Remember that course you had to take in college? The one in which the professor outlined an “appropriate” way to write a cover letter? Yes, that class. That weekly lecture that taught you how to use perfect sentence structure, one-inch margins (all the way around), and an incredibly stilted tone because all of that was professional. Appropriate. Correct.
OK, good. Now, forget everything you learned there. Or forget what Aunt Mary—the family grammarian—insisted you always do when writing a business letter. Forget the rules for the sake of rules. Because in today’s hiring arena, you’ve got to be memorable. You’ve got to grab hiring managers by the short hairs (alert: I am not speaking in a literal sense) and announce in a New York minute that you’re about to steal their hearts—with both your talent and your personality.
You’ve got to allow yourself to break the proverbial cover letter mold. You’ve got to fire up something that enables the hiring manager to (very) quickly connect the dots between what he or she needs, and what you have to offer. And you need to do it in a way that, right out of the gates, presents you as a talented, genuine, and insanely likable human.
Easy enough, right?
While it’s not flat-out child’s play, it’s entirely doable. And here’s a bit of really good news: Most of your competition is going to fall on their faces with their cover letters. So you have a tremendous opportunity if you play this right.
Here are three ways you can break the so-called rules and make an impact, without alienating or flat-out offending a hiring manager (your goal is come across as smashing, not to look like a someone who’s trying too hard here):
1. Nail the Heck Out of the Lead
My undergraduate degree is in journalism. And there’s one thing all of us journalism students learned that has served me incredibly well throughout my career: You’ve got to nail the lead.
You’ve got to compel readers to enter your story, and then be intrigued enough to keep going. This concept doesn’t just apply to the media. It applies to your cover letter. Guys, the very same people who are sitting down to catch today’s headlines are your future bosses. They’re the hiring managers who are reviewing piles and piles of applications. By and large, this is a dreaded task.
So, it stands to reason that, if you can make their jobs even remotely entertaining and engaging (starting with your captivating lead), they’re going to remember you. And see what you’ve got to offer.
How do you do this? For starters, you begin by making it instantly clear who you are professionally (hint: introduce yourself in a way that aligns with what they’re looking for), and why, specifically, you want this role.
And in any instance when you can drum one up, use a personal anecdote—something that makes it clear right out of the gates why you want to work for that company while, at the same time, presents you as a likable person with a good story.
Here’s an example—say you’re a nonprofit leader who’s applying for a Director of Development role at a charity specializing in fire prevention. Your cover letter could begin something like this:
I have a personal interest in fire prevention that dates back many years. The son of a nurse who worked in a hospital burns unit, I grew up with significant exposure to those impacted by fire. I’d spend hours thinking about my dad’s patients, wishing there were some way to better protect people from fire.
Today, as a fundraising professional and nonprofit leader, I’ve helped many great charities generate hundreds of thousands of dollars to support their causes.
I know how to raise funds and engage supporters. It would be my great honor to bring these talents to The Fire Prevention Institute as your next Director of Development.
You see what happened there? The candidate engages the reader with a personal story that shows why he’s passionate about fire prevention, and then introduces himself as a clear and obvious match. They need a seasoned fundraising professional. He is one.
And then, once you nail the lead, you can launch into the specifics on how your background lines up with what the company’s seeking.
2. Use a Conversational Tone
As you read the example above, did you feel like you were reading a form letter? No, you probably did not. The intro into that cover letter was conversational, right down to the contractions (which, by the way, are totally allowed).
Folks, here’s the thing: The people reading this are, well, people. They get up every morning with bad breath. They like cat videos on YouTube. They shoot the breeze about the football game with their colleagues at lunchtime. All this being the case, it’s perfectly OK to use a conversational (yet still professional) tone in your cover letter. This is actually the perfect place to do so, because the cover letter provides you a terrific platform through which you can begin to introduce your personality (as you outline your skills) to a prospective employer.
Don’t squander it.
Now, I’m not suggesting you go too casual. Not at all. You’ll likely offend or, at the very least, look like you’re trying too hard. But writing in the same style in which you’d talk to the hiring manager? It’s A-OK. Truly, really, entirely A-OK.
3. Make it the Length it Needs to Be
I’m not sure who handed down the official cover letter laws way back when, but someone clearly did. I know this because there’s rarely a week that goes by in which I don’t have to convince some panicked soul there’s no magical, perfect length that’ll guarantee you the interview.
Surely, the ability to be both compelling and succinct is important. You want to honor the time and attention span of those you’re trying to influence. You need to make the words earn their spot on that page. However, no one is going to fall over and die if—as you’re captivating them with your qualifications and personality—you start feeling like it’s running a little long. Likewise, no one will dismiss you if it’s just a few paragraphs.
Rather than focusing on word count, focus on your mission and ask yourself these key questions:
- Am I making it abundantly clear that I have specific reasons why I’m applying for this job? In other words, do I look like I’m passionate and enthusiastic about working here?
- Am I sharing (very quickly) the ways in which I’m a solid match for this job, based on what I know about this position from the job description or information I’ve received from people who work there?
- Am I coming across as a genuine, likable person that they’re going to want to meet, and—hopefully—want on their team?
Formulaic cover letters are a giant waste of valuable real estate. The entire purpose of them is to snag the attention of the reader and convince him or her that you not only have what it takes—but that you’re someone the company’s going to enjoy bringing in and getting to know.
Forget about the laundry list of rules, even if you really adore Aunt Mary.
You got this.