The Muse How To Write A Cover Letter

When it comes to applying for a job, you want to provide a highlight reel of your career path and show why your background and experiences make you an ideal fit for the position in question. To do this effectively, you can start with a cover letter template.

But, well, what if you don’t exactly have that perfectly trodden path?

For many of us, tying together three tangentially related experiences, a side gig, and some outside-of-work interests or volunteer work to explain why we could do the gig is more the norm. So, how exactly do you do that in a tidy one-page cover letter and thoughtfully showcase why you’re the right one for the position?

Hint: It’s all about highlighting your transferable skills.

This approach shifts the conversation away from relevant experience and more toward whether you can do that job or not—and that is exactly what you want to do when you haven’t had a linear career path.

So, how do you do it?

First, figure out which skills you want to emphasize by carefully reviewing the job description. Underline or highlight the most important technical and behavioral skills the position requires. (Or, better yet, find a contact who knows the hiring manager and do some recon work to see what he or she is really looking for.)

Choose three skills that you feel are your strong suits to focus on. For each one, brainstorm some projects, assignments, or responsibilities that truly illustrate your expertise in that area, then select either one in-depth or a couple of shorter experiences to talk about.

Finally, roll it all together into a cover letter that clearly highlights those skills. It’ll be structured something like this:

Dear [name],

With the utmost enthusiasm, I would like to express my interest in the [position title] position at [company]. My interest in [field] has taken me from [experience] to [experience]. I believe that my passion for [aspect of your field or background], strong commitment to [aspect of your field or background], and interest in [aspect of your field or background] make me an ideal candidate to join the [department] staff at [company].

As a candidate, here’s what I could immediately bring to the table:

An effective [descriptor that reflects transferable skill #1]:In my role at [previous job], I [action or accomplishment]. I was also able to showcase my [skill] abilities as a [role] in [project name] project by [what you did].

A disciplined [descriptor that reflects transferable skill #2]:I have always displayed my careful approach to [job duty] by [action]. At [previous company], I frequently [action]. In addition, I had the opportunity to [action or accomplishment], which further shows my dedication to [aspect of your field].

A passionate [descriptor that reflects transferable skill #3]:Everything I have engaged in so far has all been driven by my keen interest in [aspect of your field]. Even as a [previous role], I made sure to dedicate some part of my day to [action]. It is this passion that has driven every one of my career decisions thus far.

I look forward to contributing my skills and experiences to the [position title] position at [company] and hope to have the opportunity to speak with you further about how I can be an asset to your team.


[Your name]

Of course, you can (and should!) insert your personality, creativity, and knowledge of the company into your letter—but this framework is a helpful way to convey your most relevant transferable skills to the recruiter (making his or her job a whole lot easier). Don’t bother walking through your entire career path and justifying every professional decision you made. Do the hiring manager (and yourself) a favor, and let your skills speak for themselves.

...why not make it easier on yourself?

Speak to a Cover Letter Coach Today

You probably already have a resume, and you probably already know you’re supposed to write a cover letter . More often than not, people assume the cover letter is just a formality—so they just throw something together and just hit send. But the thing is, your cover letter is part of a whole package and it should feel that way. In other words, your resume and cover letter need to complement each other in order for you to present a cohesive version of yourself.

In the end, you want the hiring manager to want to learn more about you because she’s intrigued, not because she’s confused. So, how do you do that? Here are four tweaks that’ll get you on the right track.

1. Connect the Dots

While you should definitely tailor your resume , it doesn’t necessarily involve spelling out how your experience relates to the position. Tailoring a cover letter does. That’s the main difference for these two documents that both, essentially, describe your relevant experience: Your resume outlines what you can do in general, while your cover letter explains what you can do for the company.

One way to ensure that your cover letter is connecting the dots between you and the company or role is by reading your cover letter and asking yourself, “Why did I choose to write about these experiences?” See if your reasoning is written out in the cover letter. Never just assume the reader will get it.

For example, instead of just describing an event that you planned, organized, and facilitated, also explain that this experience makes you particularly well prepared to handle the responsibilities of the, say, events assistant role because it illustrates your detail-oriented nature, exposure to large-scale event planning, and ability to negotiate with vendors.

2. Give Context to Your Resume

Resumes can be frustrating because it can be tricky to tell a cohesive story about a particular work experience in bullet points. Here’s where cover letters can really save the day. While you definitely don’t want to repeat your resume bullets verbatim, you can cover some of the same accomplishments, but with context. Fill in the gaps.

Stakeholders in a project, tight deadlines, unrealistic budgets, or unexpected obstacles are all fair game in a cover letter. In fact, this in the perfect place to be telling the whole story . You’re trying to paint a picture. Ideally, the hiring manager will be able to visualize you doing work so relevant that he or she could just pluck you out of that setting, place you into the open position, and watch you take off running.

3. Answer the Obvious Questions

When a resume raises questions, the first place a hiring manager is going to look to get these questions answered is the cover letter. This is why you want to be thinking about these two documents as flip sides of a coin, not independent documents. Some questions might be, “Why is this experienced nurse applying to this marketing position?” or “Why is this New Yorker interested in our little company in Oklahoma?”

If you’re thinking of changing careers or perhaps moving to a new state to be with your aging parents, address the reasons in your cover letter. Even if it’s not quite as drastic as a career change and more of a career shift, it’s still worth mentioning. Note that I said, “mentioning.” Don’t go overboard and tell your life story. Stay focused on your relevant experiences, but also offer up quick explanations for anything that might be confusing about your application.

4. Present a Visually Cohesive Package

Finally, it’s time for my favorite step in any job application: Make it pretty. One straightforward way to present a cohesive package is to make your resume and cover letter look like they belong together.

This means using the same header for your name and address for both documents and being consistent about the font and font size. That’s it! This simple step shows attention to detail and makes your resume and cover letter, when presented together, so much more visually appealing.

Writing a cover letter for your resume requires a bit of extra care, but the result is a stronger, more impactful job application and ultimately worth it. The extra attention won’t go unnoticed for long.

Photo of person typing courtesy of Shutterstock .

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