Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Best Advice I Ever Received: Cover Letter Edition

Writing twice in a week? (almost) Unprecedented! But, per my commitment to do some personal reflection and some professional development, I come to you now with a topic fresh on my mind: the oft-dreaded cover letter.

(cue dramatic music. and yes, that link goes to exactly where you think it goes to.)

As you may remember, about a year and half ago I wrote one of the most dramatic and, in retrospect, silliest blog posts about how much I hate writing cover letters. But it was true then, and if I were applying for jobs now, it would probably still be true - I really, really don't like writing cover letters. Honestly, the first one is the hardest; by the time I was applying for my umpteenth jobs in May, June, and July, I had my structure and writing process down pat. But those first few were rough, in more ways than one: not only was it difficult to write the letters, but the content was definitely a rough draft.

Thankfully, I had the advice and oversight of wonderful friends, colleagues, and mentors, who gave me great feedback and helped me craft my perfect cover letter. And because I know there are quite a few recent grads out there who are still job searching (which is TOTALLY OKAY, you are NOT ALONE, you will NOT BE UNEMPLOYED, JUST BREATHE!!!), I wanted to pass along some of the best cover letter-writing advice that I got from my colleagues on to you.

It's never too late, my friends, to jazz up your cover letter and really make it sing. (I don't know where those music metaphors came from, but there you go). For me, making my cover letter really shine came down to a few top tips:

1) Make the cover letter sound like you wrote it. Thanks to my dear friend Amma (her blog is linked here, READ IT for reals) for this piece of advice and for a few others on this list... your cover letter needs to sounds like YOU. It is quite possibly the first impression an employer will get of who you are, and so it needs to sound like you! Now, I'm not saying you should go full-on informal prose for this tip ("Yo, whaddup search committee?" is probably a big no-no), but there should definitely be elements of YOU in your cover letter (as opposed to your letter sounding like you ripped it off of a "how to write a cover letter" website or Word template). This may take some tweaking, but eventually you can strike a good balance of professional and personally reflective.
My example: my cover letter always started with a "Hello!" It was friendly, open, and reflects me and my personality.

2) Don't be apologetic for your mad skills. This GORGEOUS piece of advice came down from my awesome theory prof (shoutout to you, Brad Cox) through my friend, colleague, and mentor Mackenzie (mad props for her counsel and advice always). I'm gonna get real here: one of the hardest parts of the job search is seemingly bragging about yourself, or, in more normal terms, "self-promotion." It's something I'm not super comfortable with or something I'm very good at (Amma wrote a great blog post about it earlier this year).  But it's a reality of the job search - you need to try to represent how AMAZING a candidate you are. With that, one of the easiest traps to fall into as you're writing a cover letter are the following phrases (see if you recognize any in your cover letter):
"I have had the opportunity to..."
"I am privileged to..."
"I have the chance to..."
Sound familiar? Here's the truth that Brad and Mackenzie passed on to me: while it may seem in your head that you're being honest (let's get real, some days it's a real privilege and honor to do what we do in student affairs), on paper, it seems like you're apologizing for the skills, experiences, and jobs that you've had and accomplished. As Brad put it, "No. You didn't 'have the chance' to do this, you DID IT. You didn't 'have the opportunity' to do this, YOU DID IT."
When you think about it, that makes sense, huh?
And let's be real in another aspect - writing cover letters can be hard because you can't waste or mince words. So don't waste any words apologizing or downplaying your skills and experience, OWN THEM. You DID plan that event. You DID advise those students. It doesn't sound arrogant, it sounds confident and that you have taken ownership of your abilities!

Last but not least...
3) Tell the employer why you're interested in their position. This is another gem passed on to me through Amma, and I can't tell you how meaningful this piece of advice is. Again, I know that you don't want to mince or waste words in your cover letter. But here's the deal - if you spend the whole cover letter talking about why you're qualified for a position, and never touch on WHY you want that position or WHY you want to work at that institution or in that office, it stops being confident and starts reading like you send the same cover letter to every single employer.
And listen, it's FINE if you use the same basic words and structure for your cover letters; I certainly did! But there should be some unique piece in each of your cover letters that addresses one particular institution alone, and tells them why you're even interested in the position.
I promise you, adding this piece to your cover letter, especially as an entry-level professional, can set you MILES above other candidates. The job search is a two-way recruitment process; not only are you trying to sell yourself to your potential employer, but the employer is also trying to get you interested in working at their institution! So if you don't indicate that there's at least a modicum of interest in an institution or office - it could be in their mission statement, in a specific program or model of operation that they have, in their student population or departmental philosophy, whatever - the employer will wonder why you even want the job in the first place! (And I know that there's more to it than just being employed :). )

So there you have it. Those are the 3 best pieces of advice that I received about cover letter writing for student affairs positions.

Have you received any stellar advice? What would you pass on to new generations of student affairs professionals?

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