A Quick Guide to Writing a Cover Letter

I’ve written and helped edit hundreds of cover letters in my career, and as a coach on The Muse’s coaching platform I work with clients on cover letters each week. Below is a quick guide on some of my thoughts on cover letters and how you can write one that a sets yourself apart from the pack of other applicants.

Do I need a cover letter?

The short answer is that it depends, and there are three schools of thought:

  1. Not needed – Some job postings will flat out tell you that a cover letter is not necessary. If that is the case, no need to read anything into that – Skip writing one or risk getting your application ignored
  2. Cover Letter Needed – Again, not need to read into this, write the cover letter and don’t ask questions.
  3. No Guidance or Optional – This is where it gets tricky. On one hand, they don’t tell you have to write one, so you could skip it. On the flipside, they don’t tell you not to write one, so perhaps this is a way to figure out who writes one and who doesn’t.

 

My general rule of thumb: If you care about the position and you are interested in the job, write the cover letter. While cover letter doesn’t guarantee success, it does serve as a way for you to differentiate yourself amongst the applicant pile. Everyone that applies for the position will have lots of the same kinds of qualifications but the cover letter is your chance to show why you are a unique and special candidate. So if you care about the role, write the cover letter.

 

What is the purpose of a cover letter?

A cover letter has two main purposes:

Make them believe you can do the work – They want to know that you’re competent and capable for the job. They want to know you have the skills and experiences to do the job and do it well. Your job, is to convince them you have the right skills and experiences to do the job and do it well.

Make them believe you’re a good fit – In addition to being qualified, you’ll need to convince them you are a a good “cultural” fit. People like working with people they like or find agreeable, and you’ll want to come off as being someone they would want as a colleague.

 

What do I need to remember when I write a cover letter?

Make it personal – It can be tempting to copy and paste to generically in cover letters because it saves time and is efficient. However, if you really want to stand out you do need to make the cover letter personal and unique. If a recruiter is literally reading 100’s of applications, the cover letter is the chance you have at getting remembered and creating a relationship with the recruiter, so take the time to really make sure it reflects who you are.

Match Your Skills and Experience to Position Qualifications – As I said previously, one of your goals in the cover letter is to convince them you are capable of doing the job. The best way to do that is to show them the the skills you have are the ones that they are looking for. To do this, take a look at the job description and pick out what you think are some of the most important skills/qualifications for the job.

From there, look at your own set of skills and experiences, and find examples of how you’ve successfully exhibited those skills and experiences. Let’s say that one of the competencies for the job is Data Analysis – tell them how you have used Tableau, Excel, and other Data Visualization tools.

As a rule of thumb, I like to generally focus on 3-4 of the qualifications. Most job descriptions have many, so take a look at the job description and pick out the ones that you think are most important.

 

Show your Interest/Passion, don’t tell – In English class in high school, my 11th grade English teacher used to tell us “show me, don’t tell me.” He wanted us to be descriptive about what we were trying to say, as opposed to literally just writing it. The same maxim applies for cover letters. For example, if I am reading your cover letter as a hiring manager, simply telling someone you are passionate about analytics, while true, is not very convincing. However, if you tell me that you’re interest in analytics started because you loved basketball as a kid and you enjoyed reading the box scores and memorizing the statistics of Michael Jordan you’re favorite basketball player, it’s a lot more interesting, it’s somewhat believable, and makes me remember that you are the “Michael Jordan candidate.”

Be Concise – Yes, they are asking you to talk about yourself, but remember, you don’t have to tell them everything about yourself, and you also have a resume (which tells them about your experience) as well as a potential interview to share your qualifications and information.

 

Conclusion

  1. Cover letters (unless they tell you do not write one) are necessary but not sufficient. A good one can help set you apart, but you still need to have a great resume and interview
  2. To set yourself apart, refrain from copying and pasting and make the cover letter personal
  3. The purpose of a cover letter is to tell the recruiter you are competent and likeable
  4. Show don’t tell.

 

Supporting Links and Resources

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How to use Self-Reflection to jumpstart your job search

I work with a lot of professionals who are looking to make job transitions, whether that’s from school to the workforce or from one job to another job. While some of my clients know exactly what they want to do, there are many others who know they want a change but are not exactly sure what kind of change they are looking for.

I think one of the most important factors to a successful job search strategy is a self-reflection of where you are today and where you want to go in the future. For some people, self-reflection and assessment is fairly simple, but for others, it’s ambiguous, so I wanted to lay out a step by step process for how to use a self-reflection process to identify where you are and where you want to go.

Identify what you’ve done

First, you need to understand what you have done and what skills and experiences you’ve achieved from your past work experience. This may seem like a simple statement, but it’s easy to get so laser focused on doing your job that you forget to take stock of the projects, tasks, assignments and actual responsibilities you’ve had as well as the impact of what you’ve done. Sit down, and literally write out all the things you did in your job(s) Go through your emails, your laptop, ask your co-workers or your friends, go through all means necessary to understand the scope of what you’ve done.

Identify your strengths

Once you’ve clearly laid out and understood what you’ve done and the valuable skills and experiences you’ve obtained, start identifying your strengths and the things that you are good at doing. Maybe you are a great communicator, or, really great with analyzing data and drawing insights. Everyone has a set of strengths that when utilized properly, make a contribution to your organization. Your goal in this exercise is to identify the ones you bring to the table. Same as last time, write these things out so you can start to see what strengths your bring to the table.

Identify your interests

Additionally, you’ll also want to identify the things that you enjoy doing. While not every job will have 100% enjoyment, it’s important to know the types of things you like to do and want to do. This is because many of us are more engaged and excited by things we enjoy doing, and we tend to exert my energy, enthusiasm and are equipped to do these things well.

So why do you need to do all these things? In a very simplistic view, when you look for a job, you’ll probably want to look for jobs that have opportunities for you to use your experience, strengths, and things you enjoy doing.

Identify the future

Once you understand the present, you’ll want to identify what’s in store for you in the future. What type of job do you want to do? The goal here, is to develop some hypotheses about different jobs you think you’d like. The goal here is not to be 100% correct, but rather, to come to a few hypotheses about what potential paths might be desirable for you to pursue. So, how do you go about doing this?

Research – Using your skills/experiences, interests, and strengths, start looking at future jobs or roles and evaluate if they are a good fit. Sites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor are a great place to start. Does the job you’re evaluating make use of the strengths and experiences you bring to the table? If so, that might be a potential good fit

Network – Talk to people who are already doing the jobs you might be interested in. Get to know what their day is like, and get to know the strengths they use everyday and what they like/dislike about their job

Learn – Learning something new has never been easier. Take an online class, watch YouTube videos, or read articles to determine if that job you think you might want is something you want to pursue.

To summarize, here’s what you can do:

  • Write out your past skills and experiences
  • Identify your strengths
  • Identify your interests
  • Identify a few paths you want to pursue

If you can do these things, you will be ready to start your job search on the right foot.

Pro Tip: If you really want to do some serious self reflection, here are two resources below that might help

Myers Briggs Test – A test to determine your personality type, and how you best engage and interact with other people

StrengthsFinder – A tool developed by Gallup Consulting to help people understand their unique strengths, and to help them identify opportunities to use these strengths

Here’s How I landed a Tech MBA Internship

The Tech Industry is an exciting place to work, and there is no shortage of excitement amongst college and MBA students. This excitement is a double-edged sword, as it also means there is lots of competition for these sought after internships.

During the summer of 2014, I spent my summer working in a Product Marketing MBA Internship at a Tech company, and since then, I have recounted my story to hundreds of other students and young professionals who have sought out my guidance as they have gone through their own journey. I wanted to share my journey of how I went about finding my summer tech internship.

Develop a Hypothesis

The first step in this process is understanding what you want to do, or at least an educated guess of your ideal internship. This is important because when you know what you want, figuring out what steps you need to take to get there is much easier.

While it might be difficult to know for 100% what you want (a good reason to do an internship!) starting with an informed hypothesis enables you to go out and test it. Generally, your hypothesis is grounded in your interests, skillsets, and what the market has a demand for.

My hypothesis was that I wanted an internship in marketing for an established tech company in the Bay Area. This hypothesis was based off past positive experiences working with a handful of these tech companies, my conversations with friends who worked at this companies and who viewed the company and industry positively, and  my past experience working on projects related to marketing.

 

Develop Priorities

It’s also helpful to determine your priorities and what’s most important to you. So, not only determining what’s important, but relative to other things, how important specific characteristics of a job are. For some of you, the brand name of the company will be really important. For others, it will be the geography, the size of the company, or the role/function. Ideally, you’ll want to come up a set of characteristics that are important to you and some kind of hierarchy so that later down the road when you are applying to internships and potentially deciding on whether to take a job you’ll have some sort of rubric to determine how good of fit the role is given what you’re looking for. I’ve written about a priority framework previously and am happy to share mine.

Explore and Learn

Once you’ve developed a hypothesis of what you want to do now is the time to go and test it by going out and gathering data and information to prove or disprove that hypothesis. There are lots of blogs and content out there about what it’s like to go work at a tech company.

Additionally, there are thousands of job postings for almost any role imaginable to learn about the skills and experiences companies look for in applicants. And finally, there are plenty of people out there who already do these jobs who can provide you with a first-hand look at what these jobs are like.

For about a 4-6 week period, I spent my days reading articles on what it’s like to work in tech, scouring through job postings to understand the critical competencies needed for each role. Checking LinkedIn to understand the job and career progression of someone who worked in product marketing at a tech company, and finally, scheduling and conducting conversations with people to learn first hand. I had discovered that my hypothesis was in fact correct, and I was confident in my decision to look for Product Marketing internships.

First day of my Internship!

Cultivate The Network

There’s a lot of reasons why networking and having a good network of contacts is important. In the case of my internship search, talking to existing Product Marketers helped me understand what Product Marketers do, the challenges and opportunities of the job, the potential career progression and development and the successful characteristics and traits of product marketers. They also gave me insight into what it was like to work at their specific company.

This was all helpful to me because it gave me the information I needed to determine if A) I wanted to be a product marketer and B) if I had what it took to be a product marketer and C) if I was interested in working at the company they were at.

The pink elephant in the room is that networking is also important because it helps get your foot in the door at companies you are interested in. If you know someone who can give you a referral for a posting, that is probably something of value to your candidacy, and while referrals are no guarantees they certainly don’t hurt. Additionally, people on the inside of companies you are looking at can also be helpful in that they can sometimes tip you off to jobs or internships that haven’t been posted yet.

Finally, I think the best results from your network happen when your networking is ongoing and proactive. If you are just starting your network when you are about to apply to for an internship. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start (any time is a good time to start) but I’ve found some of my best results from relationships that I’ve had time to develop at least a little. (FYI – Here are some of my networking tips)

 

Target your focus

After you’ve done your research, done your networking and know what you want to do, it’s helpful to design a targeted list of companies where you’d want to end up. This will help you when you’re trying to apply to internships to know where to look for and where to start. While I think it’s important to target, it’s also important to keep an open mind and to also play the numbers game. The focus should always be on the internships and jobs you are most interested in, but having a backup plan is not a bad thing.

 

Leave No Stone Unturned

There are formal ways of finding and applying to internship and job opportunities, either if you are a student (on-campus interview and off-campus interviewing) or if you a professional (LinkedIn, job boards, etc) as well as less formal ones (via friends of friends, through your own networking efforts, etc) but I found a good approach is to evaluate all the options that are available to you.

For me, I as an MBA student I relied on off-campus recruiting efforts and regularly checked the

websites of the companies I was interested in as well as the various job boards. (Pro Tip:Setup alerts on searches for specific roles to get notifications) I also was in contact with a number of friends and colleagues at companies I was interested in, keeping them abreast of my progress and also inquiring from time to time if they had heard of any potential opportunities.

Finally, when it came time to apply for a posting, I would check my targeted companies list to see if I knew of anyone in my network who worked there. In most cases, I knew of at least 1-2 people at all of those companies, and before I applied I would reach out to my contacts to inform them I was applying and to ask for any advice they would have for me.

In most cases, people were very happy to respond to A) give me advice and B) in some cases, even offered to put in referrals. In a number of cases, my contacts even connected me either to the recruiter or the team directly who was hiring. These were valuable as they helped me get through the initial screening of the application process. While it was still on me to do the legwork from there, my network was a huge booster in helping me get my resume read and in front of the right people at companies I was applying to.

 

Prep, Prep, Prep

Submitting an application and getting an interview is great, but you still need to perform in an interview! To make sure I could nail my interviews I did prep work before and after interviews. My prep work consisted of:

  • Reviewing my notes from phone calls of people that worked at that company
  • Researching recent events of the company in the news
  • Reading Glassdoor for comments on the interview process, culture, and general sentiment of the company
  • Reviewing the website to understand their strategy, vision and mission, and learning the “company lingo” so I could make sure I was going to talk in a tone that resonated with their culture
  • Coming up with a list of questions i thought the interviewer would ask me, and then developing answers to those questions and refining my answers through practice
  • Developing a list of questions that I wanted to ask the interviewer at the end of the interview

 

I did this for almost all of the companies I interviewed at, which took a lot of time and effort. However, I also felt like I performed well in the interviews and was very well prepared, so I think it was worth the effort.

Remember your priorities

At some point, you will get an offer (congratulations!) and in some cases, you might have multiple offers! The best opportunity is going to be the one that most closely aligns with your priorities that you set for yourself. Go back to that list of priorities you developed and evaluate the offers against the priorities that you set for yourself. At a basic level, I think it helps to write out on paper perhaps the pros and cons, or benefits and opportunities, and then to evaluate those against what priorities you have for yourself.

Conclusion

As you can see above, here are the results of my journey. When it was all said and done, there were 5 companies I was really really excited about, I got interviews at 4 of them, got final rounds at 2 of them, and ended up with an offer at 1 of them. It was a long journey (started in September, ended in May) but I ultimately was able to find an internship that matched my priorities and interests.

Finding and obtaining an internship or job is a challenging but exciting process. It’s also a great way to learn about yourself, reflect on what you want to do with your life, and understand what your value proposition is to a company. There are a lot of great ways to get an internship and I’m happy to share what worked for me in hopes that it helps you find the right internship for you.

 

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