Have you ever read someone’s cover letter and thought, "This is terrific! How did she ever come up with that?" Writing an outstanding letter can be one of a job seeker's most challenging tasks. It takes some writing ability and, most important, a little imagination.
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Testing the Limits for Writing Your Cover Letter
Picture a rubber band lying limp on a table in front of you. As such, the band has no strength. Stretch it even a little, though, and the band seems to come alive with tension. Suddenly it's a useful tool for holding things together or shooting across the room. But stretch it to its farthest point and it feels dangerous, even scary, since you know that at any second the band could break and snap your fingers. (Ouch!) Now that you've experimented with the two extremes (flaccid and precariously tight), imagine pulling the rubber band so that it's just a little less than what you know is its limit. Play with it until you find the perfect compromise—just the right tension and strength for the job without the threat of breaking.
Applied to your cover letter, “tension” is any aspect of your writing style or content that challenges the reader. It could be a serious stand, a humorous approach, use of slang expressions, a thought-provoking statement, or some element that is not what the reader expects. Incorporating tension into your writing is a good way to keep a reader engaged. In your cover letter, the right amount of tension can set you apart from the competition.
Sharpening Your Tools
Obviously, the rubber band is my analogy for your marketing imagination. To develop a dynamite letter, stretch your marketing imagination as far as you can (even to the point where it seems outlandish). Then bring it back to an appropriate point—without losing impact.
One caveat: Please note that I'm talking about stretching your imagination, not stretching the truth about your qualifications! Never lie about anything in your cover letter (or in your resume).
Tell It Like It Is
If you’re curious about what I mean by being "outlandish" with your imagination, here’s an example of the type of brainstorming I'm talking about.
Sally was a new graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in marketing. She wanted a job in the multimedia field and she discovered Pretty Darn Smart, Inc., a company that develops interactive educational software. She had already crafted a terrific resume to go along with her letter. Now let's step into Sally's mind and see how she developed a strategy for her cover letter:
I did my research on Pretty Darn Smart. They're located in Silicon Valley and employ about 50 people, with anticipated growth to 85 before the end of the year. (Boy, I hope I'm one of them!) Their target market is private and public elementary schools throughout the U.S. Now what do you suppose they're looking for in a marketing person? Probably somebody who:
- Is smart and quick with ideas
- Knows a prospective customer when she sees one
- Jumps at opportunities
- Thinks outside the box
- Can write, and, oh yeah…
- Is a good team player!
Gee whiz, there have to be a zillion people who have these talents besides me. How am I going to convince them to hire me?
Got it! I'll use my letter as an example of my marketing abilities (meaning all those things I just mentioned). I'll prove that I'm qualified by what I say and how I say it. Cool!
What's the craziest thing I could say that will get their attention?
Once Sally figured out what her potential boss wanted and how she would present her attributes, she reached for some scratch paper. Here's the outlandish, "for-her-eyes-only" draft she scribbled:
I know you think I'm like all the rest of those dummies in that stack of resumes you got there, but listen—I'm different. I have pizzazz and drive! If you pass up this opportunity, I'll sell my skills to your competition. In other words, put me on your team now or face me later on the opposing team.
So call me soon… or better yet, I'll call you.
Polished Version of the Cover Letter
Now let’s see how Sally developed her finished cover letter. "There, I told 'em," she said to herself as she read the rubber band draft above. "Except I'd never write anything like that. But how about something with the same 'go get 'em’ and ‘I'm worth it’ attitude? After all, isn't that what they want me to do for their product when they hire me? Sure it is!"
Here’s the toned-down but still highly energetic cover letter Sally ultimately sent Pretty Darn Smart. Notice how the wordplay on the company title showcases her spunk.
Like Sally, when writing your first “rubber band” draft, experiment with marketing approaches. You want an approach with punch—one that demonstrates you have the skill and the personality for the job. Let your marketing imagination go wild! Be bold! Allow yourself to be completely candid, writing things frankly without regard to how they'll be interpreted. By doing so, you'll discover what you really have to say instead of what you think you should say.
You’ll be the only one reading this draft, so feel free to make it as casual and even crazy as you want. The important thing is to get your thoughts down on paper. You’ll polish the wording later.
Tighten It Up, but Show Personality
Once you’ve got your approach down in a first draft, work on the finished product, choosing which ideas should appear in the letter and which should be left out. You may need to reword statements to make them more professional. But when you do your wordsmithing, be sure to use your own words and style of speaking rather than hackneyed cover letter phrases. In other words, let your personality show!
"But," you say, "this is business correspondence. Shouldn't it sound like it?" Yes, your letter is about business—the business of marketing you for your next job. To do that effectively, it needs to convey personality as well as sound business-like. And what if every employer doesn't like that personality? That's okay. This is one way to match yourself up with employment you'll enjoy.