When I first moved to New York, I was a cover letter machine. I wrote to every sir or madam with a job opening. I expressed my interest in positions for which I had none. I waxed rhapsodic about companies I’d never heard of. My response rate? A whopping zero percent.
Around the 10th unanswered application, the negative chatter started to kick in—and it sounded suspiciously like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
Go home, Lisa, said the small, icy voice in my head. You’re just not cut out for this. Also, you have no sense of style. At my lowest point, while surfing job boards at Starbucks, I actually locked myself in the bathroom and cried.
Here’s the good thing about rock bottom: Nothing is off-limits. I gave myself permission to try any and all tactics in the cover letter playbook, from throwing in a Beyoncé GIF to pretending the hiring manager and I were good friends. Finally, 103 cover letters later, I landed on one that worked.
Within an hour, I had an interview request waiting in my inbox—and then another, and another. Soon, my response rate skyrocketed from 0 to 55%, and I was scheduling interviews with Vogue, InStyle, and Rolling Stone into my calendar. In other words, this letter—fueled by an old copywriting framework called problem-agitate-solve—is powerful stuff.
Here’s how this three-part formula (a.k.a., my secret sauce) works:
1. Identify the Problem
55% of hiring managers don’t read cover letters. Why should they, when we write like modern-day Oliver Twists, begging them to please, sir, give us the job?
News flash: The hiring manager isn’t here to make your dreams come true. They’re in it for themselves. OK, that’s harsh, but the truth is that they’re looking for an awesome candidate to come in and do a kick-ass job that’ll help them run their department (or company) more efficiently and successfully. That’s why, when a friend tipped me off to an opening at the fashion magazine I’d read religiously since middle school, I resisted the urge to gush—and opened with this one-liner instead:
“As a veteran of Details.com and Vs. Magazine, I’ve seen how crazy fashion month can get.”
This sentence, though just 16 words long, tells the hiring manager two things: I understand the problem you’re trying to solve, and I’ve been there. The trick? Zeroing in on the right problem—because it’s almost never spelled out for you in the job description.
When you’re writing your own cover letter, start with the list of responsibilities and ask yourself, Why? Why is this task important to this company? Keep digging until you can’t go any further. The true need is usually the one at the end of a chain of whys.
2. Agitate the Problem
Now that you’ve identified the problem, here comes the fun part.
Because no hiring manager has ever said, “I just love paying employees thousands of dollars every year!” your challenge now is to remind him or her how painful the problem is, and by default, how valuable a solution could be. Don’t be afraid to twist the knife a bit, like I did in my second paragraph:
If you’re looking for someone who can not only keep up, but also deliver that SEO-friendly, 75-page street style slideshow five minutes ago…
Notice I didn’t say, “If you’re looking for someone who can turn around projects quickly…” I was specific, and I made sure to use an example I knew would resonate with a stressed-out web editor.
And if you’re new to the industry or the role? Just ask. This is exactly what informational interviews are for. Find someone on the team you’re applying to, let your interviewer do most of the talking, and pay close attention to how he or she discusses the company’s challenges.
In conversation, we instinctively trust people who mirror our body language. On your application, you won’t get the chance—but you can do the next best thing: Pick up on your interviewer’s subtle cues and phrases and then mirror their speaking language in your cover letter.
3. Offer the Solution
By this point, you’ve got the hiring manager squirming at the table. Now, deliver the solution. Hint: It’s you.
Think about what makes you incredibly qualified to solve the problem. In my case, I knew I wanted the hiring manager to think of me and say, “Lisa? Oh, she’s the one who knows our backend systems and seems like a real go-getter.”
Here’s how I made it happen:
“Since TeamSite and I are old friends, I’ll be able to hit the ground running—and whether it’s churning out a dozen blog posts per day or refreshing the homepage with breaking fashion month news, I’ve done it all. Most importantly, you’ll never hear me say, “That’s not my job!”
4. Close With Confidence
After all that work, you aren’t going to dash off a breathless “Hope to hear from you soon!” right? Instead, seal the deal with a sentence that displays confidence, competence, and a genuine interest in the company:
“I'd love to learn more about your production needs and how I can help!”
Boom. That’s it.
Like its contrarian sibling, the pain letter, this cover letter takes some guts to send. I get it—the first time I fired it off, I was so terrified my boyfriend had to hit the enter button for me.
Look at it this way, though: Everyone else will compete on how many buzzwords they can stuff in a sentence. They’ll swear up and down how passionate they are and how hard they work. But you? With this cover letter formula, you’ve already proved it.
You, my friend, play a different game.