You Need a Montage: Cover Letter Makeover Scene

Sam Halpert, 2014 – 2015 PSJD Fellow

So last week I confessed to you all that in my own job search, I’m figuratively far from a master. However I work a mere foot away from one. Christina Jackson, NALP’s Director of Public Service Initiatives and Fellowships, will be putting me through my paces for your benefit from now until next semester so you can see how PSJD’s 10-Step Program for keeping your job search warm over the holidays works in practice.

This week, I tackled the second half of Tip 1 (writing a cover letter). Specifically, I tried to express my interest in the Pro Bono Coordinator position I noticed last week on PSJD. I hate writing cover letters, but I felt a little more confident this time than I have in the past–mostly because I tried to keep in mind Christina’s advice from the resume makeover. I’ve repeated her first point from the first makeover post below; I tried to meet the goal she set out for us last week. In fact, all of last week’s advice carries over well; read the resume makeover post before continuing with this one.

* * *

Ready? Okay. I showed her the resulting cover letter, and it turns out I did alright. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have to rework significant portions of it, though. (Feel free to compare the letter before and after she critiqued it.) As with the resume makeover, I’ve summarized her strategy for each portion of the letter below, illustrating it where necessary with examples from my own efforts:

  1. YOUR GOAL (Redux): Speak the employer’s language. Your resume and cover letter are a one-two combination aimed to land you an interview. (To see the resume that would accompany this letter, check out the resume makeover post.) Between them, you need to fit as many of the position’s advertised responsibilities, duties, and qualifications as you can. Reorganize, rephrase, and rewrite your experiences so the employer sees you describe yourself in the terms they would use. Each cover letter will be different, but you may be able to recycle within categories of positions, based on the method of work you’d like to employ, the clients you’re seeking to serve, and the area of law you’d like to apply.In my first attempt,  I failed to fit in as much as I could:
Responsibilities: “Participate in program funding activities, including analyzing data and assisting with grant reporting.”

Before:  

[crickets]

After:  

“I’ve also developed internal data analysis tools to increase my accountability for…performance.”
  1. THE SALUTATION: Always be personal, even if you have to dig for a name. The job post I was working from asked me to send a letter to a catch-all institutional email. I wrote “To Whom it May Concern”–a HUGE mistake. You may have to do some research, but you should always be able to put a name at the top of your cover letter. For me, it was pretty simple. The post included the title of the person the Coordinator reports to; I just had to go to the employer’s website and find out who holds that title. If you’re stumped identifying your supervisor, try to find the most senior person in the department you’d work for. If the organization is smaller, you can write to the Executive Director. If you have no other option, you can use a person’s title for the salutation. But whatever you do, don’t use “To Whom it May Concern.”
  2. PARAGRAPH ONE: (1) Who you are and (2) why you’re writing them. I did okay with the first part, where I tried to describe myself using key nouns and verbs from the job post (see item #1). I was too implicit with the second part, though. Employers want you to tell them what they do, even though they already know. They don’t need to learn their mission from you, but they do need to see that you understand what it is:
Description: “Pro Bono Net…us[es] innovative technology to increase legal assistance for low-income and vulnerable individuals.”

Before:  

“Professionally, I am passionate about improving social outcomes for low-income and vulnerable individuals. Personally, I care about helping people better understand technology. I would love this job.”

After:  

“Professionally, I am passionate about improving social outcomes for low-income and vulnerable individuals. Personally, I care about helping people better understand technology. Pro Bono Net combines both my passions, deploying technology to help close the justice gap. I would love this job.”
  1. PARAGRAPH TWO+:

(a) DO tie your specific skillset(s) to the employer’s job description. As with the resume makeover (see item #3), Provide concrete examples of the kinds of work you’ve done in your various experiences–but be careful of clients’ confidentiality. Try to make sure your cover letter augments the information in your resume. For instance, for one position my resume describes what I did; my cover letter describes why I did it:

Description: “Liaise with national, regional, and local stakeholders…”
Qualifications: “…ability to make technology understandable to people without technical skills.”

Resume:  

“Interviewed students… Met with teaching staff…”

Cover Letter:  

“[M]y work…required me to explain…technological solutions to two disparate groups…”

(b)  DON’T include extraneous information. (If you’re curious what that looks like, check out the entire third paragraph of my original attempt.)

  1. LAST PARAGRAPH: Close simply and directly.
  2. A FEW NOTES ON GENERAL STYLE:
    • Research the employer to hit the right tone. Don’t treat my example as a general rule for what kind of language is acceptable. I played pretty close to the line for informal language in this cover letter, but I think I can get away with it based on the tone of the employer’s website. (For instance: “Passionate about public interest law? Love using the web? Consider joining our team!”) If the organization you want to work for (or you) are more straight-laced, find more professional ways to say the same thing:
Desired Message: “I am interested in working for you.”

Informal:  

“I would love this job.”

Formal:  

“This position is directly in line with my career goals.”
    • Avoid overstating your enthusiasm for entry-level work. I’m an effusive guy. I got away with “love,” but Christina drew the line at “thrilled.” (Avoid superlatives as well.)
    • Never run over a single page. (Oops.)

I’m not quite ready to hit send yet. When you think you’re done, wait until the next day whenever you can and look at the letter with fresh eyes. I’ll let you know how this resume-cover letter combo turns out. In the meantime, I’ll be working on a list of contacts for informational meetings (the next montage post).

Wax on, wax off.
-Sam

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