a lot about you, and it is critical to get it right in order to make your first impressions count – whether at an interview or just meeting new people at your next conference or as part of your broader networking outreach.

Is a bad handshake such a bad thing? Yes…, and especially when the person whose hand you are shaking has a professionally firm one. A weak handshake automatically sets you apart in their mind, and gives them something negative to associate with you. People make up their minds about a new person they are meeting quickly, and once an initial impression has been made, it can become harder to change this perspective. A weak handshake followed by a great interview is not going to be a disaster, but a weak handshake followed by just a half-decent interview might leave your interviewers seeing your performance in a more negative light. A weak handshake can give people a bias towards seeing other negatives in you. You don’t want that to happen. A strong first impression can help you prevent that.

In the global world of work, it is important to know that different cultures have different ideas about handshakes. If you are an international student in the US, then the firm handshake is something you will need to learn and use, and a firm handshake is appropriate for greeting men and women. A firm handshake communicates a strong, confident personality. Please note, firm does not mean crushing. How firm is firm enough? Well, if you are trying to open a door, you need to grip the door handle firmly enough so that it doesn’t keep slipping out of your hand, right? In fact, you would look fairly foolish trying to open a door with a limp handshake grip. Since door handles are hard metal, there is no benefit to trying to squeeze the life out of them – you’ll just end up hurting yourself. So, the firmness of the grip you use when opening a door might be a good starting point for the firmness of a good handshake. If you still feel confused about the difference between firm and painfully crushing, find a friend or two and practice! Get feedback from them on what is weak, firm, or just too much.

Here is some general advice about implementing a successful handshake:

  • Where possible, stand up to shake hands.
  • If you are already standing and moving towards people, then you can start the handshaking gesture about five feet from your target.
  • Make sure you are facing the person, with good eye contact, and a confident greeting when you reach out – as this will prevent you from standing there with your hand out looking like you are directing traffic while they are still busy talking to someone else.
  • Dry hands are ideal. This means that if you are at a networking event or conference, don’t leave the bathroom until every part of your right hand is totally dry after washing them. Everyone has to pee, and so the likelihood that you will meet someone you wanted to chat with somewhere near the bathroom is actually very high. No matter how many times you swear to your handshaking partner that your hands are wet because you just washed them (not a great first impression to have to make this argument), somewhere deep inside their subconscious they will fear the worst!
  • As you are engaging hands, Keep your thumb pointing up – don’t try to engage with a palm up or palm down approach.
  • Move your hands forward and don’t grip or squeeze until the web of your hand (between the thumb and your first finger) has firmly engaged with the web of your partner’s hand. A strong forward motion helps you to lock your hands together.
  • Don’t bring you hand in from the side as if you are slapping someone on the back – this messes everything up!
  • The shake should last 2-5 seconds, with 1-3 up and downs, giving you enough time to say your name, listen to their name, and then respond back with their name (e.g., “It is great to meet you, Trevor”). Shake from your elbow; you don’t need to engage your shoulder to do any heavy lifting.
  • Maintain eye contact during the shake.
  • Finish one introduction and shake before you move onto the next one in a group setting where you are meeting more than one new person.
  • Shake at the beginning of a social interaction, and shake at the end. Just make sure that the parting shake is much better than the starting shake if you had any issues with the first one.

Your handshake is easy to improve, and with enough focus on the moment in time when you are meeting new people or reconnecting with people you already know, you will be able to make a good impression on people in your professional network.

Giving yourself time to think during a job or internship interview

Dr. Joseph Barber

I have been meeting with several students over the last few days who have been getting ready for different types of job and internship interviews, and so it seems like a good time to revisit this blog post from the archives to share advice on how to deal with tricky interview questions.  

It is always a good idea to think in advance about the types of questions you might be asked in a job interview, and to come up with a plan to be able to answer them effectively. Some questions you know will come up (e.g., Tell me about yourself. Why do you want this position? What do you know about our company? Do you have any questions for us? Read this for more information), and it makes sense to prepare some good answers to these tailored for each interview. However, you cannot prepare for every question that interviewers can ask, and there are always going to be some questions that leave you momentarily speechless as your brain scrambles to understand the question and tries to piece together information to make an adequate answer.

Employer: “If you were a fruit, what kind of fruit would you be?”

Candidate’s brain: A fruit? A fruit? What do you mean a fruit? Why are they interested in fruit? Just pick one, surely it doesn’t matter. Wait, but what is the most confident and skilled fruit? Perhaps they are looking for a certain kind of fruit? Is a tomato actually a fruit? I hate fruit!

Candidate: “Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr……………, apple?”

And it is not just strange questions that can catch people off-guard. Many behavioural-based interview questions start off with the following phrase:

Give me a specific example of a time where you…[showed initiative, took a leadership role, thought quickly on your feet, etc.]

But what happens if you suddenly can’t think of a specific example? With a little time, chances are that you can find something from your past experiences that you can talk about, but how do you give yourself that time. There is nothing wrong with a bit of silence, and it is probably better to be silently thoughtful for a short time than to just say the first things that pops into your head in a rambling, nonsensical way. However, the longer the silence becomes without you saying anything, the more awkward the moment will become – especially if you are on a phone interview and the interviewers cannot see you thinking.

The following responses are not answers to tricky questions (I don’t know what kind of fruit you are), but they can hopefully buy you and your brain some time to come up with an appropriate answer.

That’s a very interesting question – let me think about the best way to answer this for you.
Yes, everyone knows that by “interesting” you actually mean “difficult”, but this response can be helpful to give you some breathing room before you attempt an answer.

So, you are looking for an example of [leadership experiences, team work, etc.]. Well, there are a couple of good ones I can talk about, but I think the one that is the most relevant is…
For many tricky questions, you can repeat the question you have been asked back to the employer in your own words (don’t just repeat the question word for word), and use this time to begin to construct your answer. In this case, by the time you get to the phrase “but I think the one that is most relevant is…” you should have something to say!

You know, I was actually thinking about this question the other day when I was looking at your website/talking with a colleague of mine who works on….
If it is appropriate to the question, a response like this not only buys you some time, but also shows that you have been proactively thinking about this issue or seeking out information – which might be something worth highlighting.

I’m not sure that I have an exact answer to your question, but I can share a related experience that I think gets close to what you are looking for.
It is never a good idea just to say “I don’t know” to any interview question. This approach gives you the opportunity to share something that is just about relevant. You can then finish up by trying to connect what you just talked about with what they are interested. For example, “I haven’t used Access to put together a relational database, but I did do something similar with Excel when I combined two key datasets while I was working as an intern analyst. From my understanding of Access, I could take a very similar approach with the data your organization has and put this together.” If you really don’t have an answer, you might use the “I don’t know, but here is how I would find out” approach instead. The complete strategy is 1) here is what I do know; 2) here is what information I am currently missing; and 3) these are the approaches I would take to get an answer.

Before I answer, can I ask if you’re interested in that issue from a [technical, policy, etc.] perspective or from your [customers’, clients’, students’] point of view? 
Sometimes, the hesitation in answering a question comes from an uncertainty about what the interviewer is actually asking. You want to maximize your chances in an interview by answering the questions that they are actually asking you, not the ones that you think they are asking you. This type of response helps to convey the idea that you are conscious of the variety of perspectives that might exist within an organization. Don’t sound in any way defensive, and make sure that you keep your tone light and positive.

I am wondering if you can just clarify what you mean by….
This is another approach to buying you time and ensuring that you understand the question.

I’ve never been asked that question before; I need a minute to think about it.
This is an honest response, but remember that the phrase “I need a minute” is just a generalization. A minute is a long time to sit in silence, so don’t actually take the whole minute!

Oh my goodness, is that a squirrel eating a banana?
This was a phrase uttered by my friend’s thesis advisor during a meeting where my friend was pouring out his heart about whether he should stay in graduate school or not. In his advisor’s defense, there was actually a squirrel eating a banana. So, this type of response is probably best left to situations where there are actually squirrels eating bananas or similar extreme occurrences. When I interviewed for my postdoc at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the interview room looked out at a gate where the Disney characters gathered before heading out into the park. While it was fairly shocking for me to see a giant Mickey and Pluto walk by every 15 minutes during the interview, this would not have been a good thing to point out to the person who saw this occurrence every day.

Schedule a mock interview at Career Services, and you will feel much more confident going into your next job or internship interview that you can answer the important question you know you will get, and even the hard to answer ones that every-now-and-again you just may get.

Don’t let success be seasonal – make time to celebrate it all year long!

The end of the calendar year often gives us all a little more time to reflect upon what has been happening over the last 12 months. They say that time flies when you are having fun, but in reality it seems to fly by whether fun is had or not. When it comes to self-reflection, it is important to approach this as optimistically as possible. Over the last 12 months, you have likely experienced challenges with your research, with your advisor, with you lab-mates, and with friends and family beyond Penn. These challenging experiences will be easy for you to recall as you think back, but it will be equally important to think about some of the challenges that you overcame too. They may connected to some of the same big ones listed above, but they may be small ones. Perhaps you finally got through to a challenging student in a class where you are a TA. Maybe you learned to use a new feature in a software package that makes it easier to do your research (even if the research itself isn’t giving you the results you hope for). And from a career perspective, you might have learnt about a new career path, made a new contact, or discovered some helpful career-management skills from a webinar or workshop.  

Academia tends to be an environment rich in critical feedback. Grant applications, article submissions, and even discussions with your advisor all give other people the opportunity to critique your research questions and methods, your findings, and more. All this “helpful” feedback can leave you feeling a little worn down after a while. It is always very refreshing to get some positive feedback and positive reinforcement from time-to-time. If you don’t get this from your advisor, then look for other opportunities to hear about what a great job you are doing. Outside of your teaching and research pursuits, look for opportunities to join student/postdoc run groups, and to get in involved in activities that can have tangible benefits to your personal and professional growth. These experiences can build your career readiness skills – sought by employers from diverse career fields – and give you the chance to use the broader range of skills that you have that don’t always get used in your research. 

The other place where you can get positive feedback is from you! Using the Peter Fiske model of professional development (the 80:10:10 rule), you should aim to spend 80% of your active work time (think 9am-5pm, rather than 8am-11pm) doing the best work you can with your research. For 10% of the time you should be focused on your own professional development. This can involve learning new skills, expanding your network, learning about new career options, becoming a better presenter, practicing negotiation, and so on. And the final 10% of the time should be spend telling people what a great job you are doing with all of this. Yes, this sounds strange, but it is always useful to be able to help people to see your value. So, if you get to spend some time with family over the break, don’t get bogged down trying to explain why your research is so complicated and why it is taking so long. Instead, tell people what you have succeeded in doing, and why this is important. Practice the process of helping people to see your achievements. You’ll be doing this in job interviews at some point, and so it is worth practicing this as early on as possible. In fact, you can start right now – write down five successes (big or small) that you have had over the last year, and then find an opportunity to tell different people about them. Hearing yourself talk about your successes is a great way of putting you in a more optimistic mind-set. 

Here are my five successes:

  1. I have successfully adjusted to my new role at Career Services that I started back in January, and I have been enjoying the new focus on strategic program planning, as this aligns nicely with my skills.
  2. I have met with several students who had been given my name by Penn alumni I had met with a couple of years ago. I appreciate that they remembered me, and I am glad that they felt that I had something useful to offer current students!
  3. I finally put art up on my walls in my office. I have plenty of animals featured, including cows, ducks, chickens, dolphins, and fish. Since I have a PhD in animal behaviour, this makes me feel quite at home!
  4. I borrowed the “vision board” approach my wife uses at her work to highlight upcoming goals. Rather than listing tasks, you list the outcome you hope to achieve. There have been several successes so far. I am currently looking at one vision that says “…book proposal submitted”, and I am confident this will happen before the end of the year!
  5. I presented on our PhD externship program at a conference in St. Louis, and successfully managed to squeeze a lot of content and far too many slides into a 5-minute presentation that actually came off rather well – if I do say so myself!