I'm an online professional, a nonprofit veteran, a retired politicker, a lapsed writer, and a guy who's spent way too much time in the Washington, D.C. job market. After more than a decade of hunting, applying, interviewing, and negotiating, I want to help other people avoid the traps, missteps, and pitfalls that can derail a job hunt.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Your cover letter has one job
Washington, D.C. is a job market like no other. Even if you're not looking to work on Capitol Hill or K Street, you're in a candidate pool that's massively overqualified for everything, full of energetic and bright people, and flooded with experience and ideas.
You want a way to stand out. You want something flashy and special.
You want to write the perfect cover letter.
I've been living and working in Washington for more than a decade. I've volunteered, I've networked, I've interned. I've gone to receptions, made calls, signed up for job lists, and even gone to career counselors. I've held eight (permanent, full-time) jobs and I got my foot in the door at each of those not because of connections or luck, but because I knew what my cover letter needed to do.
Your cover letter has one job.
More even than your resume, your cover letter needs to be tight and focused. It's not the story of your journey. It's not the full view of you as a vibrant and brilliant person.
It is, quite simply, a statement. It's one job is to state, clearly and unequivocally, that you can do the job.
So let's start there. There are three things your letter must accomplish if it's going to do its job: What you've got; what you've done; and what you can do.
1) What you've got
How do you know you can do the job? Is it a feeling in your gut? That's cool; you can have gut feelings. That's called passion and intuition. I don't know of any jobs in Washington, or anywhere else, that don't need big, heaping doses of passion and intuition.
The first way for your cover letter to do its job is to show your passion and intuition.
People tend to overthink and overdo this. They take it as a challenge to show that they know all there is to know about their dream job. But that doesn't actually demonstrate your passion. At best, it shows that you spent ten minutes on the company's website, or took the time to puzzle out which House or Senate office is hiring.
So take it back to the fundamentals. When you picture yourself doing the tasks outlined in the job description, what excites you? Not the big picture, not serving some lofty goal, but doing the actual day-to-day work.
And you know what? Be explicit about it. Cover letters don't need to be coy. Come right out and say, "I'm passionate about being an online organizer for the Sierra Club because I love using technology to help people make a difference in their communities."
Drilling down to the specifics of the position helps hiring managers see that you've thought about the job as a job and not as a stepping stone or as a cog in larger machine. Getting too lofty tells the hiring manager that you don't understand the role you'll be playing, and are compensating with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is great, but enthusiasm doesn't land you a job interview. For that you need passion... and a couple other things.
2) What you've done
Okay, you've got passion and you know in your gut that you can do the job. But maybe it goes beyond a feeling, and you know with rock-solid certainty that you can do the job, because it's exactly the sort of thing you've been doing all along, either in past jobs, internships, volunteer work, as a hobby, or at school. It really doesn't matter where you've done something as long as you can talk about it in your cover letter.
The second way for your cover letter to do its job is to show your accomplishments.
Hiring a team is like picking stocks; you look at past performance as your top indicator of future performance. Potential is great, personality is wonderful, but every hiring manager in D.C. is busy beyond belief, and the lazy part of our brains is going to latch onto the safe and the tested. So be passionate, but be safe; show us that you've done the core functions of this job before.
Pick some clear, specific projects from your previous jobs that are relevant to the explicitly defined responsibilities listed in the job posting. List them. And as with demonstrating your passion, don't bother being coy. Come right out and say, "In my role as Online Communications Director at Education Voters of America, I increased the size of our email list by 15% in just six months."
Again, specificity is key because it shows that you're able to analyze the needs of the position and apply your own background to those needs. That's huge. The essence of learning a new job is applying skills you already have to situations you've never encountered. Your cover letter can go a long way toward landing your interview if it shows the hiring manager that you're ready to do that. All that remains is to show that you can do it.
3) What you can do
Showing what you can do is the trickiest part of a cover letter, and it's where people falter. It took me years to figure out the secret code here, and it turns out it's not even a secret, because it's hiding in plain sight.
For the longest time, I would write sentences like, "Because of my background and skills, I know I would be a perfect fit for this position."
First, I award myself ten points out of a possible ten for confidence.
But second, I'm not actually demonstrating my capability there. I'm asserting it in a brash and unsupported way, but that's not the same thing.
The secret is to demonstrate your capability throughout the letter. Show your professionalism by hunting down and destroying typos. Show your organizational skills by making the paragraphs flow. Show your focus by staying on topic. Show your creativity with a vivid turn of phrase. If the job you want involves a certain type of communication, communicate in that way.
If you want to be a press secretary, imagine yourself writing a cover letter as you would a press release. If you want to be an organizer, make it your community pitch. For project managers, think about how you'd present yourself in a memo about your next project.
This is coy and subtle. It's the big picture. It's your opportunity to fantasize. Pretend you already have the job. Pretend you're writing this cover letter as an exercise for your annual review.
I once wrote a cover letter that flowed exactly like an action alert. The HR department probably didn't notice because it functioned perfectly as a cover letter -- but the hiring manager saw what I'd done. Reading my letter, he could imagine me in the job, doing well, because it struck him as the kind of cover letter an online campaigner would write.
Your letter needs to leave a clear and indelible impression in the mind of the hiring manager. It needs to show you in the job so clearly and vividly that she or he can imagine exactly what it would be like to work with you.
That's the job your cover letter needs to do. It needs to say that you can do the job by showcasing what you've got, what you've done, and what you can do. And once that letter does its job, you can get cracking on the most fun part of any job hunt: nailing the interview.