I’ve been a career coach, hiring manager and in-house recruiter, and these are the cover letters that stand out
Having been a career coach, a hiring manager and an in-house recruiter, I’m often asked for advice on whether to invest the time and effort in writing a cover letter when applying to a job. Does anyone even read them?
The answer, of course, is: it depends.
For most people, it takes tremendous time, effort, research and creativity to knock it out of the park with a cover letter. So, most applicants end up playing it safe, writing a conventional, factual letter that simply “finds-and-replaces” the company name for each job to which they apply. I’d say this approach is just marginally better than no cover letter at all.
What’s different about the impact sector?
In this space in particular, you need skills, passion AND purpose-alignment. What anchors and rallies us is a common drive towards the organizational mission. In an impact job search, your marketing collateral (a.k.a resume and cover letter) needs to represent your skills, passion and alignment with the job or organization you are targeting.
If you are looking to transition from a straight-laced, traditional, corporate environment to a more progressive, entrepreneurial, change-making environment, your resume and cover letter are your first opportunity to portray how you are different and align with this contrasting culture and can serve the interests of this organization. Have you volunteered for the cause? Attended events or completed a MOOC related to your target role or organization? This information is not traditionally found in a resume, but your cover letter is the perfect spot to share this experience and the impact it has had on you.
A compelling cover letter needs to speak explicitly about what draws you to the target organization and links your skills and experience to the mission of the organization and needs of the role.
For example, I recently reviewed a compelling cover letter from an experienced management consultant highlighting the relevance of the opportunities she sought out and illuminating the thread of social impact and entrepreneurship throughout her education:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the way different disciplines interact with and strengthen each other. In university, I focused my 5 years at the University of Waterloo on bioinformatics: the space between genetics and computer science, completing internships in both software and in research at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto……
During my MBA, I became engrossed in combining the business skills I was learning with innovation and global development. During my studies, I was able to work with entrepreneurs in low-income areas of Johannesburg, developing strategies to run a business that could teach essential business skills and generate revenue. I also had the opportunity to work with an entrepreneur in Yangon, Myanmar: an ex-Googler who had returned to start Oway.com.mm, the Expedia of Myanmar……
In my next role, I am seeking to make a difference once again, but in a capacity that is more personally meaningful and fulfilling. I hope to return to Canada to hopefully use what I have learned abroad in technology, innovation and the other disciplines to make a difference in my own community and my country….
When we are recruiting at MaRS, we generally want people passionate about our purpose: to help innovators change the world. The excitement, energy and drive towards our shared mission is what binds us. We are not looking for someone who is just really good at their job and is happy to do it anywhere. You are a much more attractive candidate if we know that you are particularly interested in our goals and want to hop on and help power the journey.
Here is a stand-out cover letter I received for an internship position:
Dear Hiring Manager,
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question every child is asked, but no child can really answer. The best response: Space Cowboy.
That child, thinking outside the box, has the creative freedom to dream of a fulfilling career unbound by societal structures that dictate what is and is not possible. My Space Cowboy mission is to work in a role where I can harness the power of people’s potential at a company who believed their human capital is the organization’s greatest asset. This company harnesses ventures and social enterprises through innovation, working with local and global partners to achieve economic prosperity…
What’s different in the corporate sector?
Large, well-resourced corporations generally have two things that smaller organizations in the social sector may not have: 1) more people to conduct passive candidate sourcing via LinkedIn, creating a talent pipeline and thereby relying less on responses to individual job postings, and 2) a sophisticated Applicant Tracking System that ranks the top candidates based on an algorithm, and the busy Recruiter may not have time to look beyond the top 20-50 auto-matches.
Most corporate recruiters I know find it a poor use of their time to routinely review every single cover letter, but several have told me that hiring managers do tend to put a lot of stock into the cover letters of the short-listed candidates they receive. The general rule seems to be, the higher the volume of recruitment you do, the fewer cover letters you tend to read.
My best advice for active job seekers:
We all know that the time best spent during an active job search is networking – getting out there and telling our story, gathering new allies, introductions, insight and intelligence on your target sector/company/job. But I don’t recommend you completely abandon online searches and applications.
Depending on the level of urgency you have, it can be a numbers game. I recommend you focus your job search in 1-3 avenues (eg. same job function, same sector vs. same job function, new sector vs. same sector, new function) and spend time carefully crafting a version of both your resume and cover letter that you can tweak minimally for each job application. However, if you uncover something along the lines of your dream job or an opportunity that really speaks to your core, then I’d recommend you scrap your safe template and put those feeling into words, harness this energy to share a bit of who you are, what you’ve been driving towards and what values you hold true.
This article was written by Gaby Fisch. Gaby Fisch is a certified coach and Director of Talent Development at the MaRS Discovery District, Canada’s largest innovation hub. She spent 12 years in the corporate sector before heading out to work independently as a career, entrepreneur, and executive coach. In 2014, Gaby joined the HR team at the Mars Discovery District, a role which perfectly blends her interests in HR, coaching, business, and social impact